Ford School IEDP students travel to Greece to research economic, refugee policies

April 20, 2017

On Wednesday, April 12th, graduate students from U-M’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy presented their research on two timely and challenging global policy problems: how to restart an economy after a financial crisis, and how to integrate large flows of refugees.

Over the break in February, 20 students traveled to Greece, a country that has been at the center of these two policy issues over the past few years. They had been studying both crises in depth from Ann Arbor, and had scheduled a week full of meetings in Athens with organizations and officials addressing each issue.

The Athens Stock Exchange

The trip was part of the Ford School’s International Economic Development Program (IEDP). Organized and led by students (with supervision from faculty members), the program offers graduate students the opportunity to conduct policy research in an emerging market economy. Previous IEDP cohorts had travelled to Cuba, Brazil, Myanmar, and other nations. This year's trip, the 17th since the program’s launch in 2000, was only the second to conduct research in a European Union country.

In many ways, Greece seems like an outlier for IEDP. The country is relatively wealthy and developed—it ranks 29th globally in GDP per capita—but in recent years, it has faced many of the same economic problems as emerging markets.

Like much of the world, Greece’s economy went into a recession in 2008. At first, although thousands of Greeks were working and earning less, the economy was in much better health than others in Europe. That changed abruptly in 2009, after a new government announced much larger than expected budget deficits. Few investors wanted to finance the country’s debt, creating an economic crisis far more severe than what we experienced here in the United States.

Learning about Greek history through a tour of Acropolis

And in 2015, while creditors and politicians were negotiating economic bailouts, a second crisis engulfed Greece. Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers were arriving from Turkey each day, on their way to northern European states. Roughly 2.5 million arrived between 2015 and March 2016. Seemingly overnight, Greece became the gateway to Europe for millions fleeing conflict.

The class divided into four research groups at the beginning of the program, two for each crisis. While students wrote extensive papers and led lectures before the trip, they said the meetings in Greece provided dozens of new and nuanced details.

They met with some of Greece’s top economists and with the Prime Minister’s advisers. They met with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Rescue Committee, and Save the Children—three influential NGOs working on the refugee crisis. They met with diplomats, including both the U.S. and Turkish ambassadors to Greece. And they visited the country’s largest refugee camp, allowing them to see the human consequences of both successful and failed policies.

Petro Mastakas from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

But the experience offered much more than a chance to study policy. As a group, students wrote research and funding proposals, made travel plans, and arranged meetings.

Krisjanuardi Aditomo (MPP ‘17), who wanted to learn more about Greece’s tepid economic recovery, says the student-led aspect of the course made the trip particularly meaningful. Generally, professors determine what students study, setting a syllabus, he says. “But that’s not the case in IEDP.”

Alan Deardorff, John. W. Sweetland Professor of Economics and this year's faculty lead, said that he was impressed at how smoothly the trip went. “I attribute that to the quality of student leadership,” he says.

Fandi Achmad (MPP ‘18) says hearing the perspectives of high-level policymakers and economists was “something I couldn’t find in a book or research paper.” Achmad expects the perspective he’s developed on Greece’s economic recovery will be valuable for his career goal: to work in an intergovernmental organization that addresses international policies.

Jessica Youngblood (MPP/MPH ‘18) also emphasized the trip's impact on her professional aspirations. Youngblood joined IEDP, she says, because she had worked with refugees in Seattle in 2013, and as a dual-degree major in public policy and public health, she wanted to learn more about the health challenges in Greek refugee camps. “Meeting with members from all the NGOs was so inspiring,” she says. For Youngblood, the trip confirmed her desire to spend her career making a difference in international refugee issues.

Commander Kleanthis Kyriakidis and colleagues at the Hellenic Naval War College

Returning after a week full of policy-relevant meetings, cultural explorations, and of course, Greek food, it’s clear the experience there didn’t just provide a chance to inform students' research or career objectives. It also broadened their U-M experience—honing leadership and fundraising skills, offering the opportunity to interact with high-level officials, and allowing students to see firsthand how policies affect people.

Next year’s IEDP country nominations are Senegal and the Dominican Republic. Voting for Ford School students is open now, and the winning country will be announced shortly.

For more information about the students' meetings in Greece, see their blog. Posts describe the Athens Stock Exchange, the Greek National Commission on Human Rights, The Hellenic Naval War College, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Diplomatic Office of the Prime Minister, the Melissa Network, and more.

-- Story by Jacqueline Mullen (MPP '18) and Anthony Cozart (MPP '18).