Dispatch from COP28: Learning from those on the frontlines of climate change

Glittering lights and high-rise buildings rushed past my view as I looked out the window at Dubai, my home for the next ten days. I was here to attend the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, known more broadly as the Conference of the Parties (COP), as part of the Christian Climate Observers Program. 

COP is a unique experience in that it brings together some of the most prominent diplomats and political figures worldwide to intermingle with registered representatives from civil society groups, universities, and other advocacy organizations. 

Each year, diplomats from most countries come together to discuss current international policy and research on climate change. This is the place where dreams can become reality; where ideas can coalesce into concrete policy. Just as easily, though, these calls can be blunted by long hours of consensus-based, painstaking negotiations that fill them with loopholes and vague promises. 

The grand entrance of Expo City at night, lit by a myriad of multicolored LED lights.

Climate and reparations

COP28 this year was, in many ways, the culmination of my undergraduate work. I began to focus on climate change at Notre Dame when I realized the great extent to which it was destroying lives and livelihoods around the world in the present-day. For much of my life, climate change was a far-off issue with its real and devastating effects obscured by technocratic discussions of emissions targets, parts-per-million of CO2, and energy efficiency. My work in the Notre Dame Reparations Design and Compliance Lab taught me otherwise. I learned that the rising sea levels and more frequent and severe storms caused by climate change were already driving ever-increasing numbers of people away from their homes. I became deeply passionate about hearing these stories and bringing them back to my communities through my research in the Philippines, where civil society advocates, Indigenous peoples, and local leaders graciously shared their experiences of climate change and thoughts on climate reparations with me.

Small island states

I brought this passion with me to COP28. Going in, I was hoping to learn more about the human impacts of climate change that were rarely discussed in my home communities. Of particular interest to me were the small island states. These places face an imminent, existential threat to their people and culture in the form of sea level rise—as global warming worsens, the average planetary sea level increases, threatening to permanently bury these low-lying islands. I was generally familiar with this issue but, despite my effort, found little opportunity as a Notre Dame undergraduate to hear the firsthand stories of those impacted from across the world. 

As I had hoped, I met a number of incredible individuals from these diverse areas, who shared with me the complex wealth of experiences that brought them to COP. I learned more about the valuable contributions of Indigenous knowledge in the fight against climate change. I was introduced to the efforts spearheaded by Vanuatu and other small island states to have the International Court of Justice clarify states’ legal obligations on climate change. 

Garrett at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, following an interfaith discussion panel hosted by the Abu Dhabi Peace Forum.

What inspired me the most, though, was the resilience and tenacity they all showed in the fight for climate justice. The small island states were consistently at the forefront of international efforts to combat climate change, the strongest voices pushing the most comprehensive solutions to the problems they faced here and now. They were not powerless victims of an unfair fate forced upon them by environmental sins mainly perpetrated by the highest-emitting countries. They were, as the Pacific Islanders called themselves, warriors.

This spirit of determination ran through so many others I met, as well. I came to know many of the youth delegates representing Australia, who showed me the many different ways young people can approach the climate crisis: wildfire monitoring, advocacy through art, powerful speeches, and so much more. I met with civil society actors from the Philippines whose empowering stories gave me a more complete picture of the adversities they faced in their work. Intense conviction in the wake of countless policy setbacks united countless people from across the world at COP28, a unified spirit that gave me hope that we truly can fight effectively against the climate crisis. 

On a desert tour with other members of the Christian Climate Observers Program.

From hope to action

This hope, though, is only the first step. We need concrete action—not just promises—to protect our lives, our livelihoods, and our common home, not only for ourselves but for future generations. We need to recognize that climate change is not something to be avoided in the future, but something that is already upon us. Now more than ever, I am aware that climate change is not merely a scientific issue but is, importantly, a deeply human one, as well. 

At Notre Dame, we are fortunate to be relatively sheltered from severe climate change impacts now. This does not mean, however, that it will always be this way, nor should we ignore how these impacts harm millions of people around the world in the present day. We need to create spaces on our campus where these voices can flourish and be heard, because caring for our common home means engaging with and learning from those who are at the forefront of fighting the threats against it. 

Garrett Pacholl is a Notre Dame senior studying history and global affairs.

Top photo: The author under the main dome of Dubai Expo City, where COP28 was being held.

What I learned in Nairobi about protecting forests and livelihoods

By Lizzie Stifel

Exploring the interconnectedness of nature is one facet of classroom learning, but the reality of this importance emerges when you find yourself surrounded by experts dedicated to unraveling and rekindling the profound relationship between our environment and humanity, which has been strained by extensive degradation. 

Last week I traveled to Nairobi to attend the Forests and Livelihoods: Assessment, Research, and Engagement (FLARE) conference. This experience allowed me to showcase my research on the impact of trees in farmlands and forests on the well-being of households in Ethiopia. As someone relatively new to research, this event helped me discover a new perspective: the need to embrace holistic and naturalistic approaches that can rejuvenate both our forests and livelihoods—two realms that should complement one another.

Lizzie Stifel (left) with new friends at the annual FLARE conference in Nairobi.

In talking with others, attending presentations, and engaging in deep introspection during the conference, I realized that many existing solutions often address only single issues and are unable to withstand the intricacies of our interconnected environment. Holistic solutions, conversely, call for a loving embrace of all living entities and a pragmatic outlook.

What do holistic solutions look like? 
Holistic solutions, first and foremost, require the interconnectedness associated with love. During the conference’s opening ceremonies, I had a great conversation with Andrea Vasquez Fernandez, a PhD student and a descendant of the Quechua Indigenous people from the Andes. She was among the first friends I made, and our conversation set the tone for my conference experience, compelling me to reevaluate my background in political science. Andrea, having transitioned from a career in forest engineering to focus on the social dynamics within Indigenous groups, encouraged me to reconsider the human aspect of holistic solutions. She asserted that love and respect formed the foundation for fruitful cooperation within the Indigenous communities she worked with, even when differing viewpoints emerged. Often, our policies prioritize economic and social ramifications, while neglecting love for one another and the environment.

Notre Dame master of global affairs student Beverly Ndifoin presents a session on environmental storytelling at the FLARE conference in Nairobi.

Biodiversity offsetting
Holistic solutions extend their consideration to all creatures. Despite my passion for forestry and environmental policy solutions, the FLARE conference introduced to me the concept of biodiversity offsetting. Carbon offsetting is a familiar term: when individuals or companies invest in environmental projects to counterbalance the carbon emissions they produce or the deforestation they cause. While this practice does capture carbon, it inadvertently disrupts the existing ecosystem, rendering the land barren of the diverse plant and animal life essential for a thriving environment. Consequently, our approach must encompass not just the human-environment relationship but also the creation and preservation of complete ecosystems, rather than merely administering quick fixes to mitigate our destructive actions.

From left: Author Lizzie Stiefel, FLARE program manager Brian Wanbaugh, master of global affairs student Beverly Ndifoin, and Dan Miller, associate professor of environmental policy in the Keough School of Global Affairs, at the annual FLARE (Forests & Livelihoods: Assessment, Research and Engagement) conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

Ultimately, holistic solutions must be practical. The primary theme of the conference centered on the nexus between forests and livelihoods, with a special focus this year on the practical implementation of solutions on the ground. I acquired insights into innovative tools like CommFor, a community-based data collection system, and community networks aimed at strengthening grassroots organizations. I also discovered the Indian “gram sabhas,” wherein communities autonomously determine the most effective approaches to environmental issues. Witnessing these grassroots contributions and hearing from experts as they contemplated how to integrate their work into tangible solutions was enlightening. In my conversation with a fellow attendee, I learned that research, although crucial, is the simpler part, while community work demands the most effort and yields the most significant and enduring changes.

In conclusion, my time at the FLARE conference has fundamentally reshaped my perspective on research. As I continue to advance my work, I intend to remain committed to considering the interconnectedness of nature and humans, as well as the critical importance of offering holistic policy recommendations and initiatives that foster the well-being of forests and household livelihoods.

Lizzie Stifel is a senior political science and global affairs major in the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. She is a student leader in the Kellogg Developing Researchers Program, which funded her travel to the Nairobi conference.

Top photo: Author Lizzie Stifel (left) with master of global affairs student Beverly Ndifoin at the annual FLARE conference on forests and livelihoods in Nairobi, Kenya.

What does it mean to be resilient?

By Colleen Maher

Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, swelters in the afternoon sun. It is the rainy season, and yesterday’s morning rains brought gray skies but milder temperatures. Today, however, the air is close and heavy. I feel as though I am inside an elementary school terrarium. The streets are littered with spent bougainvillea petals and a day’s detritus; brilliant Ankara fabrics drape a shop’s windows; neon-scaled lizards dart across the sidewalks. Everything seems oversaturated—I am awed by the color.

Abuja, Nigeria is pink in the setting sun.

I am spending my summer working here with Catholic Relief Services to conduct an evaluation of the Feed the Future Nigeria Livelihoods project, which lasted from 2013 to 2018. The project implemented more than a dozen different activities across six states and impacted upwards of 50,000 people. We have the somewhat rare opportunity to return after completion of the project to ascertain long-term effects as well as the durability of project activities and structures. To that end, we have trained 50 enumerators (data collectors), conducted more than a thousand household surveys, and facilitated more than 70 focus groups and key informant interviews.

Our work is concerned with gauging resilience levels of households in the zone of influence. Resilience-based programming has become in vogue in international development spaces in recent years, especially as climate change spurs incidence of extreme weather, violence, and food insecurity. Although the project did not have a resilience lens when it was implemented, we are looking at it retrospectively with just such a lens, asking beneficiaries if they feel they are better able to weather shocks since the advent of the program. In order to ascertain a household’s true resilience it must be tested under stress, making it tricky to measure, as shocks are just that: unpredictable. Northern Nigeria therefore seems a perfect place to study resilience, as it has experienced livelihood-building interventions, and we know they have faced serious shocks since the project began in 2013, from loss of harvests to the threat of Boko Haram.

A farmer walks to his fields in the shadow of Zuma Rock, a national symbol of Nigeria.

Initially, I was excited to work on a resilience project, as agricultural resilience under climate change is the field I hope to go into. However, as time passes and the project becomes more developed, I find my sentiment changing. The Keough School of Global Affairs is founded on the principles of integral human development (IHD), which emphasize the innate dignity of all human beings and urges policies and decisions that consider the most vulnerable. It strikes me that, if we were truly to live the principles of IHD, what we think of as resilience would begin to look very different.

Common institutional definitions of resilience include elements of “mitigate, adapt to and recover from shocks and stressors.” The common thread of these strategies is change—people must change their agricultural practices, their food systems, and even their lifestyles in order to cope with events outside their control. In contrast, early findings from focus groups have participants characterizing their conception of resilience as patience. These two definitions are at odds, with one suggesting dynamic change and the other awaiting return to normalcy. How can resilience interventions be successful when people define it differently?

Furthermore, many of the shocks and stressors faced by these rural and vulnerable communities are symptoms of climate change, which is disproportionately perpetrated by the West. I admit that I too am complicit in this system—just this summer, I will have made 10 trips by plane when it’s all said and done, but my livelihood will not be impacted by any harm done to the environment by such a use of fossil fuels. Resilience-building strategies address a symptom of the problem, but they do not address the underlying problem itself. It strikes me that under a closer adherence to IHD, we would not place the impetus of action on those who are least prepared to endure. Instead, the burden of responding to climate change would fall to those who bear the most blame. It seems particularly unjust given that many of the villages we surveyed had only tenuous access to electricity.

Paintings festoon trees and makeshift racks at a local arts and crafts market in Abuja.

At the same time, one of the greatest lessons I have learned during my fieldwork here in Nigeria is that there are miles between the plan and the execution. When we were planning this project from South Bend, we knew that much would change once we began the work. However, here in the field I truly appreciate the limitations and logistics of a project of this scale. A common refrain in criticism of IHD is the fact that people view IHD as idealistic and not practicable. It is certainly one thing to plan or theorize in the proverbial ivory tower, and fully another to implement a project in the field. While in an ideal world, we would be able to fully realize IHD in our work, given the realities of implementation, it just isn’t practical or even possible.

Although my whole team was excited for the opportunity to travel to Nigeria and work with an organization as prestigious as CRS, I was doubly excited to spend time in Nigeria. As an undergraduate, I spent many hours exploring the landscape and psyche of pre-independence Nigeria while writing my thesis on a Nigerian novel: The Famished Road by Ben Okri. Now, as a graduate student, I have come full circle, studying Nigeria in person. Okri’s novel describes the life of Azaro, an Abiku child, a Yoruba concept of the spirit of a child stuck in a cycle of death and rebirth. This hints at the sobering reality of life in rural areas, where so many children died before reaching puberty. Azaro exists in both the spirit world and the real world, teetering on the brink of independence–to borrow from Gabriel García Márquez, an “outsized reality.” Western epistemologies espouse an either/or, binarized reality, one that perpetuates such divisions as Western or white and the “Other”. The work of myriad postcolonial authors around the world reject this notion, and Okri’s work is no exception. The setting that Okri constructs is at once fully Nigerian, but does not ignore the realities of colonization.

The present practice of resilience-building doesn’t seem to truly conform to the principles of IHD. Still, regardless of what steps should be taken, communities are facing shock this very hour. It would be the height of impracticality to ignore the call of the poor in service of some future good. Perhaps in the same way that the literature of Okri and other postcolonial writers exists in this boundary-less both/and space, there is potential for a dialogue around resilience that at once recognizes the necessity and injustice of resilience. In so doing, it would be possible to work to create a reciprocal system, where adaptation efforts on the part of the most vulnerable communities are matched by mitigation practices by the least vulnerable. While it may not be practical to philosophize from afar, removed from the reality of the communities facing these traumas, action divorced from forethought is destined for disaster. It is therefore our work as students and practitioners to marry theory and practice, breaking down harmful binaries, looking at things holistically. In this way, we can ensure that resilience-building initiatives fulfill their intended purpose of granting communities the agency to recover on their own, while recognizing the steps that still must be taken to create a system where they no longer need to.

Top photo: Integration Lab team members congratulate enumerators for completing training in Federal Capital Territory (FCT). From left to right, MGA student Nancy Obonyo, Catholic Relief Services staff member Otor Ikonwye Friday, MGA students Colleen Maher and Emma Hokoda.

Surprises, security plans, and sweat: our fieldwork in Nigeria

By: Emma Hokoda

Dripping in sweat and damp from the rain, I slid into my seat on the small Nigerian plane and took some deep breaths to let my racing heart slow down. A few short hours ago, I was shaken awake by my teammates and informed that our plans had changed, yet again. We rushed to the airport, bought our tickets, and narrowly made it to the plane on time.

My teammates Nancy Obonyo, Colleen Maher, and I have handled our fair share of logistical challenges over the course of our Integration Lab (i-Lab) project thus far. Our project is an ex-post analysis of the $17.6 million USAID-funded Feed the Future Nigeria initiative implemented by Catholic Relief Services across six states (Sokoto, Kebbi, the Federal Capital Territory, Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa) from 2013 to 2018. 

Our project will collect data from more than 1,000 households as well as community leaders, implementing partners, and project staff through surveys, focus group discussions, and interviews. We seek to explore both the long-term impact and sustainability of Feed the Future interventions and better understand the factors that influence household resilience in northern Nigeria.

We are lucky to have been able to carry this project out in person at all due to security concerns and visa delays. Because one of our three training locations in the northeast was classified as a “high-risk level 4”, it required a security plan, extra precautionary measures, and an additional review process—we did not receive official approval until after arriving in Abuja. In addition, one teammate’s visa was so delayed she had to reschedule her flight, leaving just the two of us to kick off the project and conduct our first enumerator training.

A Catholic Relief Services focus group training with enumerators (data collectors) from Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states in Yola Town, Nigeria. Photo by Emma Hokoda.

A new day, a new challenge
Our wahalas (“challenges” in Nigerian Pidgin—the lingua franca in a country of more than 200 million people and 500 languages) have continued and even multiplied. The first three weeks in Nigeria have been a critical training period for our team, and I can’t remember a day when we haven’t run into an unexpected problem. Each training had its own suite of wahalas, from missing team members to unexpected relocations, canceled flights, and delayed training. 

The funny thing is, once you run into enough unexpected problems, they aren’t unexpected anymore. The daily power outages, unstable and sometimes nonexistent Wi-Fi, and the occasional government-led mobile phone blackouts have become a normal part of life. Each morning I wake up without expectation for how the day will go—I have learned to let go of my plans and am nimbly adapting to the wahala of the day. 

While my teammates and I fought hard to get to Nigeria and have endured the daily wahalas of fieldwork, we won’t meet a single Feed the Future beneficiary. The only data collection we will do ourselves consists of a handful of key informant interviews, some of which will be done virtually. The fifty enumerators we have trained over the past three weeks will be collecting the bulk of our project data. Now that training is over, our role is shifting to a managerial one: tracking data collection progress across the six states, cleaning survey data as it is uploaded, catching and correcting errors, and forming focus groups. As the data collection winds down in two more weeks, our roles will shift again, this time to coding interviews and focus groups and running quantitative analysis on our surveys. 

Master of global affairs student Nancy Obonyo takes notes during a training exercise defining resilience. Photo by Emma Hokoda.

While a younger version of myself would have been disappointed to feel so removed from the data collection itself, I am quite confident that this method is the right one. My teammates and I are outsiders here, and our positionality would only bias and hinder data collection. Our enumerators are Nigerians from these communities who speak the local language, and a handful were even involved with the original Feed the Future project. Their insight into the local context has further informed and improved our methodologies and the data collection instruments we built based on standardized resilience measurement frameworks. Our role as trainers is to ensure that our instruments are well-understood, used correctly, and that there are standardized practices across the board to ensure the most accurate data collection possible.

The difficult dance of data collection
I have also learned to be grateful for the unique opportunity to develop and test our data collection instruments. Implementing a project like this one is no small task, and the ideal instrument developed in your head while in the United States differs wildly from the reality that exists across the ocean. However, we aren’t dropping our instruments without looking to see where they land; we’ve carried them with us and hand-delivered them to those who will actually use them. This handoff has revealed just how much we don’t know about the challenges of deployment. Our enumerators informed us of certain survey questions that can be perceived as insensitive; that cultural dynamics prohibit men and women from being in the same focus group discussion; that beneficiaries may hold certain expectations which could bias their responses, and more. 

The project also demonstrated the difficult dance it took to develop instruments that could simultaneously speak to USAID’s definition and measurement of resilience, meet our partners’ needs, be taught to our data collectors in a two-day training and adapted/translated to fit the local context, not overburden the participants, and can be analyzed by our team of three.

Are we the weak links?
As graduate students, my teammates and I have often felt like the weak link in the partnership, questioning “Why us?” Surprisingly though, CRS has demonstrated both trust and high expectations for our work. Mobilizing fifty enumerators on our project’s behalf was an incredible investment into our team and has enabled us to pursue the most ambitious project the i-Lab has ever seen. I am incredibly grateful we have such a committed team behind us, from our partners at CRS headquarters who helped guide our project proposal and data collection instruments, to the staff across CRS Nigeria who have been instrumental in hiring our enumerators and coordinating training logistics to aid our research. 

Master of global affairs student Emma Hokoda (standing) facilitates a training session on reporting procedures for household surveys at a Catholic Relief Services office in Abuja, Nigeria.

While our project has been riddled with uncertainty even before we arrived in the country, this support has made this complex project feasible. The way our colleagues roll with the punches inspires me to let go of my controlling tendencies and loosen my tight grip enough to adapt to the ever changing conditions on the ground. Embracing ambiguity is a process, but I’ve never felt the idiom “Where there is a will, there is a way.” to be more true than in this project in which my team has found a way through every problem in our path. 

Moving forward
We have just finished our third and final training in Sokoto and data collection has officially begun in all three states. As the initial surveys begin to roll in and we head back to Abuja for the rest of our fieldwork, I feel justified in releasing a cautious sigh of relief. I know the wahalas won’t end here, and I’m sure there will be more bumps in the road. Nevertheless, it feels good to close this training chapter, celebrate our accomplishments thus far, and officially move into the next stage of the project. 

Top photo: Author and master of global affairs student Emma Hokoda (bottom right) and classmates Colleen Maher and Nancy Obonyo with Nigerian enumerators (data collectors) at a training session for Kebbi and Sokoto states in Sokoto, Nigeria.

Bridging peacebuilding and tech in San Francisco

By Fatima Faisal Khan and Nicolas Chehade

In February, we traveled to San Francisco to attend the conference “Designing Tech for Social Cohesion.” This three-day event was the first of its kind as it created a space for the peacebuilding community to interact with the tech sector and find ways where the two sectors can work together. Organized by Prof. Lisa Schirch, the Center for Humane Technology, and Search for Common Ground, the event brought together an eclectic group of leaders, innovators, and concerned stakeholders with the vision to create a space for collaboration, and to find a shared language by which these two otherwise disparate sectors can converse with one another.

The conference focused on addressing the increasing polarization, algorithmic bias, misinformation, and disinformation that pose a threat to social cohesion today. Exceptional panelists offered insightful ideas, drawing on their experiences in dealing with issues that pose a challenge to peacebuilding in the ever-evolving technological landscape. In particular, the opening event on Thursday generated a discussion on the ways that peacebuilding organizations such as Search for Common Ground, the Center for Humane Technology, and the UN Office of Peacebuilding and Political Affairs can collaborate with tech companies such as Pol.is, Remesh, and the Integrity Institute.

The presence of key stakeholders from both tech and peacebuilding allowed for fruitful discussions not only in the event halls, but in the breakout sessions and during networking breaks, where we saw people get together based on shared interests and find ways to collaborate. Given that this is exactly what Prof. Schirch had envisioned with this conference, we were happy to see this space be constituted successfully.

One of the key challenges discussed on Day 2 was the lack of standardized indicators and metrics for measuring social cohesion, both online and offline. While some international organizations like the Council of Europe and OECD have made public commitments to social cohesion, there is still a need for more comprehensive frameworks that can effectively measure individual attitudes, emotions, and perceptions towards other groups. Several existing tools and indices, such as the UN Development Program’s SCORE, and the Ipsos Social Cohesion Index, measure social cohesion through surveys on life satisfaction, trust between groups, and civic engagement.

To address the challenge of measuring social cohesion, the conference discussions proposed a framework that focuses on user behaviors rather than perceptions or assertions. The framework identifies individual agency as a critical metric for measuring social cohesion online. This metric measures the willingness of individuals to participate in digital discussions and considers the ratio of engaged vs observing individuals.

Participation inequality is a common phenomenon in digital platforms, where a small percentage of users create content while the majority only consumes it. Another important suggestion from the conference is measuring individual agency, which could be refined by conducting more research on digital lurkers, participation inequality, and the link between digital use and political participation.

For us, what set this conference apart was its very practical aim to devise a strategic plan of action on the last day of proceedings. As students from Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Keough School of Global Affairs, we continue to learn about the importance of conflict and stakeholder mapping, assessment and planning in setting realistic and tangible goals. To see a room full of experienced leaders come together and make a well-thought out and insightful plan on how to keep this movement alive was a great learning experience for us. The conference highlighted the need for ongoing collaboration and research to design technology that promotes social cohesion and builds bridges across diverse groups. 

As much as we enjoyed listening to all the wonderful speakers share their important insights, this opportunity also allowed us to have hands-on experience with planning and executing a large-scale event successfully. We are indebted to Prof. Schirch and the team at Search for Common Ground for trusting us with this important work, and would like to thank our peers Emma Jackson, Eunhye Lee, Saadat Musabaeva, Nik Swift, Grace Connors and Miriam Bethencourt, Prithvi Iyer, and Wesley Hedden for their relentless hard work throughout the conference.

We are so glad we got to share this experience with a brilliant group of future changemakers! We believe that the discussions and ideas generated during the conference will lead us towards a more peaceful and cohesive society. The challenges we face today are daunting, but the conference gave us hope that we can work together to overcome them. It is imperative that we continue these conversations and collaborations beyond the conference room; and to make all concerned individuals a part of this movement. You can become a part of this very important conversation by joining the Council of the Technology and Social Cohesion’s mailing list for updates.

Photos by Saadat Musabaeva.

Frontline protesters aren’t the only ones making a difference on climate change

By: Audrey Thill

It takes four types of people to change the world–rebels, organizers, helpers, and advocates–at least according to scholar activists George Lakey and Bill Moyer. When applied to the climate movement, you might readily think of the rebels and organizers. These are people marching or  blocking bulldozers, children boycotting school to demand more action, and frontline communities mobilizing to defend their land, forests, water, and lives.

When I tell people I’m studying global affairs at the Keough School of Global Affairs, they think I’m training to be a mediator who brokers major peace deals. While there may be some among my inspiring classmates who do just that, I identify more as an analyst-advocate hybrid. I prefer to work behind the scenes, analyzing issues and identifying points of connection between parties. I tend also to focus on conflicts that involve Earth, climate change, and environmental justice. Thanks to the flexibility of the Master of Global Affairs program, I’ve been able to tailor my classes, projects, and now my internship to focus on my interests.

Currently, I’m based in Washington, DC, working as a climate intern for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). EIA is a nonprofit organization that engages in strategic, alliance-based campaigning to protect forests, wildlife, and the climate. They conduct undercover investigations, support local environmental groups, and advocate for greater transparency from governments and corporate actors. I love the diversity of approaches they use to tackle these complex issues. For example, sometimes they release hard-hitting reports, while other times they collaborate with partners behind the scenes to advance their climate campaign goals.

EIA’s climate team focuses on hydrochlorofluorocarbons, chlorofluorocarbons, and  hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Say that ten times fast. In simpler terms, these are chemicals used in HVAC, refrigeration, and manufacturing of goods, for example, non-stick frying pans. Many of them are also super-potent greenhouse gases. Currently, the climate team is monitoring US implementation of its commitments to phase down ozone-depleting substances and other fluorinated gases that contribute to climate change. 

So far in my role at EIA, I’ve conducted research to inform undercover investigations, edited and fact-checked policy reports, and drafted a blog on the intersections of climate change, chemical emissions, and environmental justice. I’ve also enjoyed observing how this small team contributes to state and national climate policy issues, from curbing the illegal trade of refrigerants to raising the alarm about the global uptick in uncontrolled chemical emissions that are driving climate change and contaminating water and soil. Most exciting of all was to see more than ten years of their work pay off in a bi-partisan congressional vote to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement that aims to rid the world of climate-polluting HFCs. It was a promising summer for US climate policy, but there is much more to be done.

If you’ve never thought about fluorinated chemicals, you’re not alone. This is an obscure topic for the average person despite the fact that our supermarkets and industries are leaking gases that are hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. With effects this serious, use and regulation of fluorinated chemicals really should be everyone’s business. 

Which brings me back to my point about the four types of people to change the world–it is undeniable that protests are an effective tool to build collective power and demand change from power holders. After street protests wane, however, we need actors like EIA who dive into the details and work in the background, ensuring that those same power holders stick to their promises. I’m thankful for this opportunity to learn from EIA and their long-term commitment to translate technical topics into policy solutions and engage the public in the process.

As extreme climate events become increasingly common and impactful, those of us who have added the most carbon to the atmosphere have an even greater imperative to take action. This reality has motivated me to pursue my interests at the intersection of peacebuilding and environmental studies. As I anticipate graduating in the spring, I am confident that my experience at the Keough School will serve me well in building my policy-relevant environmental justice career.

Discarded Data, Lasting Impact: Lessons from Angela’s House

By: Elise Verdooner

It is a humbling experience, visiting the houses of incremental builders. A narrow alleyway leads us through a winding maze between dwellings. Behind the cleanly painted and constructed facades the pathway is rocky, covered with rebar and sprinkled with decomposing trash and unused belongings. Houses, for lack of a better word, are pushed up against one another, collectively using structural elements such as beams or random poles to hang hammocks or lean shelves and belongings.

Walls are shared here, as people secure roofs and tarps to anything they can find. We pass a group of boys swinging from hammocks with a large radio perched between broken concrete blocks, looking over a half brick wall into an open kitchen with partial roof covering. A petite, stoic woman stands atop two steps in a doorway leading into one of the few enclosed structures around. This is our destination.  

Seeing directly into and through people’s living areas, the question in my mind is: how do we, as academics and practitioners, define a house? My MGA Integration Lab team, partnering with Habitat for Humanity International’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter, is conducting research in Peru and the Philippines to better understand low-income incremental builders: how they define value during the construction process and how the market best supports this segment to be more resilient in the face of natural disasters. To understand people’s experiences of building their homes incrementally over many years, we visited Angela’s* house.

Entryway of an incremental builder’s home where we left our shoes to sit for an interview. 

Passing a doorway with no door and a kitchen with no ceiling, we approach the raised wooden bedroom and living room area. Taking off our shoes and climbing the three narrow steps into the home, our facilitator takes one step inside and immediately breaks through one of the old wooden floorboards covered by a fading and peeling plastic tarp floor covering. What would this permanent damage to the living room floor cost this family? The loaf of bread and food items we provide in compensation for their time certainly won’t cover the cost to repair the broken board, much less the rest of the floor, which looks like it needs it. I feel like we are walking on a trampoline with all the spring in the boards, and I’m careful in every footstep, recognizing the literal and metaphorical weight of our visit.

The overhead fan does little to circulate the hot air in the room, and there is no breeze coming through the open windows and doors. We sit along a hard wooden bench, sharing the space with a dusty flat screen television, a large speaker system, a small religious altar atop a shelf, and Angela’s bed. The house is 55 years old and has had no major repairs in that time. It feels every year of its age, and I am surprised it has lasted this long. As our facilitator begins the interview, I gaze at the underside of the corrugated tin roof discolored by age and weather, peeking through sparse wooden boards. I look around without judgment, merely observing, knowing in each of these observations there rests an insight into what this family needs: an opportunity to understand their priorities and help facilitate more sustainable and resilient construction practices.

These observations are cut short when ten minutes into our conversation we decide to discontinue the interview. Angela’s family does not fall into our target audience of incremental builders: they are not building or renovating their home and have no plans to do so in the immediate future. Given our limited time, we have to focus on low income households which nonetheless have enough money to incrementally build. We thank her for her time, and begin to step outside, but I pause for one more glance around the room: the decorative touches along the walls, the perfectly made bed and cleanly swept floors, and the way she talks about raising a family here, about owning her home, and about passing it on to her sons. Angela is proud of her home and the life she has created here. 

We sometimes get so caught up in our research agenda, we miss the moment in front of us. It is easy to get swept up in the project—getting into the field, conducting interviews, analyzing data, meeting with stakeholders, presenting findings—and at times I forget to be fully present. 

Before I can gather my thoughts, I’m on the flight back home, flipping through field notes, attempting to make sense of my quickly fading memories of sitting with Angela and others I met in the Philippines. As I look out the window, the landscape fades below me, and I am acutely aware of the importance of remaining fully present to learn, observe, and reflect so that my understanding of the on-the-ground realities are further enhanced.

A view of the Philippines from the clouds.

While our visit to Angela’s house did not reveal new information about how incremental builders make decisions around construction processes, it laid an important foundation in our research. The decision to renovate and build a house is about more than household economics; it’s about creating a home. And a home is more than timber and steel; it is an intergenerational investment in which people take pride. The transcripts from Angela’s interview will never show up in our analysis, but her story has left a lasting impression upon our team. During our short visit, Angela remains stoic; she is not the smiling type. But, as she looks across the room to her son, leaning against a wall, she describes with pride that it is her favorite part of the house–because her husband built this section of the wall by hand, with the support of her children.  

* All names and identifying information have been changed to protect confidentiality. 

5 Ways to Effectively Shape Policy

By: Cynthia Mene

Before coming to Notre Dame, I enjoyed a successful career in social entrepreneurship in Nigeria. Shaping policy was not on my radar until two years ago when I encountered the Nigerian “EndSARS” movement and protest: an outburst of discontent due to social inequality, poverty, unemployment, and bad governance. As my career as a social entrepreneur has begun to evolve, I was inspired to shape policies and become an all-around leader—someone not just informed by basic social innovation concepts, but also driven by a sense of purpose to reduce inequality of access and opportunity around the world.

Thanks to a DC Immersion and Policy course made possible by the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and taught by Professor Maura Policelli, I participated in a semester-long, top-notch training course. The highlight of this international development policy course was my visit to Washington, DC, over spring break to engage with policy experts and key actors in government agencies, non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and Capitol Hill offices. I’d like to share 5 main takeaways from my experience in this course. 

March 8, 2022; (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

 Five (5) things I learnt about how to effectively shape policies:

  1. What issue are you trying to solve?

Clarify the policy topic you wish to address and conduct research on the policy issue, theme, or system you wish to reform. As much as we care about solving so many global problems, the key to attaining success, as an entrepreneur would, is to zero in on a specific and unambiguous issue. For me, I was perplexed by the unfair distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine throughout sub-Saharan Africa. This life-saving vaccination must be distributed equitably for nations to have safe reintegration into economic and social activities. 

  1. Know your audience

Identify who has the power to enact a policy change. A person who can influence your target audience directly or indirectly, such as an advisor, a respected commentator, a media outlet, or a renowned academic. Know the routes to the people or organizations you need to influence and build relationships with them.  In preparation for my policy issue, I drew up a stakeholder map and reached out to a number of important stakeholders and organizations via email and LinkedIn. In particular circumstances, an interlocutor (a person with a connection to the person you intend to contact and who introduces you on your behalf) facilitates the introductions. Professor Policelli acted as my interlocutor by connecting me to key people in the Washington, DC area and proactively supporting me in enhancing the quality of my messages and connection emails. I was able to meet with individuals such as Mr. Robert Nabors, Director of North America at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Washington and former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama. During our conversation, I gained additional insight into how to approach my policy topic.

  1. Build Relationships and Networks

Be deliberate in building relationships and networking. People are more willing to help you than you imagine, so be bold in your networking efforts. Policymaking is intricate and dynamic,  involving a lot of different people and moving parts. Policy formulation nonetheless has its own formal and informal rhythms. From my understanding and experience, relationships make things work. I have actively engaged in not only building relationships and networks but also actively keeping track using a spreadsheet template I obtained from Erik Oswald (Keough School Career Consultant) and intentionally following up as necessary. You will increase your impact if you collaborate with people, build trust, and develop a joint plan.

  1. Policy Advocacy

First, the three pillars of effective policy advocacy consist of the ask, the target, and the message. Your ask should be very clear and concise, avoiding the use of technical language. Next, consider the types of activities and platforms your audience will engage with most effectively, such as conferences, press releases, and/or social media challenges. Lastly, a successful campaign demands an abundance of creativity and innovation in its messaging. You must therefore surround yourself with the right individuals and invest in your campaign’s messaging and outreach. Know the space and the influencers. Participating in a mentorship session with Subject Matter experts exposed me to some of the most effective policy advocacy and lobbying strategies.

  1. Shaping Policy Takes Time. Be Patient

There is no one right path. Plan with an open mind and be adaptable, because influencing policy requires time and effort. Deconstruct your plan and be realistic about what you can do. Frequently, it can be a lengthy process with no immediate impact. But persevere with it. Don’t forget to record and acknowledge the tiny victories. In addition, maintain engagement with your target audience and stay current on the decision-making process.

Taking this course and exploring policymaking processes has equipped me with a solid understanding of global issues, as well as pertinent solutions and expert knowledge in critical areas for reducing inequality and fostering sustainable growth. In this regard, the Keough School of Global Affairs has equipped me to continue my evolution from a successful social entrepreneur to a leader in shaping global policy

Great Expectations and Shifting Perspectives

By: Nicolas Chehade

The realization that the US economy has such deep and purposefully overlooked roots in the caregiving workforce, relying heavily on the labor of BIPOC and migrant communities, is an important one. With this issue in mind, our team of four Integration Lab (i-Lab) students embarked on our global partner experience with Oxfam America: to assess federal-level policies regarding human resources in the workforce and the transformative impact of these policies on the unpaid and underpaid workers in the care sector in the US. 

As MGA students, our first year of academic training at the Keough School prepared us to take on this challenge, helping us examine the overlap between human rights and the workforce. First, our Macroeconomics course helped us understand the economic drivers, challenges and tools that governments use to stoke the growth of their economies. The underlying factor of such growth, and one of the main resources needed for increased production, is human labor, a source of finite supply which is supported behind the scenes by essential care workers. 

In addition, discussions in our International Human Rights course helped us connect the dots between the practical aspects of human rights, the day-to-day functions of those rights, and the different tools used to uphold or abuse them, the guarantor of those rights, and the multilateral cooperation needed to create an environment that enables human rights. Further, research methodology courses such as Policy Evaluation helped us tackle the problem in a pragmatic, evidence-based approach. We learned to identify validity issues and implement robustness checks to ensure we accurately capture whatever we intend to measure.

The opportunity to bridge our academic learning and environment with our partner’s practical approach has provided us with so many enriching discussions: we consulted with esteemed researchers in the Keough School on methodological approaches, challenges and potential solutions, and strategies for proper and accurate data collection. We also participated in discussions with prominent organizations, professionals, and partners of Oxfam America to discuss project implementation and strategies to mitigate potential problems in data collection and expert interviews. We are seeing the fruit of an academic-practice collaboration: informed programmatic implementation; applying theoretical frameworks to real-life issues. 

The completed reports from this project will shed light on the underlying (and mostly unresolved) challenges that US care workers face, from a shortage of budgetary allocations to certain federal programs and policies like social security, health care and adequate pay, to the inaccessibility of such programs and policies by different demographic groups, the most underrepresented groups being BIPOC and migrant communities. Our eight-week field implementation and two weeks of remote work will yield a final report detailing the effect of major US federal policies on the unpaid and underpaid care sector, as well as highlighting some states’ brilliant implementation of impressive care-related policies. The report will also include an analysis based on the interviews regarding challenges in implementing policies, in universal accessibility, and in the disparity of access for the most underrepresented. 

One preliminary finding I want to share from our fieldwork and research is that a shift in perception of care work is needed: what was once taken for granted as a low-skilled job of care needs to be seen as a highly-skilled job requiring experienced and knowledgeable care workers. A shift in perception, and therefore in biases towards care work, would have positive implications for the well-being of those who have been historically ostracized and undervalued. Hopefully, our report will also serve as an advocacy tool for human rights advocates and organizations such as Oxfam to continue their fight for care workers’ rights, for the most underrepresented of communities to have a voice and have the recognition they need.

Going into this project, I expected that it would be fairly straightforward. First we go to Washington, DC; we review legislation and score them; then we do interviews. The first week out quickly changed that initial idea like a slap in the face. The scorecard took much longer than expected, as it required reading through hundreds of pages of legislation to even begin to develop a scoring tool. Our palpable excitement at the start was clouded by this stark reality, and we had to dramatically adjust our expectations. To deal with the time constraints and still complete our project, we needed to adapt. We met with partners, with experts, and with researchers, and we adapted. One of the main lessons that I took away from this experience is that a project never ceases to evolve, adapt, change; it is a living, breathing mechanism that requires constant and vigilant attention from those implementing it.

Nicolas Chehade (center) at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden with Anna Lande MGA ’22 (left), and Lenai Johnson MGA ’22 (right).

 I remember that the first week of orientation in the MGA program, we were told that these human connections and experiences we would have in our field work are what will be engraved in us, not only our academic development—and they were right. As much we strove to deliver a quality outcome for our project, the journey in itself holds as much importance to me. The day-to-day life, navigating a new city, living with colleagues, exploring the area, tasting the food, making new friends and connections, roaming around and taking in all this newness that comes with adventure–this is what we take with us personally. I expected to have a valuable experience to further my professional development, and I did. I am proud of the work that we accomplished on this project. But a year from now, or a decade from now, I will treasure most the lived human experiences and connections I gained from this i-Lab field project. 

Top photo: Fireworks on the 4th of July, as seen from the National Mall, behind the Washington Monument.

Learning from Neighbors: What Germany’s Ruhr Valley and the American Midwest Have in Common

By: Jody Oetzel

The trees here remind me of home. Surrounded by a lush green forest dotted with yellow wildflowers in northern Germany, I can easily imagine myself in my hometown in Wisconsin or a county park near South Bend. Just a few blocks behind me, an abandoned steel factory echoes the post-industrial narrative of many cities in the American Midwest. Aside from the staccato punctuation of German commuter trains beside me, I could be in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, or numerous other places in the midwestern United States. 

The forests of North Rhine-Westphalia, a western German state, remind me of home in the Midwest.

Urban innovation

These similarities across borders brought me to Germany in the first place. This summer, my i-Lab team is exploring models of urban innovation around the world for the National League of Cities (NLC). City governments face similar problems the world over. Analogous challenges of housing, mobility, inequality, citizen engagement, and sustainability exist in Cascais, Portugal; Bristol, United Kingdom; and Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

“In a country as large and diverse as the United States, cities may have more in common with international counterparts than American peers.”

These thorny challenges resist tidy division into governmental departments and demand new approaches to solve them. Innovation is one tool for local governments to tackle these problems. The narratives of innovation collected this summer through various case studies in Europe and North America, while not universal, may provide salient lessons for other city leaders. The goal of this i-Lab project is to understand what lessons from highly innovative cities can be applied to American cities to increase their innovation capacity.

Common challenges

Although national-level politics can highlight some glaring differences between countries, municipal politics can appear surprisingly similar across borders. As one interviewee quipped: “every city has to take out the trash.” Additionally, national-level politics can blur regional and local differences—in a country as large and diverse as the United States, cities may find that they have more in common with international counterparts than American peers across the country. After all, it is not only the forests that the Ruhr Valley of Germany and the American Midwest have in common. 

The city of Dortmund was once a hub for the steel and coal industries, which dominated the region’s economy as recently as the 1980s.  Following the closure of several mines and factories beginning in the 1960s, the jobs dried up. According to one city official, the decline of the steel and coal industries cost the city over fifty thousand jobs. Dortmund desperately needed “Strukturwandel”—structural change.  

The transition from a steel-based local economy was enabled by a city government that was forward-thinking and willing to take risks. The city established innovation hubs and incubators that encouraged entrepreneurship and innovation—including in the burgeoning field of nanotechnologies.  Today, the new jobs following this structural change have more than replaced the number of jobs lost just forty years ago, and Dortmund is a world leader in nanotechnologies.  

“I am encouraged by the wisdom shared in city halls in Dortmund, Rotterdam, Pittsburgh, Vancouver, and South Bend.”

 This mix of industrial past and modern entrepreneurism is prominent in the cityscape of Dortmund as well. A new industrial park, home to start-ups and cutting-edge technology firms, stands in the shadow of the old Phoenix West blast furnace. An old steel factory site was flooded in 2009 to create Phoenix Lake, now a center for housing and commerce. Perhaps most satisfyingly, the region’s industrial museum celebrates and remembers its industrial history in a converted coal plant in nearby Gelsenkirchen.  

A train line carries freight and commuters alongside a walking trail in Dortmund, Germany.

There is no single pathway to innovation. What proved successful for Dortmund in the late 20th century cannot necessarily be transposed straight to the American Midwest—Janesville, Wisconsin, for example, has unique challenges in the wake of the General Motors factory closure or to Pittsburgh following the shuttering of several steel factories. Even so, I am encouraged by the echoed wisdom shared in city halls in Dortmund, Rotterdam, Pittsburgh, Vancouver, and South Bend.  

In a world where polarization dominates the narrative and where war in Ukraine is a painful reminder of violence on a national level, I find consonance and continuity in the local. Across national borders, city leaders are finding ways to break through political noise and continue to deliver invaluable, invisible services that I can no longer take for granted.

Top photo: An unused steel mill blast furnace lies empty in Dortmund, Germany.