Profile with Jeni Whalan


Jeni Whalan (Australia-at-Large & Balliol 2005) is a Lecturer in International Security and Development at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Her research focuses on peacekeeping, the United Nations, and post-conflict development and governance. Her latest book is titled How Peace Operations Work: Power, Legitimacy and Effectiveness. She is a Research Associate of the Global Economic Governance Program and has previously worked with the Australian Department of Prime Minister and the Department of Defense. She holds a DPhil and MPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford and a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of New South Wales.

Rhodes Project: Where do you consider home?

Jeni Whalan: Sydney. It’s where I grew up and lived up until I went to Oxford. I think I surprised myself moving back so early after I graduated but the right things happened at the right time.

Rhodes Project: What are you working on right now?

Jeni Whalan: I have just published the book that started as my PhD research, so now I’m starting two new projects. One is looking at recent shifts in UN peacekeeping—should peacekeepers take sides in conflict?—and another examines how a small group of fragile and conflict-affected countries that are calling themselves the “g7+” are trying to reform the way that aid works globally. They are all weak states, sitting towards the bottom of most global rankings for stability, that have a like-minded vision to lift themselves out of those structural problems.

Rhodes Project: As an academic researcher of global development issues, what is the most important way your work affects real behavior and policy?

Jeni Whalan: That is exactly the kind of question I am grappling with at the moment. After my DPhil, I worked for the Australian Government. I expected to have a more direct impact on policy there but the experience was fairly frustrating—a combination of the short-term political cycle and the lack of demand for longer-term strategic thinking. The way I’m trying to influence policy debates now is from outside government, through really rigorous academic research published as books or traditional journal articles, through informal networks, knowing people within the policy-making circles within think tanks, and also through public debate—opinion pieces in newspapers, public lectures and creating a media presence.

Rhodes Project: What was the most surprising thing you learned working for the Australian government?

Jeni Whalan: That the biggest barrier to better public policy has nothing to do with designing good policy, with doing the best thinking and modeling. Everything has to do with the politics: within the bureaucracy, sometimes outside it, and often on a really personal level. There were so many hidden obstacles that I could never have seen from the outside.

Rhodes Project: What do you enjoy most about teaching?

Jeni Whalan: I love my students. They are hands down the best thing about my academic job. I am really lucky that at my university we attract some really bright undergraduates who are passionate about making a positive change in the world.

Rhodes Project: What is one thing your students have taught you?

Jeni Whalan: Curiosity. It’s a mutual learning exercise. I am constantly trying to get them to think another step further, ask another question and analyze their own role in the world. In that process I then reflect on what I believe and go back to my first principles. Why should they bother caring about the way the World Bank has changed its approach to development? This experience has certainly helped my research.

Rhodes Project: What is the greatest way you think the face of international aid community will change in the next ten years?

Jeni Whalan: The biggest shift will be that countries are developing. So the current model of offering aid to poor countries because that is where poor people live won’t be suited to a world in which you have middle-income and increasingly rich countries that still house great numbers of people in poverty. We will see high levels of inequality in some of the big countries and that changes our ideas about how to deliver aid, about the role of national governments and how to think about the reasons that governments give aid. 

Rhodes Project: How did the idea for you recent book, How Peace Operations Work, come about?

Jeni Whalan: It started ten years ago, before my time at Oxford, when I was working for a couple of different think tanks looking at international responses to conflict. I was working on a strange little peace operation called RAMSI, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. What struck me about this case was that people kept talking about the importance of good relations with the local people and local support for the operation. Yet we didn’t have very good theories to tell us why that was so important or how peace operations should go about doing that. So I came to Oxford with a hunch that there was something else going on. Over my five years there I did my best to work out how local populations respond to peacekeepers and why that matters.

Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging thing you have ever done?

Jeni Whalan: I was an elite athlete when I was a bit younger and was trying to make the Olympic sailing team for Athens in 2004. I had some pretty bad knee injuries and after some unsuccessful surgeries I made the decision to retire before I had the chance to test whether I was good enough. The big challenge of that was not so much the fact that I wouldn’t go to the Olympics – that had always been a possibility – but it was that I was no longer an athlete, which was so central to my identity. It was difficult to grapple with who I was without that.

Rhodes Project: What surprised you most about Oxford?

Jeni Whalan: One of the things that a lot of my Rhodes Scholar friends and I used to talk about was discovering the need to be a feminist at Oxford. I had the privilege of growing up in Australia without encountering much discrimination on the basis of my gender. I grew up sailing and riding horses, two sports where at junior levels you compete against the boys, and I had the privilege of a great education at high school and university where if the disadvantage went any way it was against the boys. So I arrived at Oxford completely unprepared for some of its ‘legacies’. I remember that during my coming-up dinner at my college I was looking around at the portraits of the old men in hall and I asked a member of the college what the gender ratio was among the fellowship. He snapped back that when women were good enough they’d be represented in equal numbers.

Rhodes Project: What most inspires you?

Jeni Whalan: The daily realization in my work that the world has changed very much for the better over the last century, certainly in terms of development, but that there are still huge obstacles. That progress and a better world are possible but that they require people to keep working hard and fighting. You can’t take it for granted.

Rhodes Project: What is the most beautiful place you have ever been to?

Jeni Whalan: A place on the south coast of New South Wales called Jervis Bay, which is where I grew up going on summer holidays with my family. We would camp in the most beautiful wilderness and we spent our days surfing, bushwalking and swimming with dolphins. I feel like some of the sand of Jervis Bay must be stuck in my soul somewhere.

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