Trustees of Tufts College
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Studies conducted by Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) may occasionally gather dust, but it’s the dust from agricultural fields or factory floors. “University studies often collect dust on shelves because they are not made relevant to the groups that need the information,” said Tim Wise, director of GDAE’s research and policy program. Wise and his colleagues want to make sure that their studies speak directly to the interests of policymakers and advocates, even farmers and other workers whose livelihoods are affected by globalization. That means “reforming the way economics is practiced,” Wise said, by combining the independence and rigor of academic research with the practical needs of those on the front lines.
GDAE’s Globalization and Sustainable Development Program gives particular attention to the social and environmental impacts of economic integration in developing regions. The program’s researchers collaborate closely with their peers in developing countries, thereby giving voice to researchers in the global South and grounding their analysis in the economic and political realities of the region.
GDAE’s work on NAFTA illustrates this approach. In 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama said he would never support another NAFTA-style agreement. “We saw this as an opportunity to change the NAFTA template,” Wise recalled. “We asked our researchers—eight experts from Canada, Mexico, and the United States—‘what do we need to change about trade agreements to make them supportive of sustainable development?’” The task force report, produced in cooperation with Boston University’s Pardee Center, identified ways to improve NAFTA’s trade practices in agriculture, finance, labor, services, the environment, and other sectors.
Researchers also looked at linkages between sectors, such as agriculture and labor. When Mexico unilaterally liberalized its corn sector, in advance of the 14-year NAFTA transition period, American corn flooded into the Mexican market. As a result, two million workers left Mexico’s agriculture sector and, many of them, finding few opportunities in other sectors, became migrant laborers. To translate that knowledge into actionable policy recommendations, the task force combined its academic expertise with on-the-ground insight from Mexican farmers. Its specialists evaluated useful tools being developed in the World Trade Organization’s Doha Round, such as special products or “crops of particular importance to food security, livelihoods, or rural development.” And they looked at what Mexican farmer groups considered to be the crops that needed shielding from liberalization.
GDAE doesn’t wait for people to run across its reports; the organization has developed a communications strategy that takes its reports off the shelf and gets them into policy debates. “We hold this report up in front of policymakers as new trade agreements are being negotiated,” Wise said, “and we point to the possible options we identified in this study.” In this way, GDAE reforms the way economics is communicated, as well as the way it is practiced.