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UNCC wins $825K Defense grant

Starting this year, UNC Charlotte will join forces with the U.S. Department of Defense in a research project that will study the relationship between rebels and natural resources in developing countries.

Professors James Walsh, Beth Whitaker and Justin Conrad, in UNCC’s Department of Political Science and Public Administration, won an $825,537 grant from the Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative for their project, “Natural Resources and Armed Conflict.”

The grant money will be used to hire one public policy doctoral degree candidate to manage and oversee four undergraduates charged with gathering data.

The Minerva Initiative, founded by the Defense Department in 2008 to improve its understanding of cultural and behavior issues in developing regions, awards grants to top universities, industries and nonprofits to further its research.

This year, the initiative awarded a total of $23 million to 35 universities and three industries and nonprofits. Of the 55 submitted proposals, 14 were selected. Each project will be funded for at least three years.

UNCC will team with researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Albany and Pennsylvania State University.

“Our overall goal is to answer some of the questions about the relationship between natural resources and conflict,” said Walsh. “The data sources out there aren’t designed, if you will, to address some of the most interesting questions.”

Walsh estimates that at least 1,200 rebel groups are known to exist in the world today. One-third of those are in Africa, where armed militants often force locals to mine natural resources to help finance their war efforts.

In 2006, the topic was brought to the mainstream in the box office film “Blood Diamond,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly.

Set during Sierra Leone’s civil war, the film depicted the gritty struggle in war-infested West Africa between the government and rebel groups that wanted to take over.

The term “Blood diamonds” refers to the diamonds harvested in war-torn regions by enslaved miners.

Each of the four universities involved in the “Natural Resources and Armed Conflict” project will be responsible for recording data about the locations of natural resources throughout the world, and all the rebel groups that have existed between 1990 and 2012.

The data will be used to help the Defense Department make policy decisions when deciding whether to intervene in a conflict that involves natural resources and rebel groups.

The three-year project also will examine whether natural resources increase the likelihood a state will fail; whether “lootable” resources spur ethnic rebellion; and what type of violence is used during the exploitation of natural resources.

“It would be useful information to understand,” said Walsh. “It might give you some guidance on how to intervene more effectively.”

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