Online Courses on World History & Sustainable Development

By Evan Pye

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been taking several online courses to learn more about world history and the sustainable development goals. I’ve been learning world history with John Green’s CrashCourse World History 2 on youtube. The course is based on theme rather than chronologically or geographically. Themes featured include war, disease, water, Islam, climate change, and money. I went through the entire first course on world history offered by Crash Course this time last year. I learned so much that I had missed in high school, and this second course taught me just as much.  

The most interesting lesson I learned from the second half of the “World History 2” course, and the lesson that may be most relevant to international development, is that democracies may not be the most effective (economically) form of government for developing countries. John Green points to Singapore and China as examples for his argument. The architect of Singapore’s new government was Lee Kuan Yew, who leads a very dominant political power that has the freedom to focus on long-term development objectives without any interruption. As a result, Singapore has very strong health, education, and social security systems. The country has emerged as an economic success story over recent decades. Of course, China is another example of tremendous economic growth under a non-democratic political system. Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Communist Party implemented 5-year plans that allowed the Chinese government to appoint executives in China’s biggest corporations. This state-run industrial model is successful in some sectors, and not so successful in others. For instance, China is very good at building infrastructure, but not very good in entertainment or innovative industries such as filmmaking or software/tech. John Green explains that the state-run model might be helpful to developing countries that need to foster industry and infrastructure, but should maybe be replaced when a country is ready to transition to a service-based economy.

After finishing the World History II course, I signed up for a free online mini-course on the Sustainable Development Goals from Jeffrey Sachs and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The course gave an overview of the Global Goals and explained their origins. It begins with a 1972 UN conference in Stockholm, which was the first time development and the environment were discussed together. 20 years later, in 1992, the Earth Summit in Rio set goals to protect biodiversity and mitigate climate change. And then in 2012, the Rio+20 conference set the stage for the SDGs to replace the highly-successful MDGs in 2015. Sachs goes onto explain how the goals are highly inter-connected, how every country is responsible for creating its own tailored plan for achieving the goals by 2030, and how businesses and universities should serve as allies in this endeavor. While discussing the role of universities in the United States, Sachs refers to the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act, which allocated land in each state upon which to build public universities. This investment was meant to reap benefits by stimulating local economies and producing research and development to spur American progress.

I am particularly interested in the roles that universities have to contribute to global health and development. I think that for all the research that is conducted, there should also be an action component. Universities are filled with thousands of energetic, passionate, and curious students from the full range of academic departments – equipped with knowledge, expertise from their professors, and resources from their universities – capable of making a real difference. I think most of this potential is so far untapped, but could have a very significant impact on the developing world when it is.

Thoughts on Land Privatization and Community Creation

By Evan Pye

I’d like to talk about two things today: private land ownership and how to create “community” in today’s society. The first issue comes from a Crash Course World History video I was watching and taking notes on about Europe in the Middle Ages. The host, John Green, explained that until 1500, most land in Europe was shared by everyone and was known as the “Commons.” When monarchs began to distribute plots of land to the wealthy class, the new landowners removed peasants from their land, which drove the peasants into the city to beg or work menial jobs. These conditions reminded me of what I saw in Uganda during my summer trips there in 2013 and 2014. My classmates and I visited rural villages in the central district of Oyam. The villages were quite remote and consisted of small huts separated by large plots of land. When we asked the villagers if they owned all the land we saw, they told us that most of it was communal grazing land. No one necessarily owned it, but for generations the land was shared for animals to graze. The plots of land that the villagers we met owned were usually about one or two acres near their home. We were all struck at how much land was going un-farmed. Furthermore, the vagueness about who owned the land seemed to mean that no one could use it for growing crops and making a profit. This seemed very inefficient, but the communal land we saw can’t be utilized for agriculture unless it is legally owned and sold by specific families. It seemed that the legal structure is not set up to handle that kind of land distribution policy.

John Green explained in the Crash Course video that land privatization in Europe during the 1500s was harmful to the peasants who were removed from the land, but it led to great advances in agriculture. Green notes that since you no longer had to worry about someone else’s cow stepping all over your crops and eating them, you could focus on carefully planting seeds in rows. Land privatization gave farmers incentives to make more efficient use of their land and “experiment with new methods of food production.”

This history lesson reminded me of another article I read the other week about the purchasing of land in Africa by urban dwellers. Although legal systems have a long way to go, it seems many Africans have been able to buy up large plots of land that was previously known as communal grounds for local communities. They are unhappy with the upswing in “land grabs,” but it reminds me a lot of the land privatization that occurred in Europe. Perhaps the concept of communal land has been inhibiting African economic development, because it promotes an inefficient use of fertile land. If so, there could be a race in the next few years to “grab” fertile African land from communities that have had it for many generations. This may upset the social order but pay off in terms of agricultural output. And if a traditional lifestyle really is at odds with the most financially lucrative use of land, is the new system really worth it to improve economic conditions?

This question leads to the second topic of creating communities in today’s society. I was watching an interview with Louis Cole from his Youtube channel Funforlouis. I’m a big fan of his daily vlogs, so I was interested to hear his answer to the question of what he’s learned from traveling around the world and visiting so many different cultures. Louis told the interviewer that the biggest takeaway from his travels has been the difference between the communal/familial/tribal lifestyle of less developed regions of the world and the individualistic, high tech lifestyle of the developed Western world. Louis and the interviewer conclude that Americans and other Westerners have created a culture in which we don’t really need each other for very much, because nearly everything is available to us at our fingertips. The interviewer makes the case that communities only form when people truly need each other for some reason or another. And in the West (especially in cities), as the need for others diminishes, our connections with others diminishes. But we look around at our lives and realize something is missing. It’s that sense of communities that humans have lived with and valued for our entire collective history.

I think there’s a really important point being made in this interview. I think they’ve identified an issue that leads to so much of the mental illness that is present in our society and in our cities. Technology and advancement has satisfied so many of our needs, that the role of other people in our lives is becoming less important. This is, of course, a terrible consequence of high-tech convenience and social media. I think it’s a problem that has to be addressed and figured out, or else our entire society will suffer greatly at the hands of the technology we’ve created to “improve” our lives.

“The Pursuit of Development” by Ian Goldin

A Lecture on Youtube from the Oxford Martin School

By Evan Pye

This week I watched a video lecture by Professor Ian Goldin from the Oxford Martin School’s Youtube channel. Ian Goldin has recently published a book called The Pursuit of Development: Economic Growth, Social Change, and Ideas. I haven’t read the book, but I watched this lecture where he summarizes its contents and engages in a discussion with the audience. Goldin claims that the book is useful to beginners as well as those experienced with the idea of development. He begins by defining development as it relates to human, social, and economic progress. Previously, development was measured primarily by GDP, but now new, more comprehensive measurement tools have emerged, including the UNDP’s Human Development Index, the Happiness Index, and the Social Progress Index. Although wealth is becoming a lesser component of what is known as “development,” it is still worth noting that 900 million people currently live in extreme poverty, which has recently been re-defined by the World Bank as $1.90 per day.

After defining “development,” Ian Goldin discussed the past several decades of the aid industry and the mistakes it has made. He suggests that many people have a bad impression of aid, because so many projects have turned out to be failures in the past. Nevertheless, he argues that the international community has learned many lessons in the midst of these failures and that aid today is better spent than ever before. In fact, aid per capita from rich countries is apparently half of what it was in the 1980s, because of the improvements in donating, receiving, and tracking aid money. That’s not to say that rich countries shouldn’t be giving more money. The United Kingdom is the world’s only country that has committed by law 0.7% of its GDP to official development assistance, and it is one of only three countries that gives that large a portion of its GDP.

Goldin jumps around to a lot of different topics in this lecture because he only had 45 minutes to speak about his book, so I’ll highlight a mix of some of his points that stuck with me. First, he used Ghana and South Korea as an example of how rapidly development can change a country’s economy. In 1960, those two nations had the same average income levels. Today, South Korea is 11 times richer than Ghana. On the flip side, Argentina was the world’s 7th richest country 100 years ago – today it is the 56th richest country. China has doubled its average income per capita every 10 years for the past 35 years. To demonstrate the levels of intra-national economic disparity, Goldin points to the fact that some states in India have average per capita incomes of $10,000, while others have incomes of just $500. In terms of global inequities, he points to the migrant crisis, climate change, and the vulnerability of the poor as important issues to consider. Finally, he brought up the “resource curse,” explaining how some (but not all) countries with considerable resources, such as oil or minerals, have been exploited and forced to suffer from violent conflicts. Goldin says that “conflict is development in reverse,” because it tears down everything development aims to accomplish.

This lecture was a really good overview of a lot of topics surrounding sustainable development, and it made me very interested in reading The Pursuit of Development and other books by Ian Goldin. I would also highly suggest subscribing to the Oxford Martin School’s Youtube channel, which is full of lectures by experts and professors in the most interesting fields (technology, climate change, health, poverty, etc).