Student Finds Focus, Future in Multiethnic South Africa

 “I should have seen it coming,” public policy senior Dan Forti said.

But when Forti decided to study abroad in Durban, South Africa, he didn’t anticipate it would lead not only to an internship and his senior honors thesis, but that Durban would become his new home after graduation.

Forti spent the fall of his junior year abroad, taking classes on the social and political transformation in Africa, learning to speak Zulu and conducting field research with the School for International Training. But his trip offered more than academic enrichment. Forti found he had never felt more comfortable in a place.

“What I loved about South Africa was that it was very much a strong blend of cultures within a larger community. South Africa has a diverse history in many ways. Right now all of these cultures are overlapping,” said Forti.

Originally from Queens, New York, Forti attended an international school from kindergarten to high school where he learned to speak French. Forti’s early global perspective fueled his interest in international issues, particularly African studies.

At Duke, Forti pursued his passion by minoring in African and African American Studies. His favorite course was “Conflict Resolution in Africa,” taught by Stephen Smith, a visiting Sanford professor and former Africa editor for Le Monde, who would become Forti’s honors thesis advisor. Through his coursework, Forti developed the concrete research, analytical, and writing skills to help him apply his interests to real-world contexts. He describes choosing the public policy major as one of the best decisions of his Duke career.

Forti returned to South Africa the summer before his senior year for a policy internship with the African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Dispute (ACCORD), a local NGO. One of his primary research areas was assessing the role of the rapidly growing youth population during and following the disputed re-election of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki in 2007. Post-election violence left more than 1,200 Kenyans dead and 300,000 people displaced. The head of ACCORD’s Knowledge Production Department, Grace Maina, used his work as a case study for an edited volume on youth and conflict in Africa.

His research was part of what Forti calls a “defining internship” that gave him the confidence and desire to pursue African policy analysis. Forti has accepted an offer from ACCORD to return as a full-time research analyst.

“He came back changed,” Smith said of Forti. “He went to a place that changed his perspective, challenged him, and it did him good.”

Forti returned from his second trip abroad with a desire to write a senior honors thesis on African policy. He chose to focus on cessation movements in Africa, specifically drawing lessons from Somaliland as a case study of a successful, albeit non-traditional, movement. Compared to its neighboring regions of south-central Somalia and Puntland, Somaliland has been able to achieve greater stability and independent government although it has not received formal recognition from the international community.

Forti developed a new measure of a successful cessation movement and identified conditions that facilitate or impede success. He identified four factors that helped Somaliland: a sustained conflict, sufficient institutional capacity, international or diaspora support and community investment or buy-in.

Smith called the study “quite original” because international recognition is the typical indicator of a successful movement. However, “recognition would be more of a bane than a boon for [Somaliland] because … the aid would destroy the social fabric… and could lead to state failure,” he said.

Aside from his academic interests, Forti is actively involved with Duke club rugby team. After playing for the first time during his freshmen year, Forti fell in love with the sport and has been on the team for four years. He is currently the president.

“I couldn’t tell you where I’ll end up in 10 years,” Forti said. “I am taking things one year at a time.” His advice for freshmen is, “If you find a major that makes you happy, keep pursuing it. Don’t be afraid of the requirements or courses. I’ve been very lucky to find a field that I really enjoy.”