Tanya Bandula-Irwin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto and one of this year’s Trudeau Centre Fellows. Her research focuses on insurgent group financing and governance, with a particular focus on the role of tax in rebel group behaviours and outcomes.

Interviewed by Drew-Anne Glennie, 3rd year PCJ Student

What motivated you to apply for the Trudeau Centre Fellowship in Peace, Conflict and Justice?

Well, I had two friends who were previously fellows, Michele St-Amant and Cheng Xu. I just heard great things about their engagement with PCJ, both in terms of the opportunities they had to develop some of their skills, and then the opportunity to engage with PCJ students. For example, I know both of them delivered a two hour seminar style talk with PCJ students. To me this is an exciting opportunity to develop the skill of working with students, which is presumably something we would do later on in our careers, hopefully as professors. The opportunity to work on and present your research is something PhD students are always looking to do.  I’m always thrilled to talk about my work — usually, I’m just looking for an audience that will listen!

What drew you to your subjects of interest within Political Science?

I always knew that my interest in political science was derived from the variation across the world in terms of political institutions, development, and political order more broadly. I was perplexed by regional differences and state differences; you could say a comparative curiosity in terms of what’s driving these broader developmental differences across the world, and the desire to understand that more thoroughly. I think I was a bit surprised in my first year of political science which was  not yet focused on the international and comparative development sides. It was mostly focused on power, legitimacy and authority that are still so so relevant to the kinds of things that I’m studying today. I was intrigued by all of this, and then kind of went from there!

What motivated you to continue your education after your undergraduate and then subsequently your graduate degree?

I always just had this curiosity, and my favorite thing to do is to read, and I kind of thought, what could I do that would allow me to continue to read more and love what I’m doing? That pushed me into my graduate studies. However, after I was finished my Masters studies, I worked with the Treaties and Negotiations Unit at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, which was fascinating, fascinating work. This experience made me realize that I still had a lot of these curiosities that were unresolved and before practicing any sort of work in development or governance, I wanted to further interrogate these curiosities. I figured a PhD program would afford me the time and space to do that, and it has.

Speaking about your PhD, I feel like a lot of PCJ students are considering pursuing a PhD in the future. Can you tell us a bit more about what that’s like?

The PhD: it’s a big, long, trying commitment. Trying in so many ways — emotionally, mentally and financially. But despite these things, the flexibility, space and time that you’re afforded to intellectually engage with the world and things that excite you is unparalleled.

The first two years in the program are based on coursework that are meant to sort of show you the breadth of the field of political science, and give you an idea of everything that’s out there. So when you’re doing your core courses in international relations or comparative politics, which was the case for me, for example, you’re looking at the whole breadth of knowledge that exists in the universe. All the while, you’re thinking about your own research topics and what is curious to you. Then in your third, fourth and fifth year, you pursue that more directly and more deliberately. I’m now finding that after completing coursework that I really have a lot of time on my hands to dive into the topics that really interest me.

To the PCJ students who are interested in pursuing PhD studies, I would say do it with the means in mind, not so much the end, because you’re going to be doing it for a long time and it’s hard work, and it’s a real commitment. And of course, there are opportunity costs associated with doing a PhD. But if you love research and trying to understanding complexity in the world, then it can be a great choice for you.

What’s the coursework like in your first year? What type thing are you doing in those courses?

There’s a number of course requirements, and depending on what you’ve done in a master’s degree, some of them can be waived. So depending on your area, you might have to do a few content or substantive related courses, such as a civil war course. There’s a theory requirement and methodological requirements as well, so both qualitative and quantitative coursework.  You’re also doing your core courses, where you choose two fields. I picked international relations and comparative politics, and you do one of those a year, and then write your comprehensive exam, which is based on that whole breadth of the field. The difference with PhD coursework is that, and this was a huge surprise to me, you only take two or three courses a semester, which compared to  undergraduate or graduate studies seems like a very limited number of courses. However, they are substantially heavier than  undergraduate courses – there’s easily 500 pages or more per class to read once a week, so reading alone can take 15 to 20 hours of your week.

So veering course a little bit, what were your experiences like working at the World Bank, the Danish Refugee Council and other international organizations?

These experiences have been really eye opening and fascinating. And also, for me, one of the most crucial and important things that an academic needs to consider is the real world applicability and importance of their research. While working with the World Bank, I was assisting the Domestic Revenue Mobilization Task Force, geared at understanding how developing countries can better start generating domestic tax revenue, both to support long term sustainable development and also to start triggering the social contract/fiscal pact relationships between state and society. Theoretically, it’s really interesting to study that from an academic perspective, but doing the work with the World Bank shows how these academic findings and theories have real world applications and  benefits.

Likewise, the work with the Danish Refugee Council has been focusing on understanding how to transform state-society relationships through building trust. Again, that’s showing how the lessons that we learn academically through research can be applied and hopefully create progress when we’re thinking about maybe subpar political institutions, or areas that we’d like to see improvement in, such as poverty. So, having one foot in the door into the practical applications of some of this work, and one foot in the door in academia is just rewarding from a sense of your work having a purpose, and also the potential to have real world impact. It also makes your work relevant and continuously reminds me when I’m doing my academic work to not just remain in the “ivory tower,” but rather always keep one foot on the ground at the same time.

I noticed that a number of your recent projects have to do with women in international security and relations. Can you tell us more about this topic and why it’s so important?

There’s a network that I’ve been involved with since my second year of undergrad at Queen’s University called Women International Security Canada (WIIS). Essentially, the field of international relations, and international security more specifically, is not only male dominated, but also masculine dominated. This means particular masculinities dominate the way we think about certain things, and the discipline itself is dominated by men. WIIS Canada is an affiliate of WIIS Global and we work to create networks and showcase the work of women that are doing work in these fields of international security, and also starting to unpack some of the  masculine and male dominated aspects of international relations and international security. That organization opened my eyes to the real problem of underrepresentation of women in this field, and I’ve loved the work ever since. The network has been fantastic: I’ve benefited from it personally and I’ve seen the positive impacts that having a network for women in this discipline can have.

What are the benefits that you and your network have found in increased female participation in international security?

I think the number one thing is confidence. It can be intimidating to be the only person in the room that looks like you, whether that has to do with gender, race, or any of these kind of identity characteristics. WIIS has created a safer space, and a network of support and encouragement, to really push forward ideas and research and thoughts that you might not have done otherwise. Having the network itself is also really helpful because then you know somebody at a number of institutions across Canada. The other fantastic thing about WIIS Canada is that mentorship is a crucial component as well. Every year at the annual workshop, there’s one-on-one mentorship opportunities, group mentorship opportunities, and the more senior members of WIIS take their role very seriously.

One of your biggest interests in research is the connection between revenue and accountability and governance. Can you speak more about your research in this area?

I think that my initial interest in taxation and revenue extraction comes from the search for solutions for sustainable development, driven by prolonged interventions from the international community in developing countries that never seem to work out. I mean, here we are with a long history of international development and we still have a large amount of inequality and poverty in the world. So something’s not working. And then when you think about what works in countries like Canada, for example, when we pay our taxes, we expect something in return. We have schools, health care, roads, that kind of a thing. When these countries are underdeveloped, there’s A) not a tax base to tax in the first place and B) there isn’t  that relationship between state and citizen, the sort of negotiations that take place between “we’ll pay this tax money if we get X, Y & Z in return.”

And it’s not just about public services — it also speaks to democratic representation. Those things are absent, so there’s been a real focus in a lot of the international institutions like the World Bank, the OECD, and the IMF in encouraging this domestic revenue mobilization to start to encourage these kinds of state-society relationships that are based on negotiation on the basis of reciprocity and representation. From there I became interested in understanding these kinds of tax dynamics, and particularly so within the realm of conflict and even more particularly so when speaking or thinking about armed non-state actors.

I also saw on various sites that your research tends to focus on the Horn of Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. What what motivated your interest in this region?

I focus primarily on Somalia, and that was driven by the kind of perplexing puzzle between Somaliland, which is an autonomous region in the north of Somalia, and South Central Somalia, which is ridden by conflict, insecurity and poorer governance. And so there was this kind of difference between Somaliland, which seems to have stronger, more robust institutions, more representation and is less impoverished than South Central Somalia, and I began to ask why this is the case. When I did my masters research, I worked with the Somali diaspora community in Ottawa and Toronto to ask questions about the development process after 1991 and after the Borama Conference that led to Somaliland’s independence, the sorts of bargains and tax payments that were going on between rulers in Somalia and the citizens in either Somalia or Somaliland. I did structured comparative analysis between the two, and the kinds of governance expectations that emerged. In thinking about how when people were paying money for the development of the state of Somaliland, what were those negotiations like and were those negotiations important in terms of the different developmental outcomes Somaliland had in terms of Somalia? So my interest in Somalia emerged from that puzzle:  that difference between Somaliland and South Central Somalia, and then it just it kind of became a sticky path that I haven’t veered off from.

What are you most looking forward as a Trudeau Centre Fellow?

The fellows’ seminars. I’m both looking forward to this, but also the most nervous. But mostly– excited for an opportunity to put my ideas forward in front of a group of bright students, and hopefully have challenge them to push back and ask questions.

Learn more about Tanya here.