For more than 20 years, political scientist Claudena Skran has held an intense interest in refugee issues. This fall, she will embark on a research project in Africa that will put her in the middle of an ongoing struggle to rebuild lives and resettle refugees in a country ravaged by war.

An associate professor of government at Lawrence University, Skran has been awarded a $60,000 grant by the Fulbright Scholar Program to conduct a study on the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in refugee resettlement in post-civil war Sierra Leone.

Arguably the poorest country in the world, Sierra Leone is dealing with the aftermath of a brutal 10-year-long civil war that left 50,000 citizens dead, destroyed 300,000 homes and 80% of the country’s schools and forced nearly three-quarters of a million people to flee their homes. Since the war’s end in 2001 and national elections in 2002, an estimated 245,000 refugees have returned to the war-torn country, while more than 200,000 others who were displaced have made their way back home.

Among the nearly one-half million returnees are thousands of people with special needs, including amputees, orphans, former child soldiers and women who were victims of rape and sexual abuse.

“Under any circumstances, the task of assisting so many returning people would be difficult, but for Sierra Leone, which had the lowest ranking among 177 countries on the 2004 Human Development Index, it is proving to be especially daunting,” said Skran. “These people are now trying to rebuild their lives in a country that has been shattered.”

According to Skran, the new Sierra Leone government is attempting to reconstruct a economic, political and social infrastructure in a country with a grim profile. The annual per capita income is $150, the literacy rate is just 36% and life expectancy is less than 35 years of age. Only two percent of the country’s population is 60 years of age or older and with 250 of 1,000 children dying before the age of five, it has the world’s worst infant mortality rate. Because of the sheer enormity of the situation, says Skran, NGOs will play a vital role in the process of refugee resettlement and reintegration in Sierra Leone.

“Local NGOs and the local affiliates of international NGOs are working hard to create important links to the major international agencies that are involved in Sierra Leone, including the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,” said Skran.

Using the capital city of Freetown as the base of her operation and working closely with the Sierra Leone Opportunities Industrialization Centre (SLOIC) Skran will turn her research project on the role of NGOs in world politics in Sierra Leone into a case study. She will focus her study on four major questions: organization, governance, goals and impact.

“I plan to investigate how NGOs in Sierra Leone are organized, how they are funded, how they are governed, how they interact with each other as well as with the local and national governments,” said Skran. “I am also interested in seeing what impact they are having on the resettlement and reintegration of refugees and how they are specifically addressing those victims with special needs, especially the former child soldiers and the female victims of sexual abuse.”

Skran has conducted extensive research on refugee interests in Europe and is the author of the book “Refugees in Interwar Europe: The Emergence of a Regime” in which she analyzed the major players in the early days of the international refugee arena, including private volunteer agencies, the forerunners to today’s NGOs.

She also has conducted field research in Central America, studying displaced people in El Salvador and refugee issues in Mexico and Belize. Most recently, while teaching at Lawrence’s London Centre, Skran met with asylum seekers and natives of Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria and other former British colonies in Africa.

“Most of my earlier research has focused on the role of NGOs at the international level, but with this Fulbright grant, I’ll be able to shift my perspective a bit and consider how NGOs help or hinder refugee resettlement and development at the local and national levels,” Skran explained. “The people at the SLOIC and other organizations that I have discussed this project with are all excited it, especially since a lack of funding prevents them from conducting any kind of independent research themselves.”

Skran joined the Lawrence faculty in 1990. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social science from Michigan State University, where she was named a Rhodes Scholar in 1983. She earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in international relations at Oxford University.

Established in 1946, the Fulbright Scholar Program provides grants for teaching and research positions in more than 140 countries worldwide and is administered by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES). Skran was selected from research proposals submitted in disciplines ranging from the sciences and humanities to the fine arts.