David Matyas is bridging the worlds of law, international development and humanitarian assistance | NEXUS Magazine | Alumni | Faculty of Law | UNB

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Faculty of Law

David Matyas is bridging the worlds of law, international development and humanitarian assistance

UNB Law’s faculty complement continues to grow as David Matyas joins the Faculty as an assistant professor on January 1, 2024. He brings with him a wealth of knowledge and practical experience in the law of international humanitarian assistance, the law of disasters, and public international law.

Originally from Ottawa, Matyas graduated with a Master’s degree in international development from Oxford. He then embarked on the first leg of his career, as a Technical Advisor in disaster risk and vulnerability in London, England. This work took him across the African Sahel, with regional postings in Niamey, the capital of Niger, and the Senegalese capital of Dakar.

“It was, in many ways, a dream job. But I had this itching feeling that, as much as I loved my work and my colleagues, I couldn't get at some of the more intractable challenges that I was seeing in the field. The study of law seemed like a way to develop a critical toolkit for confronting these issues.”

So, after four years in the sector, he decided to go back to school to study law. He received BCL/LLB degrees from McGill University, graduating first in his class as the Elizabeth Torrance Gold Medalist.

“I came to really love the study of law. It resonated with how I think and approach problems. I applied for a clerkship because I was really drawn to gnarly legal puzzles, and the Supreme Court seemed like the place where you get to deal with the most pressing—gnarliest—puzzles in the country.”

He found no shortage of complex problems while clerking for the Hon. Rosalie Silberman Abella, and it was during that year that he decided to pursue a new goal; to finding a way to combine these different aspects of his professional life.

“I wanted to put the lawyer in me in conversation with the humanitarian practitioner and thought that a PhD could give me the opportunity to research the relationship between law, international development, and international humanitarian work. That's how I ended up at Cambridge.”

Prof. Matyas is a Gates Scholar and PhD candidate in the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge, where he is studying the various mechanisms by which legal regimes impact and influence the work of humanitarian actors.

“I’m interested in organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross or Doctors without Borders and how different laws, international and domestic, shape their ability to provide assistance.”

Prof. Matyas is taking a multi-methods approach to this research. His doctrinal work looks at the hard laws of humanitarian assistance found in treaties, peace agreements, case law, and statutes, examining them further through a series of qualitative interviews with the national and regional directors of humanitarian organizations. These interviews were conducted during fieldwork in Nairobi, Kenya.

“The interviews kind of snowballed, and I ended up speaking to humanitarians in other countries including Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Yemen and bringing all these different perspectives together to understand how they see how laws influence and shape their ability to provide relief.”

Reflections on his work in West Africa

For Prof. Matyas, it was his work in West Africa that was the most formative in shaping his academic path. While stationed in Niger, he worked on disaster resilience projects, designing policies and programs to improve the ability of various populations to face food insecurity, flooding, and issues related to conflicts. One particularly important project he worked on while in Niger was the development of a nationwide early warning system for food insecurity.

“It was fundamentally participatory; we engaged different actors and populations. The project employed an innovative qualitative approach that got us data that the government and UN agencies were then able to use in rolling out their programs at the national scale.”

He also worked on the first mobile-based cash transfer system for urban refugees in Niger. According to Prof. Matyas, cash transfers are an increasingly popular tool in humanitarian assistance because they empower affected populations (who live in areas with access to functioning markets) to purchase what they actually need rather than items that humanitarians may think they need. The use of mobile phones also had the additional benefit of allowing these individuals to stay in touch with family back home, get news updates, and information on upcoming distributions.

“The highlight of my time in West Africa was getting to work with fantastic development and humanitarian practitioners who had devoted their careers to improving their countries. It was one thing to talk about development and humanitarian programs theoretically in classrooms in Oxford, but my biggest teachers were really my colleagues in Niger and Senegal. Among other things, they brought home to me the importance of keeping academic work grounded in practice, which actually, was one of the things that drew me to UNB.”

Approach to teaching and the move to UNB

Prof. Matyas has taught at McGill, Osgoode Hall, and the University of Cambridge. He finds the most enjoyment in the classroom when he can incorporate experiential activities into his teaching. One example he shared was a short course on disasters and the law he ran at McGill. During that course, he built out a scenario where students had to design risk plans and hazard forecasts for a hypothetical law firm. The course culminated in a one-day simulation that included a novel disaster that students were asked to navigate.

“These are fantastic learning opportunities. Students are put in a position where they face real-world problems. By that stage in the course, they’re equipped with a set of legal tools to draw upon, but the real learning comes from deploying those tools in innovative and creative ways to confront different challenges. Importantly, these are also the times that I learn the most as a teacher. When I throw out a hypothetical, I’ll have a hunch as to how the students might solve these problems, but at the end of the day, they bring fresh eyes and perspectives which always surprise me.”

Prof. Matyas admits he had his eye on UNB for quite some time.

“In law school, I kept reading these incredible journal articles coming out of the UNB Law Review—articles by path-breaking scholars like Anne La Forest. Despite being a small school, the calibre of scholarship was exceptional.”

He saw parallels between UNB Law’s reputation and his undergrad experience in McMaster’s interdisciplinary Arts and Science program, a degree which focussed on small classes, rich pedagogy, and a deep sense of community.

“UNB just felt like the right place for me. Intimate and dedicated to teaching with a strong footing in practice. When I came for my on-campus interviews, those intuitions all proved true. My wife spent most of her life in Nairobi, Kenya. So, although Fredericton is a very different world from the one she grew up in, when she saw how excited I was about the prospect of joining the UNB community, she said, ‘we have to go!’”