Looking for Book Recommendations

At the beginning of June I’m leaving for Benin for the next two years. I will have a lot of time to read, so I’d love book recommendations. I generally read non-fiction but am open to other stuff. Mostly I just want books you think are really good, but I’m also including a list of things I want to learn more about:
–climate change and environmental issues
–welfare states and social protection, especially in poor countries
–international law
–social theory
–agriculture, especially in poor countries
–social movements and organizing
–finance (as in understanding it economically and politically)
–gender and women’s rights, especially in developing countries
–public health
–India and other parts of South Asia
–China

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Why I Don’t Want the Revolution

I used to be a fan of anti-capitalist theories. By anti-capitalist I don’t mean something like the Scandinavian model, but that I read and liked things advocating radically different political and economic models. I sympathized with the critics that saw getting rid of key facets of the global order—things like markets, globalization, liberalism, modern multilateral institutions— as pressing priorities. But I ran into the problem that radical theories seriously struggle to explain. To put it simply, if the dominant political and economic system of recent times is bad, how is it that the world has been getting way, way better? I just couldn’t come up with an answer. And because of the story told in the charts below, I came back from the far left.

our world in dataAs the charts above highlight, the world has been getting far better in a wide range of indicators. In the last 200 years humanity has experienced a completely unprecedented improvement in our quality of life, with the last few decades producing particularly rapid success. For me, the most important and the most dramatic has been the rapid decline in global poverty. In 1990, 35% of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 2013, that number was 11%. Even if you take out China’s amazing success, there has been a fall from 26% to 12%. This is incredible! This is well over 1 BILLION people in 23 years. 23 years! Think about it: the number of 5-year-old bodies that didn’t need to be buried, the families that could afford to send their daughters to school, the sense of dignity hundreds of millions of parents gained from giving their children a better life. If we want a political ideology that leads to a more just world, what is arguably the most rapid and important increase in human welfare in history cannot be an afterthought. This has to be absolutely central to our understanding of politics, especially when this period has also seen large increases in democratization, gender equality, and a decline in conflict.

These massive improvements came under the liberal world order, almost entirely in governments that adhered to some sort of market system. Communist countries never approached this kind of economic success; what they produced more regularly were huge atrocities that leftists often fail to take seriously. China’s mindboggling success, cutting extreme poverty by 86% in 32 years, came after it had shifted towards a more market-based economy.

I don’t want my argument to be misconstrued as an argument for free market neoliberalism. Adherents to the Washington Consensus saw relatively few development gains. Instead, the biggest recent development successes, cases like South Korea, China, and Taiwan, all used heterodox policy combinations, just as European countries did as they developed. Further, strong welfare states have been critical to the reduction of poverty.  If you ask me, Scandinavia is great. Still, this is a far cry from revolution. The massive improvements in global welfare in recent decades have often taken reformist paths, cooperating with the international order and allowing private enterprise at least some latitude. In contrast, models from the far left have an extremely patchy record of success.

I also don’t want this to be misconstrued as an argument that everything is rosy. Getting above the threshold for extreme poverty often means someone is still really, really poor. The country of one’s birth is unbelievably influential in one’s quality of life. In what I think is the strongest counterargument to my point, even if the current system has produced massive improvements in many key indicators, it has also set us on the course for climate disaster. It has seen the rise of authoritarian nationalism, too. Maybe it is the case that our current system isn’t sustainable and to deal with these challenges we need something different, and I think far left theories can offer some insight into these questions.

However, I would say that we should keep building on and improving what has a proven record of moving us towards the just world we want: liberal democracies, multilateral institutions, and market economies with strong welfare states. We should try to strengthen the welfare state and develop it in countries lacking one, make the international system more democratic, and reduce the enormous global inequality we still face. We will have to find changes to overcome climate change and authoritarian nationalism or much of the progress we’ve made will be reversed. But if you gave me the choice between building on tools that have made possible the most successful period in human history or throwing it out for ideologies with little real-world success to point to, it’s not a hard choice.

The Catastrophe

This was a catastrophe. It’s one I didn’t see coming. I joked when he announced his candidacy, even as he gained momentum I said he couldn’t win the nomination, and after that I predicted a landslide. I wasn’t totally complacent. I recognized the race was tightening, I canvassed (though not as much as I should have), I posted semi-apocalyptic Facebook statuses imploring people to vote. I took the damage he could cause seriously, but I still didn’t quite believe he could win. I thought my knowledge of political science was worth more than it was. I was out of touch. I thought that for all America’s problems, it couldn’t be this bad.

I’m not going to be feeling the brunt of this catastrophe. I’m not in one the groups that will be hardest hit by Trump’s actions. I’ll also be out of the country for much of his first term, and there is a significant part of me that regrets I won’t be here to fight back.

The damage will be huge. Any last chance we had to get on top of climate change has been obliterated. Obamacare will almost certainly be repealed; benefits for the poor will be eviscerated. Mass deportations will be one of his first priorities. The police will become more militarized and aggressive, and we can expect incarceration to increase significantly. He will name Supreme Court justices that roll back progress. The legitimacy the office of the presidency offers will be extended to Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. And this is just what we know he will do. To name just a few of the things it seems entirely possible he will do, he might cause a global economic crisis, a relatively tame provocation could cause him to start a war, and it is difficult to think of a president you would trust less with nuclear weapons. He has already refused to accept electoral defeat, and if he loses in four years he will have the power of the federal government under him.

So yes, Tuesday night was a catastrophe, and now there is nothing we can do except fight it with the seriousness it deserves. This seriousness is think every day about what you are doing to fight back seriousness. This is maintaining the same urgency we feel now once the Facebook posts have dried up seriousness, watch less TV so you can read up on organizing seriousness, don’t spend excess money on Fridays so that you can donate to the ACLU seriousness. It’s keep an eagle eye on the government for the next four years seriousness. It’s get to know some Trump supporters seriousness.

Fighting this with the seriousness it deserves requires not letting our hearts outweigh our heads. We have to analyze this carefully and humbly, and accept painful conclusions. We have to figure out what went wrong and how we can respond most effectively. This won’t be done overnight, so I’m hesitant to offer prescriptions. I am confident that we should take anti-establishment thinking seriously, and we should take economic anxiety seriously. But it would be a fatal mistake to overlook race. He gained political prominence claiming President Obama wasn’t a citizen, not by talking about trade; he didn’t launch his campaign promising to “drain the swamp” but instead by saying Mexico was sending rapists. The rise of the far right in Germany and Sweden should make clear that a more egalitarian economy won’t cure us of racism. Accepting the role of racism also doesn’t mean writing off Trump voters. We should know better than to think that there is a dichotomy between racists and non-racists, and the rapid decline of homophobia should remind us that individuals can and do turn away from bigotry. Working towards these changes will be both exceptionally challenging and exceptionally necessary.

Fighting this also doesn’t mean turning away from our liberal democratic ideals, even though the Republicans have consistently violated democratic norms and Trump took this even further. Yes, Clinton won the popular vote and yes, there was significant voter suppression, but we can’t change the result of this election. That doesn’t mean the winner is right. American democratic winners have supported slavery, they have supported turning away refugees from Nazi Germany, and they supported the criminalization of homosexuality. Winning elections doesn’t grant you a monopoly on truth and legitimacy. If Trump tries to do the unconstitutional things he has promised we will jump on it. If he uses democratic means to achieve unjust ends he may well succeed, but we don’t lose our rights to pressure our representatives and to protest in between elections. When it does come to elections in 2018 and 2020, we must win.

To do this well we will have to have a big tent. Third party voters must be welcome, disaffected Republicans must be welcome, and yes, we must welcome even Trump supporters that turn away from him. One of the most hopeful moments I’ve had in recent days was reading a piece by the Irish writer of a blog about my favorite English soccer team. That’s how big a tent we need.

This, I hope, is the most dangerous moment in our lives. I think it will take decades to come back from this catastrophe, but we have no choice but to try. Students around the world protest dictatorships when they know they may be killed for it. When a bomb falls in Aleppo people run to the rubble so that they can climb in to save whoever is left. If they’re still fighting, so can we.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the aftermath of World War II in the last few days. The world had been through the Great Depression, the Holocaust, and two world wars that together killed close to 100 million people. Much of the world remained colonized. And although massive problems remain unsolved, the world went on to become more peaceful and prosperous than it has ever been, lifting billions of people out of poverty. So the first lesson of World War II is that the world has come back from worse. But the second lesson is that we have to do whatever we can to make sure it doesn’t get to that point. 78 years ago today my grandfather was arrested by the Nazis. Even on the way to Buchenwald, he did not foresee how bad things could get. The vast likelihood is that President Trump won’t cause anything so disastrous, but there is absolutely no way we can wait to find out.

Our Use of Conflict Death Tolls Compares Apples and Oranges

Simply put, estimates of conflict death tolls are really important. They help determine which conflicts gather media attention, where aid and diplomatic attention is focused, and shape historical memory. Therefore, it is a very significant problem that our use of death tolls is totally inconsistent.

Efforts to quantify deaths will always be extremely difficult in quickly evolving environments where there is a breakdown of record-keeping (if there ever was any), there is almost never a free press, and safety concerns prevent access to vast regions. Yet a completely avoidable problem is that “death toll” can mean very different things, and there is almost no effort to differentiate them.

Consider these two sentences from BBC reports:

June 23, 2016, “Nigeria Boko Haram: Scores of refugees starved to death – MSF”:

“The Islamist group’s seven-year rebellion has left 20,000 people dead and more than two million displaced.”

December 15, 2014, “South Sudan conflict: What chance of peace?”:

“At least 50,000 killed”

From these two reports, you would think South Sudan’s conflict was quite a bit deadlier than Nigeria’s, yet the reality is that we do not know. To some extent that is because there are large methodological questions about those numbers, but a bigger reason is that they are measuring different things. If you trace back those two figures, you discover that the South Sudan figure measures excess deaths, while the Boko Haram figure only measures violent deaths (The exact source of the 20,000 figure is somewhat unclear. Still, there is no evidence of any study ever measuring excess deaths in Nigeria; for example, no tweet has ever contained all of the words “Boko Haram excess deaths”).

Excess deaths refer to comparisons of mortality rates during the conflict with a baseline mortality rate, with the final figure supposed to represent the number of people that died that would not have had the conflict not occurred. This includes people that die from malnutrition because they are forced to flee their homes, illnesses that otherwise would have received medical care, or illnesses resulting from decreased access to clean water, none of which are picked up in violent death tolls.

The articles cited above make no effort to distinguish between violent and excess death tolls, but excess death figures are often multiple times larger than the violent death toll. Indeed, the majority of conflict deaths in South Sudan are not violent. These death toll figures get attached to conflicts as a representation of their scale, but by failing to distinguish between excess and violent deaths, the figures are extremely misleading. As bad as South Sudan is, Boko Haram’s insurgency easily could have led to more deaths than South Sudan’s conflict. While the lack of a study of excess deaths in Nigeria means we are unable to know, when we lump together excess and violent death tolls it then takes significant effort just to find out that we don’t know.

I spent some time going through the death toll figures most commonly referred to for various conflicts and attempting to trace them back to their sources. Many rely on questionable methodologies, but below I will clarify what the methodology is actually trying to measure.

Central African Republic, 5,000: This counts only violent deaths.

Darfur, 300,000: This counts excess deaths.

DR Congo, 5.4 million: Originating from a 2008 International Rescue Committee report, the figure counts excess deaths. Under 10% of deaths were violent.

Iraq: Likely due to U.S. involvement, the death toll of the Iraq War has been much more studied than many other conflicts, and there is no single most prominent figure. One of the most common is the Iraq Body Count’s 2013 figure of 112,017-122,438 violent civilian deaths. The Lancet found 654,965 excess deaths in 2006. However, it believed over 600,000 of those deaths to be violent.

Syria: Like Iraq, there are multiple figures used for Syria. The UN essentially stopped counting in 2013 with the toll at 191,369, only counting violent deaths. It has since offered estimates up to 400,000 but they are not official numbers. The Syrian Observatory on Human Rights has presented 271,138 documented violent deaths, with an estimate of 370,000 total violent deaths. Another prominent figure is the Syria Centre for Policy Research’s 2016 estimate of 470,000 excess deaths.

Yemen, 6,200: This figure comes from the UN and almost certainly only counts violent deaths.

There are a number of problems with conflict death tolls like these. Due to the extreme difficulty of obtaining information, they will always be highly unreliable. Numbers also tend to stick to conflicts even when they are years out of date, and there also is not enough emphasis on distinguishing between combatant and civilian deaths. Given these concerns, I think we should generally be more skeptical of the use of death tolls.

There also should be continued exploration of the merits of violent and excess death tolls. Excess death tolls may give a more complete reflection of the impact of conflicts. Violent death figures also tend to rely on documentations on violent deaths, leading to larger underestimates in contexts where information is particularly inaccessible. However, the methodological difficulties of calculating excess death tolls mean the numbers are arguably more unreliable. In some cases the difference between excess and violent death tolls will be relatively small, as is the case in Iraq and Syria. In others, particularly in poorer countries, it will be enormous. The failure to distinguish between excess and violent death tolls will be particularly influential in these cases. Cases like Nigeria are punished simply because no one has conducted an excess death study. That death toll would be likely be quite a bit higher, but right now it takes significant effort just to determine that the current figure of 20,000 counts only violent deaths.

There are extensive discussions of these issues in the scientific community, but outside of it there is almost no effort to even distinguish between excess and violent death toll figures. It took me quite a few hours just to figure out whether the numbers used in this blog were excess or violent death counts. To give another example, the Washington Post published an article in March specifically focused on comparing different estimates of Syria’s death toll but it fails to mention that some figures count violent deaths while others count excess deaths.

The failure to distinguish between excess and violent deaths is both avoidable and significant. If you only look at violent deaths, the DR Congo’s death toll is still unthinkably tragic, but it is under 540,000. That is significantly more than Syria but in the same ballpark, while the excess death figure rivals the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Of course, attention on conflicts is not directly proportionate to death tolls or even humanitarian concerns more generally, but death tolls still do play an influential role. To the extent that it does play a role, we should actually know what the numbers we are using mean.

Improving the Advocacy Agenda

I recently read “Explaining the Advocacy Agenda,” a 2014 article by Charlie Carpenter, Sirin Duygulu, Alexander Montgomery, and Anna Rapp. The article studies the advocacy network surrounding human security issues, looking for insights into why certain issues are adopted by advocates. To frame the article, the authors write, “Organizations in such networks appear to be highly selective in the issues they choose to champion and the populations whose grievances they choose to frame as human security problems. For example, landmines and cluster munitions have been the subject of widespread campaigns, but explosive weapons and depleted uranium have attracted less opprobrium. Internal wars are an important concern for conflict-prevention analysts, but gangs and urban violence are on the margins of the global security agenda. While HIV/AIDS is championed as a health issue, other communicable diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhea, despite the number of lives they claim, get limited attention.”

They study issue selection through several methods, including surveys, hyperlink analysis, and- for me, most interestingly- focus groups. The authors divide reasons for issue adoption into five categories: issue attributes, entrepreneur attributes, adopter attributes, broader political context, and intranetwork relations.  Ultimately, they found that entrepreneur attributes and adopter attributes were not as influential as the others, and also conclude that advocacy networks both respond to structure and exercise agency.

While not a major focus of the paper, I found some of the discussion on issue attributes particularly interesting. The authors say that the appeals of issues include particular effects on individuals, including Keck and Sikkink’s idea of deprivation of basic rights and physical harm as being especially salient. However, the authors also write that “advocates emphasized the problem’s inherent measurability” and its “quantifiable evidence.” I think it’s pretty clear that quantitative evidence can provide powerful, macro-level support for advocacy proposals. Duncan Green has written about “killer facts,” and though he leaves this point more implicit, these are almost all quantitative. Yet this focus on quantitative evidence closes off a number of issues that don’t lend themselves to measurability. To give one example, although issues of dignity and shame are central to the experience of poverty, they are rarely the focus of advocacy efforts. I would guess a major cause of this oversight is that they are very difficult to measure.

The authors also note that advocates’ views on issue selection differed in discussions in the abstract and discussions on specifically proposed issues. When discussing specific hypothetical issues their organizations could adopt, advocates were more likely to bring up relationships with other organizations. The authors find that “meritorious issues may be eliminated if they conflict with partners’ preferences.” The result is that advocacy is often the result of inertia, following on the precedents set by advocacy organizations largely because that is what advocacy organizations are understood to do, whether or not they are covering the issues where they could have the most significant impact. This importance of inertia certainly matches my experience in the atrocity prevention sphere.

Still, while intranetwork relations can serve to stifle innovation in issue selection, it also provides opportunities. The authors write that “intranetwork relations can facilitate diffusion of an issue once it is adopted by an organization central to that network: practitioners reported that issues quickly proliferate within the network most closely associated with the organization that legitimized it.” Thus, there is a large responsibility on BINGOs (Big International NGOs), and I would also think UN agencies, to help adapt the advocacy agenda.

One last danger with the importance of intranetwork relations is the predominance of NGOs in issue selection. While the reaction of other NGOs to the adoption of a new issue may be a primary consideration, the views of people affected by the issue are certainly less prevalent. Figuring out how to more effectively incorporate these voices into issue selection is an enduring, pressing, and too frequently ignored challenge.

Would Somalia be better off if the US cut all aid to Somalia and accepted 80,000 Somali immigrants?

Somalia receives $1.3 billion each year from remittances.  This figure constitutes 50% of gross national income and 40% of Somalis rely on remittances for survival. Somalia already has 73% of its population living in poverty, 58% of children not enrolled in primary school, a life expectancy of 51, and continuing violent conflict. Without remittances, Somalia would be even worse off than it already is.

Considerations of poverty reduction mechanisms coming from outside Somalia underline the importance of remittances. Somalia receives more from remittances than aid and foreign direct investment combined. The U.S. is the source of about 19% of these remittances, with $250 million annually coming from the 109,000 Somali-Americans in the U.S.

Compare this figure with the $182.5 million USAID spends in Somalia each year. USAID spending on Somalia is smaller than remittance flows from the U.S., and there also isn’t much reason to think USAID spending does more good per dollar. USAID has to spend a significant amount of money on overhead, transportation costs, and expensive salaries for foreign workers. Apart from a relatively small transaction fee, remittances go directly to Somalis. They’re effectively the same as the cash transfers that aid agencies are increasingly using themselves (and in my opinion should be using quite a bit more).

So, would both the U.S. and Somalia be better off cutting USAID spending on Somalia and accepting 80,000 Somali immigrants, bringing an increase in remittances roughly equal to current USAID spending on Somalia? I think there’s a good case for yes, even if political realities mean that sort of increase in immigration is unlikely (in this hypothetical the U.S. has removed its barriers to sending remittances to Somalia). Not only would Somalia receive remittances that are probably more efficient than aid spending, the Somali immigrants would also have an enormously improved standard of living. Unlike USAID funding, remittances do not come at the expense of American taxpayers. While this increase in immigration would require government spending on processing immigrants and the immigrants could potentially receive benefits from social programs, I would think this is outweighed by the taxes they pay and the fact that they would still put most of their money into the U.S. economy.  The effect of immigration on native wages is far beyond the scope of this post, but there is definitely evidence that it can have a positive effect.

The point of this blog post is not to argue that aid spending should be cut. If I could have my way, both aid spending and immigration would increase significantly. The question looked at in this post does suggest, however, that the attention given to different development topics is often far from proportional from their impact. While aid is spoken about so frequently that many take it as synonymous with development, remittances and immigration struggle for any role in the discussion. Yet, as shown, Somalia is probably benefiting more from remittances coming from the U.S. than from American aid.

Somalia is actually far from the largest recipient of remittances from the U.S.. I chose it because it was relatively easy to find data due to the flurry of articles over the U.S. decision to nearly shut down remittances to Somalia. Some of this data is probably in flux due to the increased U.S. restrictions on remittances, but it’s useful for examining the issue of remittances more broadly. It is notable that 4% of Somalia’s GDP comes from remittances from the U.S., particularly given the relatively small number of Somali-Americans. Still, for Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador those figures are 8%, 13%, and 14%, respectively. Globally, developing countries receive three times more from remittances than aid. These remittances are having very serious impacts in poor countries. While I’m sure someone with more expertise than I have could give better recommendations to increase the efficacy of remittances and immigration for poverty reduction, there are practical steps that can be taken. Supporting remittance infrastructure and lowering transaction costs would certainly be positive steps. In the Somali case, the U.S. should help make it easier to send remittances instead of its cruel and groundless attempts to make it more difficult. In all cases, the U.S. could simply let more immigrants in, as far more people want to come to the U.S. than are currently allowed.

But for those working on global poverty, the importance of remittances should remind us to diversify our focuses. For all the endless debates on the merits of aid and effective aid practices, a larger source of funding to poor countries hardly gets a mention. While there are reasons development practitioners shouldn’t focus equally on remittances and aid- not least because aid is largely implemented by development agencies while remittances are not-, it is clear that remittances and immigration receive too little attention. Other “beyond aid” issues like trade, illicit financial flows, and climate change, to name just a few, similarly deserve more attention. If there’s a good case to be made that Somalia would be better off if USAID cut funding and the U.S. accepted 80,000 Somalis, the current focuses of the development sphere must be a little off.

Why Does Campus Activism Tend to Ignore International Injustices?

Campus activism has repeatedly captured national attention in recent years, on issues ranging from racism and cultural appropriation to sexual assault to divestment from fossil fuels and private prisons. Yet the focuses of campus activism rarely extend to injustices faced by people beyond the United States’ borders. Even on issues that could easily relate to international populations, campus activists have tended to use American-centered frames. Fossil fuel divestment and climate change activism focuses far more on the future costs it will impose on college students like themselves than the far greater costs poor countries will face. Debates over immigration center on those like the DREAMers who are already in the country rather than those who have not been able to get in. This is not to say that the causes campus activists have tended to focus on are not valuable, and they also tend to be much more strategically accessible than international issues. However, given the massive scale of injustices beyond American borders, international issues deserve more than a peripheral role in campus activism.

One reason campus activists have often overlooked international issues is that campus activism is heavily influenced by a brand of progressive identity politics that has struggled to incorporate international issues. This is not meant as a critique of identity politics. I generally buy the argument that all politics is identity politics, and the term identity politics is applied when the identities in question are not the dominant ones. The trend towards identity politics has played a valuable role in bringing the voices of women and racial and sexual minorities to the fore. The problem is that when the emphasis is on personal experience and allowing those affected by issues to speak for themselves, if the affected person is not present, their voice is much less likely to be heard. For the issues of immigration and climate change mentioned above, DREAMers are on campuses, those who have not been able to get into the US are not; American millennials who will be affected by climate change are on campuses, subsistence farmers whose crops failed this year due to climate change are not. Beyond the idea of letting marginalized populations speak for themselves, it is simply far more likely people will be motivated about an injustice they themselves face than one distant strangers face. This problem is further exacerbated by the struggle of progressives to achieve a unified vision of foreign policy, instead relying on much more coherent ideas on domestic social and economic policy.

A second reason for the scant attention to international issues is the fact that the goals of campus activism are almost always local. In other words, the target is for the university to do something differently. Fossil fuel divestment wants the college to divest its own endowment from fossil fuels, the Missouri protests demanded the removal of Timothy Wolfe as university President, and protests around sexual assault tend to demand that colleges redesign their own sexual assault policies and adjudication mechanisms. While undoubtedly these campaigns are debates about racism, climate change, and sexual assault, their demands are about the college. Even in South Africa, where student protests have made the ANC look vulnerable and even raised questions on whether the idea of a “born free” generation is a false dawn, the issues in question have been a university’s statue of Cecil Rhodes and a rise in university fees. In the US context, international issues lend themselves far less easily to targeting university policies. In part this is related to the question of presence mentioned above; students will experience racism, sexism, and homophobia (this is not an exhaustive list) linked to campus policies, but the victims of campus policies abroad are not present. Yet the larger, and in many ways legitimate, reason international issues struggle to get on the agenda of campus activists is that campus policies are significantly more influential on domestic politics than international ones, meaning there are far fewer targets available to activists focusing on international issues.

While internationally-focused campus activism has rarely hit the heights of domestically-focused activism, the cases that have gained prominence have managed to find ways around at least one of the challenges presented by the difficulty of fitting international issues into progressive identity politics and finding a local target. Likely the most high-profile current case is BDS. By focusing on divesting endowments and colleges abstaining from purchasing Israeli goods, BDS has found an easy target. It has also managed to fit the Palestinian struggle into an anti-racist and anti-Islamophobia frame that has salience with young progressive audiences, as well as benefiting from the fact that Israel-Palestine is a particularly personal issue for many students.  While not as prominent, efforts to divest from Sudan and conflict-free campus efforts have targeted university endowments and spending. And while they have faded in recent years, anti-sweatshop movements targeted campus spending and aligned themselves with conventional progressive anti-corporate sentiment. Looking further back at likely the most successful case of campus activism on international issues, anti-apartheid activists had an easy target in university endowments and an issue of racial injustice that Americans could relate to. Last, while campus activism is often the way young people engage with activism, it should not be considered synonymous to youth activism as a whole, and there have cases of international issues mobilizing large numbers of young people without being campus-focused, like Save Darfur and Kony 2012 (successful in terms of its mobilization, not its atrocious marketing and policies). STAND, the organization I am heavily involved with, has engaged in both campus activism and broader youth activism.

When looking at the potential avenues for campus activism to pursue international issues, endowment spending is the most likely target. As fossil fuel divestment and BDS grow there will certainly be more extensive conversations about when it is appropriate to use endowment spending for social good, but divestment is a tried and trusted strategy of campus activism that can be adapted to a wide range of causes. Invited speakers, campus monuments and naming decisions, curricula, and research relationships with outside actors also all provide platforms to examine broader international issues, though they will inevitably run into questions of academic freedom and free speech. One issue that seems strategically promising is that of the military-industrial complex. Universities have policies that can be targeted, especially through endowment spending.  Furthermore, similarly to the issue of climate change and fossil fuel divestment, the consequences fall primarily on people outside the U.S., but the massive military spending that is then unavailable for domestic issues give students a personal stake in the issue.

Still, many international issues are simply going to be more difficult to pursue through campus activism than domestic ones, but this does not mean activists should not make the extra effort. I think it is rarely productive to argue which causes are more worthy than others, yet in a world where a mindboggling number of people live in poverty, tens of millions are affected by brutal violent conflicts, and much of the world- particularly women- lack their most basic human rights, international issues undoubtedly deserve a seat at the table. It is true that the scale of a problem is rarely proportional to our (in this case meaning college students) ability to solve it, and in many ways we have more influence over domestic issues than international ones. However, given the enormous scale of injustices beyond American borders and the fact that we certainly do have influence, especially given Western implication in many of these injustices, the efforts of campus activists on international issues can certainly play a significant role in limiting injustice, though activists should take caution of the risks of causing unintentional consequences.

And while the good that can be done by campus activists achieving their direct targets is significant, there are two indirect benefits of campus activism that are arguably even more important. First, as seen by the glut of thinkpieces on free speech and political correctness on campuses, campus activism attracts significant coverage from the national media, and this attention is just as much about the underlying social and political issues as the campaigns themselves. By bringing these debates to national attention, campus activism forces discussions and progress that would not otherwise take place. Coverage of the Missouri protests focused far more on racism and issues such as microaggressions than Timothy Wolfe, fossil fuel divestment is aimed at creating broader political will for addressing climate change, and attention on campus sexual assault has played a central role in creating norms of consent that stretch well beyond the college adjudication processes activism tends to focus on. We need to have these national discussions on international issues, too. Second, campus activists can have influence long after they have left college. For most it is as more informed and active citizens, but focusing on a cause in a particularly formative time means that many go on to have careers in the field. Fossil fuel divestment is already having this effect, with many activists going on to careers related to climate change and the environment and where they will be more educated on the issue, motivated to create change, and skilled as activists. We need students who will go on to fight against excessively aggressive and militaristic foreign policy, unfair trade, genocide and mass atrocities, and many more issues affecting huge segments of humanity. The people suffering from these injustices might be distant from American colleges, but that doesn’t mean they should be left off the agenda.