My second stop on my trip has been Interlaken, Switzerland. This time I am staying in a hostel, the first time I have ever done so. I have really enjoyed it so far because of the opportunity to meet people from other countries. I’ve found a few things interesting through this experience. One of them is how naturally I have found myself expecting English to be spoken places. It makes sense in conversations with people from several nationalities that English be the most likely common language, but it does make me somewhat uncomfortable that there is almost an expectation that other people speak English when it is not their native language. Another thing I have found interesting is how many people travel internationally quite frequently. I think that it is amazing that hostels, cheap flights, and technology have allowed such global traversing. I know OU is not the most representative group, but I feel as though all my friends are either backpacking or traveling around somewhere or have done so recently. I think the level of independence of open-mindedness shown through this type of travel is a positive for the “millennial” generation. It has been great interacting with some of those people here in the hostel. And finally, I also think that the level of public transportation and the presence of hostels in Europe especially allow these connections between international travelers to be so strong and easy. In most of the US it would be quite hard to go somewhere off the beaten path without renting a car, and to my knowledge staying in hostels in US cities or other attractions is definitely not the norm. But here, even in a tiny town in the mountains it is very accessible by train or bus, and there are tons of hostels and opportunities to meet other travelers. I definitely would argue that this ease of tourism and mobility is a strong argument in favor of robust public transportation and the presence of community-style low-cost lodging options. Anyway, I am leaving Switzerland tomorrow for other countries in Europe. I hope to update soon.
I have just begun two months of travel around Europe, and my first city to hit was Lucerne, Switzerland, a gorgeous city on a shining turquoise lake in the German-speaking part of the country. While I am traveling by myself, which is very pleasant, I have tried to meet people either through activities, hostels, or meals. I was lucky enough to be seated across from a Canadian young person also traveling by herself for dinner, and afterward we went to a Swiss pub that was known to be popular with locals. And it was. A Saturday, people were going to town on the draft beer and other beverages, mostly older residents of the town. This was surprising since the town, especially that part, felt quite tourist-heavy. However, we got into an engaging conversation with a older man who had lived in the US at one point but was born and raised and spent most of his working life in Switzerland. We talked about national politics and I really found intriguing his response to my question about how Switzerland viewed the US today and under our current administration. His answer was that he thinks it is crucial to separate the people, the government, and the country, and that he had very different views on all of them. The people, he thought, were quiet pleasant and kind and smart. The country, he respected greatly, especially having grown up with both World Wars in his memory or parents’ memories, he said. The government, he was much more critical, highlighting the feeling of erraticism and unreliability that he felt President Trump espoused. Regardless of his feelings, I really liked his compartmentalization of those three distinct entities. I think that it is very important for all people to remember that when thinking about other countries. Especially between rival or enemy countries, the governments might be opposed but often the people do not have as big of a stake and even really like the people of the other country. This man had a great perspective that I think is important for peace between nations.
Dr. Timothy Snyder is a leading historian and public intellectual, perhaps most famous in recent years because of his “treatise” On Tyrannypublished in the months after the 2016 US Presidential Election. He came to campus in April of this year to speak at a President’s Associates dinner that I was able to attend. Broadly his career has focused on Central European states post World War II and the rise and fall of nationalism and authoritarianism there. His research has given him an interesting perspective on trends of nationalism in the US in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency. I read his book before his speech and while I enjoy studying US politics and keeping up with current events, I really appreciated how Snyder brought a historical and international perspective to events in the US. His talk showed the importance of using history as a guide for the future. In his treatise, he provides “twenty lessons from the twentieth century” and does a very good job of connecting these events simply to current happenings and potential happenings. I think that his method of argument is as a result very compelling because it is not based on partisanship or policy but rather historical events. In his book and in his speech, he warned that Americans are not good at learning from history repeating itself when things are not exactly the same (which of course they never will be) and cautioned that we must be better at recognizing themes. I appreciate the conversation that he has started as it is an important one.
This semester our group met weekly for discussion of Thomas Friedman’s new book Thank You for Being Late, which talks about how our world is changing because of accelerating advances in technology. Friedman explores this theme in several areas—the workplace, our communities, our national politics—but I really liked his connection to geopolitics and how the world as a whole is affected by these changes in technology that, according to Moore’s law, are becoming faster and faster by the year. He argues that our countries are increasingly connected by market forces as well as in the same boat with issues such as climate change. He critiques American and European governments for not fully understanding and responding to these changes, instead being upheaved by internal debate over smaller, less important issues. Ultimately, he advocates a smarter, more common sense, and rational set of policies that he gives the kitschy name “Mother Nature party” to help the world’s actors see the forest through the trees and respond to these issues that are coming at us at an increasingly fast pace and that will need our best efforts to remain on top of.
At this year’s Global Engagement Day I attended the international student panel because I saw it as a great opportunity to hear from some of OU’s many international students on their experience being students. Eugenia from Malaysia is a Petroleum Engineering major and has been at OU since 2015. And Pedro from Angola has been at OU for a few years as well. A lot of questions and topics were covered but I found two particularly interesting. The first was hearing their perceptions of OU and its environment that it provides for international students. Eugenia said that she has done a lot of programming specifically through the Southeast Asian Student Association, but that she wishes that there were more efforts to bridge multiple groups rather than just programming within cultural groups. The other was how they felt about learning other cultures and how they felt being asked questions about their culture, nationality, or language. Pedro talked about how his most meaningful experiences have been at his previous secondary school with his roommates, and at OU in the informed citizens discussion groups in the Honors College. What he liked about them was that people were honest about ignorance in themselves, and tolerant of ignorance in others so that they could really open up and have deep conversation. He talked a lot about being afraid of offending others or others being afraid of offending him and said it is important to have the right relaxed environment so that people are not afraid to have those conversations. Eugenia, however, provided some alternative perspective. She said that she has received many questions and comments that she did find offensive, such as when someone compliments her on her “good English.” However, she also talked about how she feels a certain responsibility of sharing her culture and talking with others about it, describing herself as almost a “brand ambassador.” She did, though, admit that they were both pretty extroverted and everyone might not feel comfortable doing that. Overall, I really appreciated the opportunity to ask international students questions and hear how they view OU broadly and the international student environment here.
While I agreed somewhat with the problems posed by Easterly and Moyo, I tended to agree with the solutions of Collier and Banerjee and Duflo more. Collier, a professor at Oxford, argued several policies in response to some of the pitfalls of the way we do aid today. For example, rather than providing money, he suggested that many situations instead might be better suited for resource aid, sending experts to help train locals in solving their own crises. He framed much of his discussion around the concept of four different types of poverty traps that were also compelling as reasons for economic stagnation.
Overall, however, I still left these courses without a clear idea of how to solve these greatest problems of our time. The problem is obvious—1 billion people in extreme poverty and not necessarily on the ladder of development to escape it—and all of the experts wanted to see poverty eradicated in their time. However, unlike some economic issues here at home, we have not seemed to crack the perfect answer.
If there was one author I did agree with, however, that would be Amartya Sen and his definition of poverty and development. He framed poverty as an issue of lack of freedom and capability, and argued that we should think not of economic development as a means of achieving freedom of education and good health, but rather these freedoms as the means to achieving economic development. While lofty, these goals in my opinion should be the ideals that guide any policy aimed at eradicating global poverty.
This semester I enjoyed taking two courses focused on development. Both featured lengthy discussion on the effectiveness on foreign aid. I was excited when I originally signed up for these courses about this topic in particular given my interests in the World Bank, but I was surprised by the answer I received. Unfortunately, after reading some of the major scholars in the field—Sachs, Collier, Easterly, Banerjee and Duflo, Singer, and Moyo—I was left somewhat befuddled by the immensely complex challenge of foreign aid. I found that all of the authors had somewhat compelling arguments. To my surprise, I think that Easterly had me the most convinced with his theory of planners vs. searchers. He argued that “planners” are those who through conferences and grandiose plans believe that with the right (and large) amount of money, we can achieve a multi-pronged assault on poverty in the world. He found that these plans were unrealistic and often did not work at a micro level, instead arguing that “searchers,” who act on a much smaller scale, see more success because they are intimately close with the specific problems they are trying to solve, and, more importantly, they can easily be held accountable for success or failure. I was also swayed by Moyo’s argument and the idea that infusing too much capital into a country without strong political institutions can actually hurt rather than help it because of the potential for corruption of leaders and a decline of state capacity. Especially because of some of the poorly functioning governments and decidedly low ability to tax, and because of the entrenchment of aid in many countries that she would call “dependency,” her argument was interesting and different from others.
In my Honors Reading Group, my co-moderator and I chose an internationally focused book that focused on the phenomenon of globalization. The Great Convergence by Richard Baldwin described a new wave of globalization that is affecting global trade and economics. Where globalization used to be simpler, involving entire products or services, huge decreases in the costs of information and communications technologies have made it more complicated and more difficult to predict and control. Today, international companies must compete at every step and stage of the manufacturing process, as more and more jobs can be exported easily without disruption to the supply chain. So long as we have open trade, we sacrifice economic sovereignty for economic benefit. Baldwin ultimately argues that the benefits are true—they are just widespread and constantly changing, and they do of course create losers as well as winners.
Our group enjoyed discussing these trends as technology allows the world to be more connected than ever. One of the topics that we discussed was how we should think morally about these benefits when they help those in developing countries at the cost of workers in the US. There were mixed emotions, and politically, it is a complicated issue. Still, we all agreed that we were glad that we read this book to understand the history, driving factors, and details of modern globalization, as well as a prediction from Baldwin of how it might look in the future. For anyone studying economics, it is hugely important to understand trade.
Another event that I attended this semester was a lecture from Stanford anthropologist James Ferguson. He researches how development and modernity intersect the lives of ordinary people, and he has focused much of his work on southern Africa. He spoke on the topic of social obligation and how it is politically difficult to give to those who are outside of our nation-state. He differentiated between membership and presence, arguing that other people in the world, while they might not be members of our nation-state, are still present by simply being human somewhere on Earth. He has researched why we feel this way, why it is so politically difficult to give to those who are not members.
Ultimately, he argued that the solution should focus less on how to increase political support for giving to those who are “not present” (e.g., people who might be suffering in a poor country) and rather changing how we see others so that we do not see them as “not present” in the first place. He gave an example with the book Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies and how the author evoked empathy for the migrant workers and made them “present” to the reader by connecting their labor to our food, in this case the berries we eat daily. However, with a rise in unemployment, migration, and refugees—many without labor as in the example—Ferguson argued that we need new strategies to form this connection. He specifically cited shared need, shared vulnerability, and shared suffering as potential options.
While the language was somewhat dry and academic in this lecture, I really enjoyed listening to it, because I am a strong believer in understanding the innate causes and ethics of our feelings before strategizing solutions. He dove deep into human nature with his theory and provided an argument that any policy makers should understand, as the psychology and ethics of these problems and solutions are likely more important than any other factors, whether economic or judicial or political, because they are so foundational.
One of the international events on campus that I attended this semester was the visit of Dr. Nana Yuliana, Consul General of Indonesia in its Houston post. She gave a presentation on the country of Indonesia, including basic facts and cultural information about the country, and she also even brought some tourism-focused materials. I really enjoyed this presentation of course because I was able to learn more about the country. But I thought that the visit was important more broadly because it showed some of the diplomatic actions that countries can take to extend their influence and image in the world. Several people from the consulate accompanied Dr. Yuliana, and this number showed the commitment that the country has to building bonds even in Oklahoma. I think that this display of foreign courtship is especially relevant in today’s time given the current state of the US State Department. While one of the OU members in the audience studied Indonesian history as her area of expertise, most of us likely knew little about this majority-Muslim country, and this meeting gave us the chance to learn more and inspire us to visit one day. This talk is just one of thousands that must happen across the US and the world by nearly every country, and it shows the benefits of making investments in our diplomatic missions.