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  • Writer's picturekai peter stabell

Steadfastly transforming thoughts into action

Updated: Nov 27, 2022

Robert Muggah is a specialist in security and development. He co-founded the Igarapé Institute where he oversees research and technology development. He also oversees research at the SecDev Foundation, a cyber analytics group. Robert is affiliated with the University of Oxford, University of San Diego, as well as the Center for Conflict, Development and Peace at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, in Switzerland. His work on new technology, arms transfers, and fragile cities has been featured in the Atlantic, BBC, CNN, Der Spiegel, Fast Company, Financial Times, the Guardian, New York Times, Quartz, Wired and many other outlets.

Robert has spent the last two decades designing and overseeing large-scale research projects in more than 50 countries. He works closely with over a dozen multilateral and bilateral agencies on security and policing, humanitarian action, development, migration and urban planning. He advises the Inter-American Development Bank, the United Nations and the World Bank and works with companies, universities and not-for-profit organizations in North and Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Western Europe. In 2013 he was named one of the top 100 most influential people in violence reduction and in 2016 was nominated by the UN Secretary General to advise the preparation of a global review of youth, peace and security.

What is the first website you visit after you get up and why?

That depends. There is life before the U.S. election and life after the U.S. election. Before November 8, I was pretty much locked into the U.S. election polling sites (like 538 and the more wonky Princeton Election Consortium). They are seriously addictive.

Now that the election is over, I´ll go through my usual quick check of BBC (for my quick big picture news), Wired (for my what´s coming down the pipe news), Medium/Quartz (for my edgy liberal news) and the NYT (for my feel good confirmation bias news).

I´m also signed up on a few private/anonymous list-serves. I can´t even remember how I was included. But one of them is curated by former CIA type. I get about 20 messages in 5 languages every morning. They are often from obscure sources and track geopolitical trends that will make next months news.

• Tell me about a book that has had an impact on your life and why.

There are too many. The ones that really stand out are James Ferguson´s Anti-Politics Machine, Norm Scott´s Seeing Like a State, Wolfgang Sach´s Development Dictionary, Benedict Anderson´s Imagined Communities and Edward Said´s Orientalism. I devoured books like these as a student – they turned my worldview on its head.

The books that shaped my early political sensibilities were by political philosophers like Isaiah Berlin (e.g. his essays on liberty, liberalism and the enlightenment are incredible). Come to think of it, Dante Alighieri´s Inferno was also important. I have foggy memories of writing out all nine circles of suffering on the back of a pizza box in my first year of university. He did more than Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and a decade of Unitarianism to convince me of my atheist convictions.

• Who are your favourite authors?

Again, too many to list. If we´re talking fiction, I have a thing for Michael Ondaatje and Jeanette Winterson who weave poetry into their novels. I´m a stickler for Canadian fiction – including by Robertson Davies, Mordercai Richler, and Margaret Atwood. I used to have a thing for East Indian (Naipal) and East African Diaspora literature (Ngugi), but thought the way the former handled the fallout with Theroux was grim.

Who else? No one has or ever will write a thriller like Fyodor Dostoevsky, though I get giddy every time I pick up a novel by Graham Green or Joseph Conrad (I just re-read Nostromo and it´s extraordinary – not least because he apparently never stepped foot on South American soil!). I suppose when all is said and done one of my favorite things to do on Sunday morning is to transition from café au lait to gin and tonic with a New York Review of Books in hand.

• What historical figure do you identify with?

I suppose I identify with anyone who has left home and felt that primordial sensation of separation and loss. One of the extraordinary written tomes is Homer´s Odyssey. It is the cornerstone of the Western canon. It tells the story of Odysseus who spends the entire epic trying to get home. Few tales have had more of an impact on our oral and written culture. The story´s eternally repeated – from the stone tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh to much of the contemporary fiction I read today.

• What is your favourite occupation?

Occupation as in discipline? I think public health is pretty wild. I´ve long said that if we could put three female epidemiologists in a room we could solve fifty per cent of the world´s problems. They diagnose the problem, come up with the right solution, collaborate on implementing it, and then get on the next big challenge to resolve. If I could do my degree again, I´d probably get an MPH, or maybe something in geography, data science or something insane like advanced machine learning.

What influenced your career path?

There are a series of really poignant moments that shaped my “career”. It may sound cliché, but the most important factor was a supportive and healthily competitive family environment. Parents and peer groups are essential. A few teachers, guidance counselors and family friends also opened my eyes to alternative ways of seeing the world.

Also critical were experiences “out there” – exposure to new ways of living. During my university years I sought out opportunities to work with migrant laborers and unions in rural Canada, youth collectives in Africa, rights activists in Sri Lanka, and displaced communities in Latin America. Throughout, I made the most extraordinary relationships.

• What do you like about what you do?

It sounds a bit wonkish, but I´m really attracted to the strong connection between research and action – there´s an intellectual and emotional satisfaction in that. I have the fortune to see – sometimes in real time – how products generated by my think tank(s) lead to meaningful change on the ground. We´ve reached literally tens of millions of people with some of our visualizations, films, and publications – and this is gratifying.

There´s a pedagogical component to all this too. I adore seeing the young (and old) people who work with us thrive and, in many cases, go on to do remarkable things. I still teach from time to time, and while I studiously avoid the administrative parts of the job, I still love that buzz that comes with being part of the academy.

I´ve learnt a tremendous amount during my years working in the public and non-governmental sector. I´ve also started honing my skills in the start-up and social impact world. What motivates me is the potential to make change. What excites me is the fact that every day – including this one – is fundamentally different to the previous one. That more than compensates for the pay (which is crappy in case you´re wondering).

• What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Without hesitation, having something to do with the appearance of my daughter Yasmin Zoe Szabo Muggah.


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