This is a series from our writers Holly Narey and Michelle Gonzalez Amador who are taking Jeffrey Sachs’ online course The Age of Sustainable Development. They will be sending out an update on the course every week. Click here for more on all our writers. Check this tag to see all posts on this topic.

Gini coefficients 2006: Wikimedia Commons

Last week, through the medium of the internet, we again joined Professor Sachs in the large, airy room from which he gives his lectures for the second instalment of the course. Whilst the previous session gave a detailed yet accessible introduction to the key challenges faced in sustainable development, along with some basic technical concepts, this week things were taken a step further. The focus in this second session was economic development and income inequalities, and the influence this has on wellbeing across the globe.

There has also been an impressive growth in social interaction between participants in the course, with some discussion forums reaching upwards of a thousand posts. Contributors can be seen introducing and debating key development topics all over the world. There are over fifty different threads with participants looking for local study groups, with locations ranging from Toronto, to Nairobi, Valencia, and Manchester. The global reach of the course can be seen, and hopefully over the coming weeks more people will join the Google hangouts and forums, and will continue to be educated in what is truly a modern way to learn.

Sachs appears to have a knack for discussing the greatest issues the planet faces in a calm, cool way, making them sound like any other problem that requires a solution. The story he tells about the state of inequality across the globe is interspersed with case studies, statistics and potentially intimidating terms and concepts, but he outlines them clearly, making them easy to grasp.

The fallibility of various methods of income and wellbeing measurement were highlighted in this session. While GDP per capita can give an insight into the overall productivity of a country, it does not necessarily reflect the standard of living of the population. Especially important to note is that it does not take into account important factors such as healthcare and social inclusion, however it is a good starting point from which to build. We were introduced to the classification of countries that examining GDP per capita allows us to make: low, middle and high income countries, with around one billion people living in low income countries across the globe. Of these, 48 countries stand apart due to social instability, low education levels and susceptibility to droughts, disease and violence. These are the Least Developed Countries, several being in Asia and tropical Africa, and with landlocked countries and small island nations also cropping up more frequently than their total number would suggest.

We were introduced to the complex process of attempting to compare different incomes across the globe, and to normalise them taking into account the variation in purchasing power that this money would have within these different countries.

Professor Sachs then discussed the issue of urban and rural inequality, along with the current worldwide trend towards urbanisation, with around 70% of the global population expected to live in urban areas by 2030. This brought to light the growing importance of both urban sustainability and agricultural efficiency.

Income inequality within countries was then discussed, using the Gini coefficient as a tool to measure income distribution within a country. Examples of countries with comparatively healthy (low) Gini coefficients are Sweden, Norway and Denmark, whereas some with with higher Gini coefficients and therefore more inequality within the country are seen in much of the Americas, and in some African countries. These variations in income equality were explained using historical case studies, such as in the case of the Americas, where European settlers displaced local people to establish large landholdings, which have been passed down the generations and led to a more affluent class.

Sachs then went on to explain how the solutions to problems of inequality are often contentious, with the individual interests of those with the greater share of the country’s wealth, and often therefore a greater share of the power, using trade and globalisation to increase their wealth while the poor get poorer.

Wellbeing was another key topic, especially the individual perception of one’s own wellbeing, with factors such as social inclusion, honest governments, and values of compassion and generosity being credited for increased feelings of wellbeing alongside income.

The Human Development Index was introduced as a more holistic measure, attempting to assess quality of life independent of GDP per capita.

The week’s session was concluded with the importance of the understanding of convergence and divergence between different economies, with convergence being a key aim in global development. This was an area where, while it is important to take into account the “doom and gloom” of the global situation, it is clear that there are real potentials for improvement, and where improvements have been seen, such as in Scandinavia.

Apart from the lectures, the resources on offer are extensive, and give an opportunity to go further than what is discussed.

The chapters of the coursebook provided for download in weekly instalments gives thorough background information, and provide figures used in the lectures and more.

Learning

The Age Of Sustainable Development: Income inequality

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by Iris Leikanger

Networking. At worst, there's free wine

There are two interns at the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal. Luckily for us, our responsibilities go somewhat beyond fetching the coffee. The diplomats and local counsellors are keen to include us in all sorts of events – from meetings at UN House to receptions at the Ambassador’s residence.

We’re becoming experts at being the least important, least interesting people in the room.

It’s hard not to get dejected when you’re introducing yourself to some civil society big-wig, and stating your name and job title is directly followed with “oh,” and the other person’s interest in talking to you visibly plummeting. Especially when they go on to unsubtly excuse themselves and slink off to talk to the UN executive or important local politician at the other side of the room.

However, these situations can also be fantastic opportunities for networking, learning and meeting some genuinely fascinating people. After all, as a person starting out at the bottom rungs of the development ladder, getting a chance to meet some people who can help you climb it is definitely worth the time spent feeling awkward and small while holding a glass of wine. So with that in mind, here are some tips I’ve discovered for navigating those situations when you’re the least important person in the room:

Watch what the people around you are doing and copy them

You don’t want to be the only person asking the waiter for wine if everyone else is on soda water. Nobody else is going to care what you’re drinking, but it will make you feel more awkward and self-conscious than necessary.

The benefit of being the least important person around is that most of the time, hardly anyone is paying attention to you. This gives you a perfect opportunity to learn by observing the people who have been in the game for years. A diplomatic reception or civil society workshop is a pretty different setting to a university party, and you should take advantage of the opportunity to learn how to behave in these contexts.

Everyone else is more interesting than you, and they want to talk about themselves

You may not be very interesting (yet), but chances are most of the people you’re meeting are – and they probably know it. Development types are often very happy to talk about themselves and their work to a wide-eyed intern who asks intelligent questions and seems genuinely impressed with what they have to say. Asking good questions and active listening are key, and knowing something about the person’s field is especially useful because it will enable you to say more than “oh, that sounds really cool” when they start explaining what their organisation does.

An anecdote: A few weeks back, I met the Director of a local climate change NGO at a reception, at the time only knowing his organisation and not his rank. I engaged him in a discussion about the integration of social and natural science in environmental work and the importance of smallholder agriculture (both personal areas of interest). He ended up inviting me to a workshop a week later, where I sat starry-eyed listening to people debating a climate change adaptation programme I’d be happy to start working for tomorrow – an opportunity I never would have gotten if we hadn’t had that conversation.

Do make sure you don’t monopolise a single person for too long, no matter how fascinating they are. The vast majority of the time, networking events are for mingling and circulating, not long in-depth debates. Better to take the person’s contact details and continue the conversation another time.

Don’t be too obvious about wanting a job from the person you’re talking to

The people I’ve found are the most dismissive when I say my job title are often my fellow bottom-rung hangers-on, who have come to these events purely for the purpose of career climbing. Not only is it annoying for the people you spurn, but it’s painfully obvious to everyone else if you spend your evening making beelines between every executive you can find, handing out business cards like SWEDOW. Just be subtle, and be aware that people who aren’t Directors can be equally as interesting to talk to, if not more.

If all else fails, find the other unimportant people and make friends

If you’ve tried to engage the big-wigs without luck, you can always just seek out any other interns that are there. Receptions often have free drinks, so why not create a party within a party and make some friends instead?

Advice

Networking: A guide for interns

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