George Rupp served as President of Columbia University from 1993 to 2002. He is the President of The International Rescue Committee (IRC), and the author of Globlization Challenged: Conviction, Conflict, Community. On February 16, 2010, Rupp spoke with Mark Taylor, co-director of IRCPL, in a public conversation sponsored by the IRCPL.
Mark Taylor: Welcome. I’d like to thank all of you for coming on this snowy evening. My name is Mark Taylor. I’m Chair of the Religion Department and Co-Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life.
This is the second year of the Institute’s operation, and we take as our mission to create structures of support for communication within the academy, but also take very seriously the responsibility for creating dialogue beyond the walls of the academy. And I can think of no one who better brings together, religion, culture and public life than our guest this evening, George Rupp, known to many of you here of course as the former President of Columbia.
George and I will engage in a conversation about a range of issues and then we will open it up for questions from you. The work that he’s doing is extraordinarily important and I think it’s really, really important for that work to be better known. In terms of our exchange I’d like to divide our conversation, although it all overlaps among three different areas, into the personal, the professional, and the political.
Life is strange. George and I have known each other for 42 years. We first came to know each other my first year at Harvard. We’re both Jersey boys, grew up in towns right next to each other, before Bruce Springsteen made Jersey cool, and Jersey Shore made it hot. I always say that New Jersey is a nice place to be from. George went to Princeton for his undergraduate work, majored, if I remember correctly, in German studies.
George Rupp: In comparative literature.
Taylor: Comparative literature. Took his doctorate or BD, Bachelor of Divinity, at Yale, and his doctorate at Harvard, which is where we met, along with our colleague Wayne Proudfoot, who was also in graduate school at that time. I always have said, and I’ve always meant it, that I learned more from George and Wayne in my years as a graduate student than I did from most of my professors. They were very, very generous with their time with me, and I’ve always appreciated that. I thought we might begin this evening by just asking you to reflect a bit, George, on what drew you to the study of religion at the time you were still an undergraduate.
Rupp: Well, I think we should start with New Jersey. I’m not sure that I’ve ever thought it’s a good place to be from, because at least while I was growing up every time you said you said you were from New Jersey people sort of figuratively held their noses. Because all they could think of New Jersey was—
Rupp: The turnpike going by Secaucus, and so I’ve kind of repressed that I’m from there. I didn’t take a single religion course as an undergraduate. So, it isn’t the case that I got interested in religion. I did get very engaged in social action of various sorts, and many of the most interesting people who were also engaged in that were from religious communities. I was extremely engaged in the early civil rights movement, including working in Jersey City and with a predominately black Episcopal church, and was in jail in Jersey City before the riots broke out in Jersey City because of protests that we’d made.
So, my way into the whole area of religion was in a sense through social action, activism, which then accelerated tremendously with engagement in opposition to the war in Vietnam. My parents had been religious, I had gone to a Presbyterian school, a Presbyterian church—another connection that we have in common. And my immigrant father, when much to his chagrin I decided I was going to go to seminary after college, said, “You will never put up with what you have to put up with, as a minister in this country.”
And, he was right. I fairly quickly learned that I did not really want to be a Protestant minister, but I got extremely engaged with religion, not only Christian religion, but also then the differences and similarities to other traditions. So, as you recall, we met the first time when I came back from a year in Sri Lanka studying Buddhism. And my life has always been informed by that interest in both my own identity and the way in which it relates to others. And my interest in emerging or developing countries dates back to that year that I spent in India and in Sri Lanka. And so the interest in religion continued, but it was not started as an undergraduate and I didn’t take work in religion.
Taylor: That’s interesting. I graduated from Wesleyan in 1968 and I hadn’t known this about your trajectory, but Wesleyan was out front on a lot of the social and political issues at that time. And all of that also came from the Department of Religion. The man who drew me into the study of religion, John Maguire, was a very close friend of Martin Luther King, and led one of the first freedom buses south. So, that’s interesting. I was going to raise the issue of Sri Lanka because I do remember that vividly, and I do think that it’s important to underscore that part of your background, because comparative study has become much, much more common in the years since then. But it was not all that common at the time. And indeed, among those of us who were studying religion at Harvard, the program at Harvard was structured into seven subfields related to various forms of Christianity—a history of world religion it wasn’t.
So, basically, you had seven areas of concentration—you know, history, theology, Old Testament, so defined, New Testament, and then everything else was grouped into one category. So, the early sensitivity to other traditions I think was very, very important. One of the other interesting things that we share, of course, is our fascination with Hegel, and I’m still trying to figure out what I started studying when I was an undergraduate. And I keep trying to tell my students, when we teach this stuff, that those figures, I think remain very, very important for helping us sort through and understand much of what’s going on today. Does Hegel still inform your imagination?
Rupp: Yes. I mean, I think at least Hegel as I have appropriated him over time, and it’s not the Hegel whom you sometimes looked at from the perspective of Kierkegaard. It’s the Hegel of the left-wing Hegelians. And it seems to me that Hegel was absolutely right in recognizing the fundamental basis of human experience in the historical development of the human race.
He also said that for a very critical period of time, the world spirit, that is the history of the human race, went through the West. And regrettably formulated that sometimes very incautiously, with phrases like, “This is the point to which the world spirit has come.” With the easily ridiculed notion that that—it had come to his thought, or his philosophy. And it seems to me; in fact Hegel quite astutely recognizes the extent to which world history did go through the West. And I don’t think anything about globalization or the hugely important triumphs of China before the hegemony of the West changes the fact that history went through the West for a period, and that has shaped the whole global community now. So, I think Hegel was correct about that.
He was an empiricist, and I think he would recognize that it moved through the West and it kept on going, and would be very interested in the fact that now it seems very much to be moving back either to a plurality of foci or moving through China is the next, as the next period. And there’s nothing in Hegel’s thought which would suggest that he wouldn’t see that, and report on it. And maybe even celebrate it, but at least not deny it.
Taylor: The title of your book suggests the range of your interests, and the continuity of your interests. First, George’s first book, which grew out of his dissertation, was called Christologies and Cultures, and was deeply informed by Hegel, in which he develops a typology of different notions of God and self and their inner relationship. And what one needs underscore in a title like that is the plural in both “Christologies” and “Cultures.”
Rupp: I just should say, just as a historical footnote, I wanted to call it “Christ and Cultures,” which was the pluralization of H. Richard Niebuhr’s great book Christ and Culture. And that was a little too much for the publisher, or the editor, so he forced—talked me into going with “Christologies.”
Taylor: The typology that George had worked out in that book, which I have used a long time—he basically argued that everybody in the Western tradition, and perhaps beyond, could be put into one of those four categories. And he’s not wrong by that, and he’s not wrong with that. It’s a very, very interesting and helpful heuristic device. His next book, which again points to themes to which he alluded in terms of my interest in Kierkegaard as well as Hegel, is Beyond Zen and Existentialism, with a subtitle “Religion in a Pluralistic World.” So at least your pluralism remains important.
Then a book called Commitment and Community, which reflects again some of the issues that he has cited. And the last time he was in this room, he was giving a series of lectures which was eventually published titled Globalization Challenged: Conviction, Conflict, Community. You look at these books, and even in their titles you see themes and values that have remained consistent: critical reflection, comparative study and analysis, social responsibility, and engagement, religious pluralism, conviction, and community. Those seem to me to be issues of abiding importance.
But for the past 20 or 30 years they might not have gotten the attention that they deserve. And as a teacher for many years of undergraduates, one of the things that I have seen, and I think many of us have seen over these years, has been the lack of concern or commitment to many of these issues that George has devoted his life to and written about. And I just wonder, George, do you have any sense—of course you’re not interacting with college students on a daily basis anymore—for years my best and brightest either wanted to do dot-coms, or go to Wall Street; do you think this recent financial meltdown will provide any opportunity for reassessment on the part of young people for more socially responsible modes of engagement?
Rupp: I think it will have the practical effect of having the brightest and most able graduates of our best institutions look at a whole range of career choices, and I think that’s all positive. I think at the analytical level, or conceptual level, the meltdown has some important lessons to teach us.
I think that in the heyday of globalization, there was a sort of uncritical celebration of markets as the way in which people related to each other globally, and media as the direct way that people can relate to each other around the world. There was the development of a sense that the individual related directly to all other individuals, or not directly, because meditation is involved, but through global media. So there are virtual communities, rather than real communities. And that economic relationships transcend any intervening or mediating institutions.
And I think the collapse of that easy confidence, both in virtual communities, and in the market as a way of relating people to each other without any intermediation—that collapse is really important. And I think it does mean there’s a teachable moment for us all to recognize that the more particular communities, that too often seemed irrelevant in that globalized world, need to be nurtured in their own right.
And so family, or local communities, or even civic institutions that build to nations and then to world institutions—all of those in fact are critically important. And it’s an illusion to think we can satisfactorily relate to everybody else all over the world through these virtual communities, or through markets alone without any kind of regulation.
Now, admittedly, that pulls back to the themes that you’ve noted in my various writings, and I guess that you could argue I haven’t learned anything. But it does seem to me there’s a way in which the uncritical celebration, both of individualism and of the relationships between individuals through virtual communities and markets, has been called into question in a constructive way.
Taylor: All right. And you know, and clearly the heart of Hegelian analysis is precisely questioning that notion of the isolated or separated individual. Let me press a little bit, let’s separate the issue of regulation from the issue of these structures and networks. It’s obvious the extent to which this new—relatively new, that is basically since the early 1980’s—this new infrastructure, not just for financial instruments, but for the whole way in which we do all kinds of business, has been transformative and has led to many of the kinds of problems that we are currently trying to work our way out of. Do you see in those technologies either on the personal level, or in the professional level in terms of the kinds of organizational problems you faced, any potential value from those kinds of forms of connectivity?
Because another way to think about this is precisely that these technologies—I mean, I always say the Internet is Hegelian Geist bought to life in certain ways. That is, it sets up interconnectivity at a global level. Do you see that as creating opportunities for cooperation?
Rupp: I certainly do. And it seems to me—a utopian would say, well that’s how we have a universal community, everybody connected to everybody else through markets and through virtual communities. And that would bring me to the place where your question started, namely, let’s leave aside regulation. I think that’s the mistake. I think it is absolutely critical that there be political standards that set boundaries for the ways in which those unlimited communities, those potentially globally communities relate to each other.
Taylor: I didn’t want to set it aside, because it’s not necessary, I think it’s obvious—
Rupp: No, no, I understand. But I can’t leave it aside, because I think it directly shapes—I agree. None of us can fail to see the vitality, the dynamism of the Internet and other virtual communities. But completely separated from more proximate communities they lead to the kind of damage that we have been witnesses to.
Taylor: But in the part, and I want to come back to this later more specifically, but isn’t part of the problem in trying to think through regulatory reform in whatever area, whether it’s environmental issues or financial—the problem is that we don’t have global institutions for global realities, and therefore how does one go about regulating these structures that are global? I mean, I don’t know you go about it.
Rupp: I think it’s a huge problem. And the global institutions that we have, we have some, but they’re very inadequate.
Taylor: They don’t work.
Rupp: I guess here’s where I’m a kind of pragmatist rather than an idealist. It seems to me we have—take the UN and related ABCs—we have those and we need to make them work better. The idea that we will create altogether separate communities I think is an illusion. But when I talk about the political ascending boundaries for the virtual communities or for the markets, I don’t mean only global institutions. It seems to me really very important that there be much more localized civic organizations.
If and when we talk about the International Rescue Committee, the International Rescue Committee brings me into lots of places that have too little government, rather than too much. And it makes just dramatically vivid the crucial role that decent governance plays in any well ordered community. And the idea that we can do without it – the trick is to build from decent governance at the most local level up to the national level and then the global level. And not to assume that we can have the regulation simply from the global level on down. That won’t work, it seems to me.
Taylor: Well, let’s turn to International Rescue Committee now, because there’s an important story there to be told. I first became as fully aware as I’ve been able to become of the work that George was doing at a dinner he invited Wayne and me to attend some years ago. And in addition to having people who had worked in the field, he also had some video. And the video blew me away. George sees things and goes places that most of us can’t imagine. And so I asked George whether he might bring some images and video along as a way of beginning to show some of what he’s doing and talk about it.
Rupp: It’s just a few minutes, so won’t take you long. [Video] That’s the Boston airport.
Taylor: I remember reading, I think it was the New York Times article the day George announced that he was stepping down at Columbia, and he was asked, quite naturally, what he was going to do next. And he said he really didn’t have any idea. But he was sure that he wasn’t going to do what most college and universities presidents did do, which of course is go give out money after having spent your life asking for it. I had not heard of the International Rescue Committee, but when I heard that’s what he was doing and learned more about it, I was not surprised. As you saw up there, 25 US cities and 42 countries. So tell us about the organization, a bit about its history, what you do and take as your mission.
Rupp: Well as that picture of Einstein glancingly alluded to, we were founded in 1933 at the suggestion of Albert Einstein that it would be good to have a committee of notables in New York work with counterpart committees in Europe to rescue refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe and help them get back on their feet in this country. So that in a nutshell is what we do. We rescue and then we get people back on their feet. And that’s why we’re in 24 offices around the US. We are the second largest, I guess, agency that works with the State Department in resettling refugees who are admitted to this country after being certified as having reason not to be able to go back home.
And it’s exciting work. I enjoy going to our resettlement offices and seeing how people who come here with nothing are really leading productive lives within a matter of months. Until this economic cataclysm, which has now made it take longer. Because the only way the system works is if somebody finds a job, someone in the family, and that’s getting harder and harder to do. But we’ll get through that as well and we’re raising private money to make it more possible.
But what’s exciting is people come here with nothing. Within a matter of months, or now maybe as much as nine months, ten months, they’re able to support themselves, kids are in school, family members who don’t know English learn English, and without question the kids wind up going, almost without exception, going on at least a junior college, some to senior college, and become productive American citizens. So that’s an exciting process to watch and it is continuous with what we’ve done historically.
Taylor: Give us a sense of the scale, both in terms of staff and in terms of the people you serve.
Rupp: Well in the part of our operation in this country we resettle 10,000 refugees a year. We have 350 staff across the country, many of them former refugees, so they know what it means to give out tough love and tell people they really need to get to the point where they can take care of themselves. But when you ask about scale, the United States admits—after 9/11 it went all the way down to about 25,000 refugees a year, now it’s back up to 75-80,000 refugees a year. There are 40 million uprooted people around the world, refugees and internally displaced. So, you can do the arithmetic. It means that two out of every thousand have any prospect of getting resettled in the United States. Or, to put it the other way around 998 out of every thousand have to figure out how to get on with their lives somewhere other than the United States.
And since very few—the numbers or refugees admitted to other developed countries are very small. All others together maybe about as many as come to the United States, so the vast majority either have to be integrated into the countries to which they fled, or when they have the opportunity go back where they came from. And we work on all sides of that equation. So, we resettle the small number of refugees admitted here. We work in the countries to which they fled where we give emergency assistance, but then also get them back on their feet through educational programs, medical programs, so that they can resume responsibility for their lives. And then, the best outcome, when it’s safe to go back we work with them in the countries from which they fled. And that means we have much larger operations outside the United States. Maybe just a little more on scale. We have 10,000 employees around the world. Of the ones outside of the United States 98 percent are locals. Let’s just say in Afghanistan they’re Afghans, in Pakistan they’re Pakistanis.
On the front end of a crisis it’s sometimes more top-heavy international staff until we can recruit and train locals, but our highest priority is to make sure everything that can be done by locals from within those countries if they’re trained, is done by them. And that means we can build capacity in those societies, and we also obviously stretch resources maximally, since it is enormously more expensive to have an international staff member, let’s say in Afghanistan, or Congo, than to have an Afghan or Congolese person. Not to mention how much more expensive it is to have a soldier, just apropos of some of our current deployments.
Taylor: I presume that in some of these instances there is serious personal risk. I know that you suffered tragic loss of four of your workers recently. So some of these situations into which your people are sent, I assume, are dangerous.
Rupp: Well, they’re almost all dangerous. I mean it’s almost the definition of where we go. I guess that’s why rescue is our middle name. We don’t go to places that are safe and secure with a few exceptions. We work with Burmese refugees on the Thai side of the Thai-Burma border, and that’s a relatively secure place. But it’s true, it is very dangerous, you mentioned the single largest tragedy we’ve had in terms of staff deaths, about a year and a half ago now in Afghanistan.
Taylor: I didn’t know it was that long.
Rupp: Four of our staff members were killed by the Taliban. It was traumatic for the whole organization and it demonstrates that we work in very unsafe settings. But the fact that it’s the worst staff casualty number in the history of the IRC says something about the way we do operate. We are in 1350 villages of Afghanistan, most of them in areas where Westerners are not allowed to go. The people there are 100 percent Afghan staff. And their security, those are unsafe places where they are, but their security is that they are embraced and supported by the local communities in which they operate.
And one of the standard programs we have in Afghanistan, and we had it in Rwanda, we’ve got it in Congo, is what we call community-driven reconstruction. And in Afghanistan it’s called the National Solidarity Program. And the way it works is, we have staffers go into a village, work with the village to push for elections, but sometimes it’s in other ways, select a community development council, which will decide what their highest priorities for development are. And it’s almost always a school, a sanitation system, a water system, a health clinic.
But they set the priority. And the resources then come—in the case of Afghanistan, although we can multiply it by others—come through the Ministry of Rural Development in this case, and the resources are very carefully audited and monitored, and allow the building of the structures, or the facilities, or the resources that that village community wanted to have.
I can tell you, it is really exciting to go to these villages, and see the pride they have in the projects that they selected and they have put the sweat equity into building, although with some resources that come in terms of technical assistance, and building materials and all the rest of it. And I don’t mean that there’s no chance that any of those projects will be destroyed by various militias or by the Taliban, but it basically hasn’t happened, because of the fact that these are valued. It’s no way to win the hearts and minds of those villages to destroy the projects that they’ve worked on themselves.
Now let me, as long as I’ve been that far into community driven reconstruction, let me tell you an interesting story about how it developed in Afghanistan. I think it’s fair to say, the most competent Minister in the Karzai government—and admittedly, you read the papers, so you know that there’s not a lot of competition for that honorific—but the most competent person in the government is a man named Hanif Atmar.
He was the first Minister of Rural Development, then was the Minister of Education, now he’s the Minister of the Interior. But he had been the head of IRC programs in Afghanistan before he joined the Karzai government. And he knew that we had developed this community-driven reconstruction program in Rwanda. Now, Rwanda had a very similar problem to Afghanistan. Namely, it had a competent central government—well, I won’t go so far as to claim that for Afghanistan. But Afghanistan was aspiring to have a competent central government. Rwanda had one, but it had very little reach out to the local villages. And so we designed and implemented this community-driven reconstructing program in Rwanda.
And Hanif as an IRC staff member, an Afghan obviously, knew about that program and so when he was Minister of Rural Development he had a team come from Rwanda, Rwandans, not expatriate staff. Rwandan staff came and advised on the design of a program, which became the National Solidarity Program in Afghanistan. The National Solidarity Program is now in over 20,000 villages in Afghanistan, so not just the 1,500 or 1,400 that we’re involved with, but many other implementing partners. And I think it’s certainly the most successful development program in a decentralized way in Afghanistan. We have a similar program in Congo, which is our largest program in the world. Enough about community-driven reconstruction, but it’s a good thing. You can bank on that.
Taylor: Are the recent decisions of the Obama administration to up the ante militarily in Afghanistan causing your programs problems?
Rupp: Very complicated question. And I would say that we have been extremely firm in insisting that our National Solidarity Program village programs have to be distinguished from what NATO and the US forces are doing, and that has taken some real argument. Because initially, the counterinsurgency program of General McChrystal envisioned having development as just one part of this whole operation. And given my description of the security of our staff, namely that they are integrated into the villages where we work, that was simply a nonstarter.
We informed the administration that we were just not willing to accept any resources if that was part of the deal. And after a fair amount of back and forth that now has been accepted. So that means that we continue to do what we’ve been doing, and do it as independent actors. And frankly we feel more secure in those areas that are furthest removed from the protection of ISAF or NATO and US forces.
I feel that vividly. The road where we lost four staff members a year and a half ago is a road I’d been down a number of times. And Gardez, which is a couple of hours south of Kabul, on that road, I visited the first time shortly after I went to the IRC in 2002. And under the Bush administration there was a program called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which has continued into the present, and it’s in theory a way that all of the US assets, the military and development programs, are connected with each other. We’ve never been willing to take any funding that came through that mechanism, but it’s very clear when I went there in 2002, our staff on the ground, we’d been in that area for seven years before that—no, eight years. And our people said they felt much safer before the PRT was established in the neighborhood than after, because we had this kind of security that I’ve described rather than the kind of security that comes with a military that simply doesn’t bother to get to know the local communities. Now McChrystal’s theory of the case is that they will get to know villages and so on, and we’ll just have to see how that works, but at least we’re not connected with it.
Taylor: Can you speak of some other countries where, I mean the situation must approach the intractable in some of these situations. You mentioned the Congo in passing, I mean countries that really pose the most difficult challenges to you?
Rupp: Well, I think Congo is an enormous challenge. It is our single largest program. And we have many hundreds of staff in eastern Congo, and we are pursuing a program, again modeled on Rwanda, Afghanistan, community-driven reconstruction, and we also have a major program working with the Ministry of Health. I don’t want to be Pollyannaish about Congo. It has a very long way to go. But I am confident that everyday there are substantial numbers of Congolese who are significantly better off because of the efforts that we’re undertaking than they would otherwise be. And the areas we focus on are first of all community based, so that we work in the local villages, and work with them to develop, in a sense, democratic structures that set priorities. We focus on the kind of reconstruction I’ve described, but with a special emphasis on health, on education, and economic development, and that means predominately on agriculture, which is absolutely crucial for almost all the places where we work, and then on good governance, the rule of law. And I think that suite of programs without question makes the prospects or the odds of not only survival but flourishing far better than if that suite of programs isn’t implemented.
I tend—I guess part of my fascination with Hegel—I like to look at big pictures, but I have resigned myself that in the work we’re doing now it really starts person by person, family by family, village by village. The idea that we are going to transform the Democratic Republic of Congo after first Leopold II and then Mobutu Sese Seko destroyed the place, and then the Rwandan genocide spilled over into eastern Congo, with further terrible consequences—all of that’s going to take a long time to dig our way out of. But in the meantime, at the very decentralized level, I think we’re building human capital in a way that makes a big difference.
Taylor: We can make a distinction, as Haiti shows us, between so-called natural disasters and sociopolitical disasters. Looking ahead it seems to me that issues of climate change—and one of the things that I worry about a lot is water, and both its availability and its quality, and by extension food supply in many of the countries that you work in—there’s going to be a huge, huge problem as we move ahead. And I’m wondering how the issues like water and food supply operate in your current programs and looking ahead. I mean, it seems to me that those natural problems are going to lead to serious social and political conflicts. I mean, how do you see that side of the equation?
Rupp: I think you’re absolutely right. And, I mean, we as an agency are looking very carefully at the ways in which environmental degradation is, in the end, indistinguishable from the conflicts that erupt. Take an example that all of you read a lot about, Darfur. Darfur illustrates, you know, just a whole range of crosscurrents. One is just the center versus the periphery in Sudan. I mean there’s an elite in Khartoum that basically has exploited the rest of the country. So, whether it’s the south, which will almost certainly vote to secede, or in the west Darfur, or the northeast up by Red Sea State, there’s all those places have real antagonism against the central government. But there are also deep ethnic problems within Darfur, both within Darfur and between Darfur and the rest of Sudan. But along with those sorts of issues, and in the case of Darfur, there’s no religious issue, because it’s all Muslim. I mean the north, south debate it can be characterized in many ways as Muslim/Christian, although that’s also an oversimplification. But to your question, Darfur, the certification has exacerbated the problem in Darfur.
So there’s a basic tension between people who call themselves Arabic, and they’re pastoralists, and they migrate, and sedentary agriculturists, who are called Africans. I mean in the taxonomy there. But it’s very clear that the pastoralists have over time felt they had to encroach more and more on the agricultural land, because they simply couldn’t sustain their flocks as the Sahara moved further and further south. So, all of the other conflicts going on in Darfur are not really distinguishable from that root conflict, which is a fight over land and water and resources.
Taylor: And what about population issues as they bear on these? Because in certain ways they’re directly tied, obviously to environmental, and water, and food supply issues that cut in different ways and complicated ways?
Rupp: Yeah. Well, the population issues are going to vary hugely from place to place, but life is so harsh in places like western Sudan, that there actually is not population growth. If there were that would only exacerbate these resource problems. People have lots of children, and many children die, so that the mortality under five is very high. People have a lot of children because they want to have some children survive, but the end result is that the population is not growing significantly. And that’s not true in all countries, but I think in western Sudan it’s certainly the case.
Taylor: All right, one last question because I’m sure all of you have questions you would like to ask. Let me ask you to sort of put your previous life and your current together now for a minute. As a former university president, both here and at Rice, what role, if any, do you think should colleges and universities, faculty and students play in addressing the kinds of problems that you and the International Rescue Committee are dealing with day in and day out?
Rupp: Well, I think there is almost endless ways, but let me just mention a couple Columbia-specific ones. The single places where we recruit the most of our international staff are from the School of International and Public Affairs, and the School of Public Health, the Mailman School and SIPA here. We have, I mean people joke about it, because they somehow think—every time we have monthly staff meetings and we introduce new colleagues and the number of times it’s a Columbia alumna, usually for us alumna actually, is quite remarkable. And it doesn’t have anything to do with me. I mean we have sort of cultivated those relations, and what SIPA and the Mailman School do is prepare people with the skills, that we need to do our work. And basically we simply don’t send international staff abroad unless they bring special skills. If they’re water engineers, or if they’re public health professionals, then they bring something to the table that we need to have. So, one way is to do what universities do best, train people very well and with a broad horizon of where they could bring their education and training to bear.
The second is to address a whole range of intellectual issues. And as Jonathan knows we worked hard to establish the Columbia Earth Institute during our time here, and recruited Jeff Sachs, just at the end of the time, just before I left. Well, Jonathan was still here to oversee that transition. And I think that the Earth Institute embodies a kind of intellectual integration across a range of issues that are almost never connected to each other. So, the Earth Institute does exactly what you just asked about. It looks at environmental issues, or ecological issues, and how they relate to humanitarian issues and displacement and the rest. It also, for the first time, got the School of Public Health involved with this all-university set of issues, in a way that I don’t mean never happened before, but happened much more effectively. And in Jeff Sachs it has an appropriately controversial leader, so that it gets attention to itself. So that’s on the whole intellectual and research end of matters.
I would love to see universities do more of what the land grant universities in this country have been the best at doing. Michigan State, for example, has, you know, had very good programs that really developed agricultural economists and agronomists who have made an enormous difference in many parts of the world, but not yet in Africa where it is absolutely critical that that has to happen, and that’s a sad story.
Peter McPherson who was the President of Michigan State, who really pressed hard to move in this direction, had been the head of the US Agency for International Development, of all things, under Reagan. And AID under Reagan had very strong programs in agricultural development. And for all kinds of complicated reasons—Congressional earmarks, loss of attention, who knows what—AID just stopped funding agricultural development for about 25 years. And the new head of AID is a man named Rajiv Shah, who is actually a medical doctor, but he also had an agricultural background, worked with the Gates Foundation, agriculture, and then was in the Department of Agriculture, so there’s some home that there’ll be a renewed interest on the part of the US government on agricultural development. But that still requires universities to put their shoulders to the wheel in the way that Michigan State did in the 80s and continued to struggle to do into the 90s.
Taylor: Let me just ask, tweak that one for a bit, what role, if any, do the arts and humanities have in addressing these issues?
Rupp: Well, as is the custom of those of us who are in the arts and humanities, it’s sort of one level of abstraction up, it seems to me. But the set of issues that I described in response to your earlier questions about the economic crisis that we’re going through now apply to the arts and humanities and the soft social sciences, maybe even economists (I have to think about that). The focus that I think is crucial for understanding the value of communities—ranging from very particular ones, through civic ones, through national ones, to global ones—that whole set of reflections, I think the humanities and the arts and the social sciences are in the best position really to cultivate, and to educate a generation of students who really deeply get that.
Rather than what I think universities did do for three of four decades, namely to—it’s going to sound harsh, but to educate people whose default proposition was a kind of atomistic individualism that was, especially in its secular forms, sort of deracinated. And that I think is an impoverishment of human beings, and so it’s important to recover what was lost in that, and I think the arts and humanities are best positioned to do that.
Taylor: Okay. This has been very informative. Let’s open it up now to questions.
Audience Member 1: Can you please give us your personal opinion, I would like to have your personal opinion about Iraq, the status quo in Iraq and Syria?
Rupp: Yes, thank you. I will be happy to. The International Rescue Committee went into Iraq in 2003, when the war started, we were strongly requested, by the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, if we would be willing to go in, because we’d worked closely with them elsewhere and they thought it would be very important because they expected there’d be major uprooted population flows and the need for the usual speed of services that we do—namely water, sanitation, basic healthcare. But we agreed to go in only on the condition, explicitly signed off on by the administration, that we would not be part of the military, what became the Coalition Provisional Authority, which originally was ORHA, the Office of Humanitarian Affairs (there’s an R in there, I can’t remember what it was). Jay Garner was the head of it.
So, we got clear understanding that we would not be part of the coalition process, and we worked in places where the US military was not present. We recruited and trained almost all Iraqi staff, we worked across the various divisions. That is, we worked in Sunni villages, and Shiite villages, and in Arbil in the north. And once the reconstruction of Iraq under the Bush administration accelerated and it was clear it was going to be large contracts overseen by the CPA, we withdrew. We’d done what we went to do. I think we made some significant contributions; we found positions for most of our Iraqi staff and withdrew.
We are now back in Iraq and we are also in Syria and Jordan. And the reason we’re back is we started in Syria and Jordan, there are large numbers of Iraqi refugees in very desperate situations in Syria and Jordan. And it’s not because the Syrian government, or the Syrian people and the Jordanian people haven’t really put themselves out to try to be hospitable, they have—they won’t let them work is the major problem. But they have really taken on an enormous burden, and the international community including in particular the United States, has just simply not done enough to help those refugees.
So, we’re working in Syria and Jordan with the Iraqi refugees. We’ve also worked in this country with resettling Iraqi refugees, and now we’re back in Iraq, working with uprooted people inside Iraq, of whom there are probably two million. So, there are about two million uprooted people inside Iraq, close to two million in Syria and Jordan. This is in a country with a population less than 30 million, so the percentages, the proportions are enormous. And I was just in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan three or four months ago, and I’d been there a year before that, so I’ve got kind of a longitudinal sense of it. The Iraqis in Syria and Jordan are desperate where they are, and yet some of them have gone back to see if they could possibly make a go, and their houses are occupied, their neighborhoods have been taken over if they’re Shiite by Sunnis and vice versa. They feel completely insecure, they know people who have gone back and were killed. And so they’re really in a quite horrific situation in Syria and in Jordan, not able to go back to Iraq, not being accepted for resettlement, except in small numbers in the US and other countries.
So, I would say if you want to know more than you, even as a data hungry journalist want to know, go to our website. We have three reports and the first one was on the situation in Syria and Jordan. The second one was on the situation of Iraqis who have resettled in the US, and that one is called “In Dire Straights.” And it is very eye-opening. And the third one just came out, or is coming out today or tomorrow, on the recent visit we made as an update on the situation in northern Iraq, as well as all of Iraq, in Baghdad, northern Iraq, and then Syria and Jordan. That will give you lots of data and wonderful stories.
Audience Member 1: Excellent. Can I follow up with another question? Palestinian Iraqis from the border, you know, Syria wouldn’t allow them in, Jordan didn’t allow them in, and I believe the US accepted 1350 of them this year. Do you have a role in facilitating this, can you provide any services for them here in the US?
Rupp: Well, that small number that gets admitted to the US, we don’t resettle all of them, but we certainly get a significant slice of that pie. And you’re correct, Jordan has a, let’s say, a large refugee population, what they consider a refugee population, but nonetheless, a very large number of Palestinians, close to the tipping point in terms of majority of the population. And so they’re very sensitive about allowing more Palestinian Iraqis, or more Palestinians period, in. So I don’t know the situation on the border; we’re not working directly on the border with the Palestinian refugees, but my guess is they are in a very tough bind.
Audience Member 1: I was there in December and it’s terrible. But most of them have been resettled to several areas. The UNHCR is trying to facilitate that, and I just was wondering if you had a role in that process.
Rupp: Well, we’re the largest implementing partner globally for UNHCR, and we certainly work closely with them in Jordan and in Syria, and in Iraq itself. But I don’t think we’re working with them specifically with the Palestinians in the border area. I would have to double check. I don’t think we are. I didn’t visit any of them anyway, so you know more about them than I do.
Audience Member 2: I’m a first year SIPA student. I was wondering what you felt the role of the private sector was in conflict areas. Not so much related to refugee resettlement, but in reconstruction and rebuilding?
Rupp: Well, I think that the private sector can have an enormous impact. To be perfectly blunt, in the countries we work in, the private sector is just not a factor. I mean in many of them there’s no banking system. And we do some micro lending, and cash-for-work kinds of programs. But I think it will be a while before there is enough of an established governance system, and also market system, before the private sector will be a major force in most of the places where we’re working. We’re at the stage of intervention that will, we hope very much as soon as possible, lead to having a more robust economic sector. We have what we call technical units. We have a health one, we have one work with children, with women who have been abused, and one of them is economic recovery, and I’ve been pressing that unit to focus on agricultural development, because I think that’s kind of the first step that has to be taken before a more robust set of market systems can be developed. Now, I say most of the countries. We do work in Uganda, in northern Kenya, and there we are very focused on getting market mechanisms in place, and investments in, for example, ramping up the scale with which growers can produce their crop and then get it to appropriate markets without being completely exploited by middle people. So, we do some of that. But that’s not really a focus of what we do. There are very good agencies, Relief International among them, that do that work, but we do less of it. Partly, you just can’t do it at the earliest stage.
Taylor: Bashir, you’ve been jotting notes over there, do you have a question?
Bachir Diagne: I’ve been gathering my thoughts, you sort of answered in passing my questions. I had a question, which was how closely you usually work with UNHCR, and I was thinking probably Congo is just such a horrible situation, this is probably the case where, I’m wondering, you have all the taskforce on the ground working together. So, do you actively seek cooperation with them, and how does that work?
Rupp: The question was how much we work with UNHCR in particular, but then the also other UN agencies. And the answer is very extensive indeed. And maybe I could relate that to Mark’s question about global institutions, because UNHCR is an example of a global institution where—
Taylor: What’s the acronym?
Rupp: UN High Commission for Refugees, and the Commissioner is a man named António Guterres, who was a former Prime Minister of Portugal and is someone we’ve worked with very closely, and he is trying to get that agency to be a less inadequate global agency, and in particular to reduce the administrative overhead so more of the resources get into the field. And we work in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Congo, Liberia, Cote d’lvoire, I mean across countries where we work, we are very close collaborates of the UNHCR. And to be honest we don’t have to go running to them—I mean, they come running to us. We’re the people on the ground who allow them to implement programs in a way that they really don’t—this is not a criticism of them, they don’t pretend to have the capacity. They have resources, and they have the ability to award grants, but they don’t have the kind of extensive, on the ground in-country staff that we have. And so we work very closely together.
More with UNHCR, UNICEF has always been a tough partner, but we’re getting to work better with them. UNICEF, is United Nations Children’s Fund, sorry, you know that. UNDP, United Nations Development Program, again very small, but we work with them in a number of places. So, we value our collaborations with the UN very much. And they play a very important role in a crisis. And the current crisis in Haiti illustrates both the good news and the bad news on that.
One of the reasons that it was a long time getting the Haiti response coordinating is because UNHCR had its building destroyed. So it wasn’t just that the capital itself, all of the instrumentalities of Haiti’s governance were destroyed, but the UN also lost many people. And so it took longer than normal to get the time of coordination mechanisms up, and the whole enterprise, the whole international humanitarian enterprise as a result, was slower getting going, than if the UN hadn’t lost its headquarters in the earthquake itself.
Audience Member 3: When the IRC works in refugee camps do you tend to hire refugees in the camp, or people from the host population, and I mean I would imagine that in both cases there are potential problems, could you maybe speak about that?
Rupp: Very good question and the answer is both. But one of the real challenges of refugee settlements is that the refugees are almost always prohibited from working outside the refugee settlement itself. So wherever possible, we employ refugees as our staff members. But we also don’t want to have a lot of tensions between the refugee camp and the surrounding community, so we also try to make sure there’s some level of employment for the community outside. I feel constrained to say a few things about refugee camps. Namely, they’re awful. I mean they’re very bad for men, women and children. And it’s only in certain circumstances that they’re the least awful alternative, but it is really one of our high priorities is wherever possible to move away from long term refugee camps.
I still remember the first large camp I visited, my first six or eight in the first trip I took to Africa with the IRC. And it was a camp for Burundian refugees in Tanzania. And, I just went away completely—I don’t depress easily, but I really was extremely down after being there. Because those people had been in that camp for over 20 years, lots of kids who were born there, grew up there, and actually got a better education, and better health care, than they would have gotten if they weren’t in the refugee camp, but as a result were incapable of going back to where their parents had come from and supporting themselves. I mean they had learned, but didn’t want to then go back and be farmers.
And so it’s a very complicated situation. And we are involved in a fair number of long-term refugee settlements, and wherever possible we work our way out of them. And so the first camp I visited in Tanzania with Burundians, they have now gone back to Burundi. They’ve had a very tough time getting back on their feet back in Burundi, and we’ve worked with them there, but it’s far better than becoming basically dependent on the international community, which is what happens if you’re in a refugee camp.
And that’s where UNHCR plays a very important role, and António Guterres, the High Commissioner, would agree completely that if we can possibly not have refugee camps it would be far better. It works in every way to get alternative arrangements. But sometimes, until it’s safe to go back there are no good alternative arrangements, for the same reason that the Iraqi Palestinians aren’t being allowed to go into Jordan or Syria, and they also can’t go back readily. So, refugee camps are very tough propositions.
Taylor: I don’t know if you noticed, but when he talked about depressing easily, he gestured to me.
Rupp: No, no, no—
Taylor: I thought it all goes back to Hegel and Kierkegaard in a different way. As we were walking over this evening I said to George, “You see what you see day in and day out, and dealing with what you deal with day in and day out, how do you keep hope alive?” And it’s a tough question. I mean again, he sees what we don’t, but the capacity to acknowledge these problems, to address these problems, and to pursue responsible action in situations that are incomprehensible, incomprehensibly difficult, I think, is admirable.
And George and his colleagues put us all in their debt and we thank you for coming this evening and sharing this, and just helping us to become more aware of what’s going on. Thanks George.
Rupp: Thank you very much.