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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

A New Focus on the Global South with Marwan M. Kraidy

 Marwan M. Kraidy is a scholar of global communication, a leading authority on Arab media, and the CEO and Dean of Northwestern University in Qatar. One of his first major initiatives as Dean was the creation of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Global South. The Institute will produce and promote evidence-based storytelling focused on the histories, cultures, societies, and media of the Global South and much more. He discusses the goals of this institute and how it relates to United Nations sustainable development goal number 16, peace, justice and strong institutions.

Marwan M. Kraidy

What we're doing is we're helping create a knowledge-based society where knowledge is created locally. If you look at research … anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of knowledge about the Global South is produced in the U.S., Canada and a few countries in Western Europe and maybe Japan and Australia. One of the first objectives is to create capacity for knowledge production that is truly global, including one that's locally based.”

-- Marwan M. Kraidy, Dean and CEO, Northwestern University in Qatar

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03] Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. This season, we are focused on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 16, which is peace, justice and strong institutions, and I am delighted to introduce a true boundary breaker, someone who just embodies what this podcast community is about someone who just inspires me in his courage and creativity and the breadth of projects and communities that he's a part of, and I'm really excited for you to meet him. So, Marwan Kraidy is a scholar of Global Communications, a leading authority on Arab media, and the CEO and dean of Northwestern University in Qatar. He has just launched a new Institute for Advanced Study in the Global South. Marwan is leading this initiative, in part because exactly it builds peace, justice and strong institutions in new and exciting ways that speak to the moment we're living through. The institute will produce and promote evidence-based storytelling focused on the histories, the cultures, the societies and the media of the Global South. Marwan, welcome. Thank you so much for being here. 

Marwan Kraidy [00:01:45] It's a pleasure. 

Annelise Riles [00:01:46] So, Marwan, let's start with you. I'd love to hear a little bit about your personal story. So where did you grow up? 

Marwan Kraidy [00:01:52] So I grew up in Lebanon, was born a few years before the beginning of the Civil War in Lebanon. Didn't go to the U.S. until graduate school. 

Annelise Riles [00:02:01] Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like growing up in Lebanon during that period? 

Marwan Kraidy [00:02:06] I like to think of biography as as an accident between geography and history. I was born a couple of years before the beginning of a civil war and nasty civil war, one of the most complex and protracted conflicts of the 20th century. There's a risk that you grow up with a very small vision of the world, right? But there's also an opportunity because you have such strong expressions surrounding you, of antagonism to others that it actually triggers you your city about others. I was lucky, partly because of my parents, that that I was part of the second camp. I must have been 13 years old. A lot of boys my age were being recruited into militias to carry arms and fight on behalf of warlords, basically. One of the ways in which my parents dealt with this was to try to keep us very busy at home. One of those ways is books, and I'll never forget we have a book, i's still in the family. My brothers and I keep it at my parents' place because it belongs to all of us at once. It's an Hachette atlas that was made in a pocket book form, and during the years of the war, all three of us memorized every single detail. What's the longest river in the world? Why the borders between countries that are mountains as opposed to rivers, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What's going on in Kashmir? Why was the Benelux formed? What about the EU? Why are some European countries part of the EU, but not part of NATO's? You know, all that stuff. And so you begin seeing the world as a series of differences that somehow need to be connected. And for me, that really shaped how I look at the world. 

Annelise Riles [00:03:33] You're one of the world's greatest experts on the journalistic media in the Arab world. What is your evaluation of the environment now? What do you see as some of the opportunities and challenges?

Marwan Kraidy [00:03:45] There are huge challenges. I mean, journalism, as we know, is under challenge everywhere in the world, including in the Arab world. But there are particular challenges here. The Arab region had some places that where freedom of expression, media freedoms have a history much more than other countries. Right. If you look at countries like Egypt, like Lebanon, like Kuwait, like Morocco, you had privately owned media very early on. You had a vibrant public sphere not controlled by the government. What we see now, particularly in the cases of Lebanon and Egypt, is a retrenchment and a clamping down from centralized government power on the media. So that's point number one. But number two, most of the Arab world now is there's conflict, but there's also a lot of economic problems. So the center of gravity has moved from places like Egypt and Lebanon, to the Gulf to cities like Doha, like Dubai and and in Saudi Arabia, right? These are places where there are very vibrant media, but there are media scenes that tend to be monolingual, right? They speak in the name of the government. They employ a lot of people. They produce beautiful media. The technical means are varied. The resources are there, but they speak in the name of the government. Here's what gives me hope. We have several digital startups in places like Jordan, like Lebanon, like Egypt, that belong to this muckraking fact finding fact, fact asserting certain type of media that use social media. So some of these are social media native. Right not, digital media native, not only internet based, but social media narrative. And so they use things like Facebook and Twitter to create very short, very appealing videos. For example, that attack government figures for lying. I think this is the future because this is what the new generation is following number one. Number two, this is what can cut through the fog and grab attention. We're saturated by information. We live in sheperes that are saturated. So the sort of hard hitting short, you know, they're like haiku, right? Like, it's very short. It's very brief. It hits hard. You pay attention. And here's what's interesting analyze that. In addition to government censorship, when I speak with these media creators, they tend to be young. A lot of them tend to be in their 20s and younger. What they tell me? Yes, we're worried about government censorship, but we're also worried about what Facebook does. We have a new censor the algorithm, right? If Facebook decides not to push a story, nobody will notice it, even if the government doesn't file a complaint with Twitter or Facebook, they're facing that sort of the business logics of these platforms. So those are the challenges and opportunities that I see. 

Annelise Riles [00:06:19] That is absolutely fascinating, the idea that those platforms are both enablers and limits of journalistic freedom. Again, a key issue for global affairs to take on. So let's turn now to your day job, which is as a leader of our Northwestern campus in Qatar. So some of our listeners may not be familiar with Education City in Doha, Qatar. Could you tell us a little bit about this really incredible place and explain a little bit how we imagine the university differently from this kind of place? 

Marwan Kraidy [00:06:55] Education City is indeed a very special place. It is the brainchild of the royal family of Qatar, particularly the previous emir and his spouse. Education City does several things one of them, if you think of the Silicon Valley model of clustering top institutions next to each other, you get very quick learning institutional learning from each other. But you also get a variety and the pluralism of perspectives of knowledge, basis and all that. So Education City is a very large campus in Doha. It is under the egis of the Qatar Foundation, which is the partner of Northwestern University. But also the partner of several others. So we have Cornell for Medicine, Texas A&M for Engineering, Georgetown for diplomacy, Virginia Commonwealth for art. Northwestern is here for media communication. But we also have a very vibrant liberal arts program. And what we do is we offer U.S. degrees to a student body that includes a high percentage of Qatari and Arab students, but also a very high percentage of international students, particularly but not exclusively from the Global South. The idea in Qatar is that,this is what was very appealing sort of structurally about the job, is that knowledge and education are national priorities that almost national security priorities because education and knowledge societies are what will allow countries like Qatar to have a very prosperous and thriving post oil and gas future. And so that's the vision. The way Northwestern has worked here is that we're a combination of communication, journalism and arts and sciences. Right. So Weinberg, the School of Communication and the Medill School of Journalism.

Annelise Riles [00:08:35] Let's talk about your latest passion project, which is the newly launched Institute for Advanced Study in the Global South. Tell us a little bit about this initiative. It's so exciting. There's so much interest in this on the Evanson campus at Northwestern. What do you see as the purpose here? 

Marwan Kraidy [00:08:52] So the purpose of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Global South is is multiple. I think one of them, clearly the primary one is to both foment a culture of research, but also to promote what is already being done at NU-Q by faculty and students. I believe in involving undergraduates in research. One of the best things about undergraduate students I find is that minds have not been fully shaped. I remember when I was in grad school, for example, you know, you have predilections and ways of seeing that make it very difficult for you to think otherwise. You know, undergrads don't have that problem. So I find that incredibly refreshing. I learned so much from talking to undergraduates, but also when you think of a place like NU-Q, where we have undergraduate students from 60 countries, 60, I assume 100 languages are spoken on campus on a daily basis. Think of what that means when you're creating knowledge. Think of the windows and doors and prisms on the universe, on our world, that our students, our faculty is similar, but of course, smaller number. And so to me, the institute recognizes who and NU-Q is already and turns that into a cornerstone of my vision for the university, which is a focus on the Global South. That's a focus that's very distinctive. That's the focus that our partners at the Qatar Foundation are very excited about because what we're doing is we're helping create a knowledge based society where knowledge is created locally. If you look at research, for example, it depends who you read and what report you read. But anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of knowledge about the global south is produced in the U.S., Canada and a few countries in Western Europe and maybe Japan and Australia. One of the first objectives is to create capacity for knowledge production that is truly global, including one that's locally based. 

Annelise Riles [00:10:50] For our listeners who maybe aren't familiar with the term, what do you mean exactly by the Global South? 

Marwan Kraidy [00:10:56] That's an incredibly important question, because I don't have a specific answer. So what I tell the community think of the notion of Global South as an invitation to dialog beyond the boundaries of how we have been taught to think and to answer this question precisely. You know, one of the things we've done, we've convened a group of faculty panels at NU-Q and hopefully soon from Evanston in Chicago, who discuss what the Global South means to them. I can tell you what it means to me. First of all, it does mean, very broadly speaking, the geographic area of the world that used to be called the Third World. Now, the Third World clearly is a fruit of the of the Cold War. You know what's not the capitalist west, the first world, the Soviet East, so to speak, or the communist, is the second world, right? So that's a very basic way of thinking about it. The Global South, however, is also a historical construction of countries that have had to deal with colonialism and imperialism. That's what the literature shows. And so that's that's another thing that's very important. I think a third definition which matters a lot to me is the Global South as an analytical category that has a context, a set of context, a set of experiences, a set of languages that allow us to look and understand the world in ways that sometimes the Western Academy is unable to because it hasn't had the historical experiences. It hasn't had the contemporary lived experience of conflict of forces that shape it, that the Global South has had. And finally, because oftentimes, as you know, in the Western Academy, we don't have the actual research and linguistic training to look at a complex country in sub-Saharan Africa where 17 languages are spoken, where the French and the British have fought over it as colonial powers that nonetheless the country has an incredibly vibrant culture that's in multiple languages, has its own social class issues like any other country. So the sheer complexity of these places is what we hope to demystify, but also explain and learn from. 

Annelise Riles [00:13:02] This is so important. And I think that what you're sharing with our listeners here is a vision of the University of the Future that I hope will be realized from starting with the kernel of what you're creating. Can you just flesh out for folks who may not be familiar? How is this different from international studies, area studies, global studies? What happens that most of our big universities. 

Marwan Kraidy [00:13:24] It borrows from all of these traditions. You know, none of us pretends to have invented this idea from scratch. We all built on each other, right? But I think one of the things that that we're trying to highlight, first of all, let's let's begin with a mission to ferment evidence based storytelling. What do we mean by this? Storytelling is universal. It's a universal phenomenon that's also contextually specific, but it also sends a signal that what we are doing is not just the traditional scholarship of ink on paper or digits on a screen. We're also interested in filmmaking in multimodal scholarship and game design. So there is that the style, the modality of communication, I think, is something new. We're not going to do research on paper and then popularize it or propagate it. So that's one too. It's the sheer, multi-discipline narrative of the enterprise. When you have an anthropologist who specializes in the Middle East with a sociologist who works on South Asia with a media scholar who works on Latin America, and they're on a panel to figure out what the global south means, you get a conversation that you will never get in area studies. So this combination of different areas of the world that our faculty and student focus on different disciplinary trainings and different modalities of expression, I think is what makes it unique, because then that permutation are almost infinite. Areas of expertise, languages used, disciplinary training and modality of research dissemination. I think that combination is what makes us unique. In addition to the focus on the Global South. 

Annelise Riles [00:14:58] So I can imagine that Northwestern University in Qatar is sort of an ideal location for this, because you're all about new forms of digital and other communications and because you are located in such a crossroads position. 

Marwan Kraidy [00:15:14] Yes, absolutely. I mean, I like to call us an embedded institution, and I borrow this from, you know, relational sociology. It's an isolated institution that then has relations. It's an institution that is made that is shaped by its relationships and that is very sensitive and responds to its contexts. But it's also located at the confluence of continents, right? I mean, Doha is almost the middle of a straight line, for example, between New York City and Delhi. It's the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe, the middle of that of the Middle East. But Asia, Africa and Europe are almost equidistant from us. We have an airline that flies to probably more cities than most other airlines in the world. So, yes, the context matters tremendously. 

Annelise Riles [00:15:55] So when I'm creating things institutionally, I sort of like to think in terms of prototypes and iterative development, and I see this as a really, really important prototype for the future of the university. So what is this test case that you're just embarking on now? Tell us about the challenges we may face in getting to this new vision of what a university is. How is it difficult? What are the pressure points? What are the things people don't get? What are the next challenges for getting there? 

Marwan Kraidy [00:16:28] I think we do have several challenges. I think one of them is what some people have called academic nationalism, which is by trying to be distinctive. Sometimes you retrench and you go back to basically what makes you unique is a combination of what you were and what you're becoming. And oftentimes we tend to retrench back to what we were in the past. And I think that is not to be underestimated as a challenge. I think the second challenge is to make people work together. You know, collaboration in some academic circles has almost become a dirty word, right? Because people say, you know what is unique about this? It's an outcome of a neoliberal thinking. It's it's not about knowledge, but you and I know that the intractable challenges we face, whether it's climate change, violence, human trafficking, none of us can even begin to imagine resolving on our own. So I think a challenge is to make people work together while preserving individual voices. I think a third challenge is what digital technology allows us to do, but also prevents us from doing. I used to run a center at pen the Center for Advanced Research in Global Communication. The pandemic starts. Everything moves on Zoom and suddenly the event that you get used to get twenty five people gets 80. It used to be twenty five people who are from Philadelphia. If we had a particularly interesting speaker, people might show up. A couple of people might show up from New York, but suddenly you have 80 people and you have somebody who in the Q&A says, Hey, I'm in Sao Paulo, and here's what I think or I'm in Osaka, and this is a great program, and that's spectacular. When you first realized the access, the truly global audience that that gives you, we need to build on that in the post-pandemic world. We need to build on making our programing and our ideas and our debates more accessible. The flip side of this, I think the flip side of the digital is that it tends to push us towards speed. And I think in some ways, fast thinking, almost fast food thinking. You take a couple of ideas you already have, you repackage them and you pretend it's something new and we tend to do it way too fast. And I think digital tools push us towards this what I call intellectual velocity that is good in some cases when we have to respond to emergencies and crises, but it's also incredibly prohibitive when we're thinking of really long term problems that need long term solutions. So how do we create two tempos where we can work on short term challenges? You know, the pandemic happened or, you know, the tsunami in Tonga? You know, how? How can we help as a university community, collect books for a country whose libraries have been burned down? You know, think basic things, but also think very long term? And I worry that the myth of immediacy that digital tools have brought to us make us incapable or intolerant of thinking long term and developing methodologies and theories that allow us to resolve the world's problems on the long term. 

Annelise Riles [00:19:25] I just want to pause and ask our listeners to stop and playback what you just said. Because in that was, I think, the stuff of about five important doctoral dissertations just waiting to be written. I want to close by asking you a question which I ask of all of our guests, which is as you think about the future. What worries you the most? And what are you most hopeful about? 

Marwan Kraidy [00:19:51] I think what worries me the most are two things, and they're both cliches in a way, but they do worry me the most. One of them is the fate of our planet. On alarmingly more frequent basis, Earth screams in our face, take care of me, take care of me, take care of me, I'm dying and we pretend that Earth is overreacting or is having a bad day, while in fact it's it's a long term self-destruction. I do worry about this tremendously. What gives me hope is I see a new generation that understands the issues in ways that I'm still beginning to understand. And I'm talking about people who are teenagers, university students all over the world. Climate change activism is one of our hopes convincing people, powerful people who make decisions that it's no longer about their grandchildren. It's almost about the end of our lifetimes now. And if they are not going to react to take care of their grandchildren and their children, take care of yourself. The second thing that won't surprise you from everything I talked about is that we're losing the ability to speak to each other. I feel everybody's becoming their own provincial, personalized, self-centered note, a feeling of information. Part of this, of course, is, you know, we talk a lot about the digital environment. The polarization of everything is tailored to you, so you don't need to be exposed to other ideas. I think this is truly dangerous. I see it all over the place. I see it in adults. I see it in my own children. I see it when I watch the media. We have lost the ability to have a conversation with someone whose views we may find absolutely erroneous or wrongheaded, and that really worries me. We do see a reaction of people who are trying, you know, I mean, some of the stuff you're doing at Buffett, for example, in that regard is amazing because again, like, what can we solve? What can we understand if we're looking at a mirror and screaming that we're right 100 percent of the time? Nothing, there's nothing we can do that really worries me. I see it in my students. I see it in my colleagues. Sometimes I see it in myself. I catch myself being intolerant of another idea that I never agreed with, but I used to tolerate because some very smart and well-meaning and thoughtful people believe it, and I don't have a solution for that. It's definitely going to be a collective solution, a collaborative solution. But we do need to seriously think about resolving this issue and start learning to speak with people who are fundamentally different from us. Be able to dialog with people who believe very different things from us. 

Annelise Riles [00:22:29] Well, Marwan Kraidy, you give me hope and I absolutely mean that. Thank you for the example that you offer us. And for all of these tremendous kernels of wisdom you've shared with us today. We look forward to much more collaboration between the Institute at NU-Q and Northwestern Buffett. Thank you. 

Marwan Kraidy [00:22:50] Thank you so very much for having me for this great conversation. Thank you. 

Marwan Kraidy [00:22:57] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at. Buffett.Northwestern.Edu.