PROFILE: LISA BHUNGALIA
Interview with Lisa Bhungalia, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Geography, who recently spent a year and a half in the Middle East studying Arabic in Egypt and doing fieldwork in Jordan and Palestine.
What is your academic background?
I received my BA in English from Ohio State University. After that, I moved to New York City where I received my master’s in Humanities and Social Thought from New York University. My master’s thesis laid the groundwork for a doctoral program in Geography, and in 2006, I began my Ph.D. in Geography at Syracuse. At present I am in the early stages of writing my dissertation.
How did you become interested in this particular area of study?
My interest in the Middle East, and Israel/Palestine in particular, really took shape during a visit I took to the region in 2003. At the time I was visiting the northern region of the West Bank, phase one construction of the separa- tion wall was underway. Over a relatively short time period, I observed the drastic transformation of the Palestinian city of Qalqilya, around which the wall was being built. This experience prompted me to think more critically about the relationship between power, politics, space, and war.
What is your current research and how has it evolved?
My research focuses on the foreign assistance program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the West Bank and Gaza. When I originally set out to the ‘field’ some two years ago, I had a slightly differ- ent project in mind. I had originally intended to focus on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) and the challenges that a protracted conflict poses to humanitarian agencies. However, during the first month of fieldwork, the issue of USAID kept coming up in a number of interviews.
My dissertation evolved into an ethnographic study of USAID in Palestine. I traced the articulation of USAID’s security-development framework across different geographical scales and into institutional structures, modes of gov- ernance, and security infrastructures in the Palestinian Territories. Furthermore, I looked at how Palestinian strategies regarding USAID, both individual and institutional, have shifted as political, economic, and social realities change in Palestine. I spent slightly over a year in Palestine talking with aid officials, implementing agencies, contractors, and local beneficiaries. I also volunteered with a local Palestinian organization in the West Bank working on aid reform and worked with a development research institute at Birzeit University.
Did you find out anything unexpected in your research?
Almost everything. I had set out to narrate one story: that of USAID in Palestine. This, however, quickly became a story of this agency and its ten intermediaries, and then fifteen and then twenty, and then one of the U.S. state, subcontractors, and Palestinian officials. It then became the story of how this region has negotiated during six decades of foreign intervention and then one about state-formation under the structures of occupation.
I also realized that all the assumptions I had when I entered the field fell away as I began to speak with the many actors that comprise this transnational aid network. The majority of those working in the region, I found, have a solid understanding of the obstacles and challenges facing the region today; however, many of them feel powerless to work outside of or fundamentally challenge the frameworks and mandates imposed by governments and institutions situated often thousands of miles away. It is my hope that this research will contribute to ongoing debates about aid, foreign intervention, and modern conflict by offering unique insight into the local articulations of U.S. foreign assis- tance in Middle East ‘conflict zones.’