International Organization: Americanah Reading Group

Each semester GEFs are required to join a campus group with an international focus. In past semesters, I have been a part of CESL, OU Cousins, and OU Spanish club as a part of this requirement. This semester I went a slightly different route and joined an honors reading group with some international friends to read Americanah, a book about a Nigerian woman who returns to Nigeria after spending a good chunk of her life in the U.S. The book, by the incredible Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, touches a lot on the racial tension in the U.S., the culture shock experienced even upon “going home,” and the complexities of life as an immigrant. Overall, I have really enjoyed the novel and would definitely recommend it. It has a very interesting perspective on many serious issues facing America today even though it is fictional.

I feel especially lucky to have read the book with the group I did. The group moderator is actually an exchange student from Nigeria which I felt added a whole new level of meaning to the readings. She was able to offer insight into the culture in ways that really enriched the novel. It was also kind of funny because throughout the book she was really keen on getting the “American perspective” on Nigerian culture as presented in the novel. It was fun to read it with so much context for the Nigerian culture in which much of it takes place and I am grateful I had that opportunity.

On the whole, this book confirmed my love of Adichie and I look forward to reading more of her writing.

Mozambique

Today in my Global Economic Relations class we wrapped up our simulation of the negotiations between the country and the IMF following their recent balance of payments crisis. My class group represented international NGOs while the other class groups were the IMF, the government of Mozambique, and domestic NGOs.

The process ended in a deal for a 6 billion dollar loan over 10 years in 5 installments with 1.4 billion dollars set aside for pro-poor policies and 2 billion for anti-corruption measures.

The exercise was really eye-opening to the complexities of international financial markets and negotiations between huge institutions like the IMF and small struggling countries like Mozambique. As an International NGO in particular, the process was frustrating at times. We did not have a voice in negotiations directly even though we provided 50% of Mozambique’s annual budget. We could, instead, put pressure on the government in behind the scenes conversations and through protests/media campaigns. The situation highlighted the fragile balance between protecting national sovereignty and protecting oppressed peoples.

While our deal was relatively friendly to the poor- including provisions to increase literacy, decrease unemployment, and decrease government corruption- in real life it is unlikely such a pro-poor policy would be feasible. While I had never considered a career in the non-profit sector, this class has made me rethink that slightly. This simulation showed a lot of the frustrations inherent in such a career though, so I definitely have a lot of respect for people who do dedicate their lives to protecting oppressed people and improving the conditions of those in highly impoverished nations.

Ethiopian Dams and Development

Last week I had the privilege of attending Dr. Mains’ presentation to the Honors College on development in Ethiopia. Dr. Mains, who I knew previously for his class on modernity, is an anthropologist who has focused his research on Ethiopia. This most recent project focuses on the impact of hydropower dam construction projects in the country in recent years. Basically, the Ethiopian government, in an effort to lift the population out of poverty and create jobs in the nation, has contracted an Italian company to build a series of incredibly massive dams to generate electricity for the country. This electricity will not only be used by Ethiopians, but the massive surpluses will also be sold to neighboring countries like Kenya.

While the project sounds great – renewable energy, investment in infrastructure, new jobs, etc.- the reality has been less sunny. First, Ethiopia’s contracting of an Italian company without negotiations raises some suspicion of corruption or pay offs. Second, such a massive project with such huge foreign involvement has provided somewhat minimal returns for Ethiopians. Dr. Mains provided anecdotal and quantitative data supporting the implementation of small scale projects employing natives to better support development. Third, international environmental organizations have raised environmental concerns with the dams.

One interesting aspect of the talk was the way Dr. Mains dissected the verbiage each party used to frame the dams. The Ethiopian government primarily focused on modernity, progress, technology, and “Renaissance”. The anti-dam NGO’s used words like “free-flowing,” “natural,” and “clean” to describe the river without the dam, implying the dam would stop all these presumably positive things.

From Dr. Mains’ experience, the citizens of Ethiopia are largely not experiencing either of these states. With the dams in place, many still experience rolling black outs and a large percentage of the population is still unemployed. The dams were built despite the environmental concerns from outsiders, and life is continuing on.

I really enjoyed the talk for the unbiased information Dr. Mains offered up. He tried his best not to take sides on which group was correct which I really appreciated. It is clear development in the global south is a massive undertaking and no one prescription will right all the wrongs of the world, but at least in Ethiopia today the data seems to point towards small-scale projects rather than massive cure-alls.

Forum on Democracy

In response to the actions of the Trump administration in its first month in office, the College of International Studies put on a series of panel speaker sessions to address various facets of the recent attacks on democracy. The speech that had the most impact on me was Dr. Velazquez’s commentary on the way many communities have faced these kinds of attacks before. From the forced internment of Japanese Americans, to the forced sterilization of 30% (!!!) of Puerto Rican women by 1970, to the treatment of immigrants today, American democracy has not always been distributed evenly and ignore that would be to whitewash and rewrite history.
My task going into the forum on democracy was to find a link to terrorism so I wanted to post my comments on that while I talk about the forum here:

During the forum on democracy, there was a lot of talk about the suppression of truth and the resulting limitations on liberty, democracy and freedom. From demonizing the media to demonizing the “academic elites,” it is clear access to information is changing in the Trump era and the ability of citizens to advocate and hold their government accountable seems to be shifting as well. While there were many other very important points made during the forum, this point is where I saw the most direct link to terrorism.
Suppression of liberty, both by governments and institutions, has been shown to correlate highly with rates of terrorism (Krieger Meierrieks 2011). When people feel they do not have power to affect their government, they become increasingly desperate and may turn to extremism. While I don’t think anyone is arguing the U.S. is going to become a hotbed for terrorism under Trump, I do think it is very important to realize the path we are going on and the potentially dangerous and destructive consequences of that. By normalizing sexism, suppression of the media, and denial of truth, we are eroding the democracy that allows us each to maintain agency and power within our government, which may lead to increased desperation within the American public. Additionally, the destabilization of global order caused by the changes Trump and other populist leaders are making may have a similar effect.
Overall, while the forum was not in any way an uplifting or encouraging experience, it was a necessary dialogue that all Americans should be thinking carefully about.

Krieger, Tim, and Daniel Meierrieks. “What Causes Terrorism?” Public Choice147.1 (2011): n. pag. Springer. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

Arabic Calligraphy

For my first international event of the semester I was lucky enough to get a spot at an Arabic calligraphy class hosted by the university’s Arabic flagship group. I was one of a handful of people there who did not actually speak Arabic, but the class was interesting and informative nonetheless.

Did you know that there are 12 current types of Arabic calligraphy?
Did you know professional calligraphers can spend hours drawing just one character?
Did you know some calligraphers use real reeds as writing utensils?

well, now you do

My favorite aspect of the event was that we got to follow along with our own calligraphy pen and paper. I learned to write a few words in Arabic in a few different calligraphic styles. My favorite styles were the ones that have extra decoration and include all the short vowels. I really like the idea of making writing into a visual art form. I think it’s also a really interesting religious phenomenon that mosques are not allowed to include images of animals and such so they decorate with script instead. I’ve always tied that idea to the reform of the Catholic church and how simple Protestant churches are compared to cathedrals, but it was interesting to get some more insight into the history and techniques of the lettering and script used throughout the Arabic speaking world.

It was a really cool, unique opportunity that I am happy to have had.

Back to “Normal”

So I’m back in the U.S. wading in biochemistry, medical school preparation, and general school work. I’ve been back for about 2 months now so it feels safe to say my transition back to school and to life in the U.S. is complete ? I guess ?

Spain was a learning experience and I loved a lot of my experiences there, but I never viewed it as my new home. I had a lot of conversations with people while I was abroad about this whole idea of people saying they’re never going to go back home because they love their new home so much. While that gets thrown around a lot, I think it misses a lot of really important things. I think it’s great when people really dive head first into their time abroad. I absolutely think that’s what you have to do. Commit to the language, the culture, and the people to the greatest extent you can with the understanding that you are always learning and will likely never truly master or fully understand a culture that is not yours. However, I think the beauty of study abroad is that it allows you to build a more nuanced understanding of the world by combining perspectives, cultures, and understandings. Throwing off your home culture, bashing it across the board isn’t necessarily productive.

Do I miss Spain or at least aspects of it? Absolutely (shoutout to Spanish tortillas). Are there also aspects of home I’m grateful to have back? For sure. Every country has foundational similarities we can appreciate by spending time abroad and also some differences to observe, learn about, and investigate. No one culture has all the answers, it would seem, but by learning about and experiencing as many cultures as possible, we can improve our understanding of the world, its people, and the best policies and action moving forward on both a macro and micro scale.

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