Finding Common Ground

By Jacob Morrow-Spitzer

Practitioners often relish telling academics that their classroom theories and lab experiments do not apply to “real” life. “I didn’t find this to be true,” said Elizabeth Kassinis (ΦBK, Cornell University) from her adopted home of Nicosia, Cyprus. In fact, she noticed soon after joining the United Nations (UN) as a junior officer straight out of graduate school how relevant emerging economic development and political models were to the risk analysis, early warning, and contingency planning work the UN was pioneering in an effort to save lives before crises broke out instead of after. 

Kassinis, then in her early 20s, was well trained to recognize the chasm between academia and practical modeling, and the potential bridge between the two. During her undergraduate studies at Cornell, she spent a semester in Washington, D.C., and a semester in Brussels studying international security issues and the economics of European integration respectively. She graduated with an A.B. in government with a concentration in international relations from Cornell, where she was “honored to have been welcomed into Phi Beta Kappa at an unforgettable ceremony” during Senior Week, she recalled. Kassinis then attended graduate school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, specializing in international development with a regional concentration on southwest Asia and Islamic civilization. She worked as a special assistant to the Tufts professor who was editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies, and, upon completing her master’s, began her position at the UN’s Department of Humanitarian Affairs (what has since become the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance) in New York. 

Initially, Kassinis was part of a team tasked with predicting where humanitarian crises may arise next. This type of preventive work was somewhat new and controversial at the time for the UN, however. Whereas analyzing indicators of environmental disasters and famines was fairly discernible and adequately objective, anticipating future political conflicts and human rights violations were less straightforward tasks. At the time, historically complex crises were breaking out in nations like Somalia, Rwanda, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and member states often refused to accept UN scrutiny or intervention. 

As part of her work, Kassinis found ways to introduce those studying the intricacies of divided societies to the UN policy makers working to understand the nature of the conflicts the organization was becoming involved in. University programs and researchers examining the complexities of humanitarian crises using academic models (the University of Maryland was running the successful “Minorities at Risk” program, for example) proved a great complement to the UN’s “on the ground” approach of gathering information from onsite workers who travelled to zones of tension and relayed their observational findings. According to Kassinis, this “experience-based qualitative analysis” provided useful information, but sometimes lacked broader context that can be a key factor when studying a crisis. In the politically divided island of Cyprus, for instance, recent polling showed that women were 10% less likely than men to vote for consensus measures as part of a peace accord. Without nuanced research, this voting discrepancy—an apparent anomaly when compared to other conflicts—could simply be interpreted as women being more “anti-peace” than men. However, when more carefully analyzed, it turned out that women had more deep-rooted social concerns than men, including interacting with other groups in schools, when shopping, or when calling emergency services. “Unless you understand [these factors], you’re struggling to build a peace coalition without appreciating that people are afraid of more than just guns,” she said. Infusing humanitarian and development policy with the findings of academic inquiry and modeling results in better outcomes.

After five years in New York, Kassinis felt that she needed field experience to better contribute to solutions for struggling communities. “I wanted to continue learning but outside of a headquarters building, no matter how awe-inspiring it was,” she said. So, when her husband was offered a position at the newly founded University of Cyprus, they decided to move to the Mediterranean island—which, since the 1960s, has been undergoing its own political crisis between the Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots. Kassinis was soon hired by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where she found more promising integration of academic scholarship and development assistance. USAID’s peacebuilding program would work with NGOs and policy think tanks to improve the prospects for a negotiated and lasting resolution to the largely non-violent crisis in Cyprus. Her projects ranged from studying childhood development within the conflict to working with UN and US contractors to bring economic development to poorer parts of the island. Through this role, she witnessed the transitioning of divided Cyprus into the European Union in 2004. 

Kassinis worked with USAID through 2015. Although her position within the organization changed as the organization shifted focuses, her commitment to finding common ground and solutions to many issues that divide the island’s communities and their responses to pressing global issues did not. In 2018, she began a new role as Executive Manager of the Cypriot chapter of Caritas, an international Catholic-based humanitarian organization that aids vulnerable groups. While its target groups vary from nation to nation, in Cyprus its primary mission has become to work with refugees, asylum seekers, and victims of human trafficking, many of whom have migrated to the island from nations in the Middle East and West Africa. 

Despite her career taking her far from her first office in New York, Kassinis has been impressed with Phi Beta Kappa’s dedication to its members. She always enjoys receiving updates from the Theta Chapter at Cornell University and the quarterly Key Reporter magazine. While ΦBK may not be particularly active in Cyprus (“in fact not at all,” she sighs), she said she “lives vicariously through the ΦBK alumni chapter in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, her home state” and still feels informed as a member of the organization. Moreover, she notes that although she has changed her CV “hundreds of times since graduating from Cornell,” she continues to keep Phi Beta Kappa as a highlighted accolade. Kassinis has continued to uphold ΦBK’s mission by working diligently as a leader and problem-solver, while helping to promote prosperity and peace some 5,500 miles across the world. 

Jacob Morrow-Spitzer is a recent graduate of Tulane University, where he majored in History and Jewish Studies and minored in Mathematics. He was inducted into the Alpha of Louisiana chapter of Phi Beta Kappa in May of 2018. He will begin his Ph.D. in History in the fall.