Roland Hoksbergen, Professor of Economics, Director of International Development Studies Program, Calvin College Print {sharethis label=}

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

By Evelyn Garland, Student Outreach Coordinator
Christian Connections for International Health (CCIH)

Roland Hoksbergen earned his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Notre Dame and since 1983 has been Professor of Economics at Calvin College where he also serves as director of the International Development Studies program. He lived for seven years in various countries of Central America and from 1986-89 was the founding director of the Latin American Studies Program of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. His research and writing focus on development issues, including civil society, neoliberalism, NGO partnerships, the role of the private sector in development assistance strategies and transformational development. His articles have appeared in World Development, Development in Practice, the Journal of Developing Areas and Faith & Economics as well as in handbooks and encyclopedias of development. With Lowell Ewert he co-edited Local Ownership, Global Change: Will Civil Society Save the World? (World Vision/Marc 2002). He frequently consults with faith based development organizations, especially the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and Partners Worldwide.

Getting started

Evelyn: How did you get into international development?

Roland: I can tell you my story as I understand it, and include what I think I can include and should include. But I also believe that we are all a bit self-delusional, that we tell ourselves stories that are sometimes not completely true. I think part of this is because we don’t really know completely the reasons. Still, I’ll give it a try.

When I was young, I always had a strong sense of compassion, care and concern for people who were being hurt. I don’t know why, but I did have that. I was being raised and growing up in the 60s. I remember being very interested, although not deeply involved in, the civil rights movement, and not understanding how it was that the white people would behave the way they would towards other people who were being victimized. I saw it as terribly unjust and I can’t explain that, really. That was just a part of who I was.

Then the more practical part of the story is this: I came to Calvin College to study after high school. I don’t know exactly what the reasons were for studying anthropology, but that’s what I started studying partly because it was exotic, it had to do with other people around the world; I also liked adventure, far-away places, and exciting things. After two years of that, I wasn’t sure yet where that was going. I wanted a little adventure outside of school. So for the next three years I didn’t go to school very much. What happened in those three years was very foundational to the whole story as it developed. I first just worked and bought a van and took a trip to Alaska, where I was pretty much by myself for five or six months. I read books, I played my guitar, I fished, I hiked a lot, I met people and talked – that was all sort of just growing up and learning about people and life and the United States and Canada and all those places. Then when I got back, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Somebody in my church told me that there was an earthquake in Guatemala and the church was looking for people to volunteer to work on reconstruction activities. I had learned about Guatemala in my anthropology classes a bit, and it was another country, and I had learned some Spanish and I thought it would fun to learn more Spanish, and it was a chance to care for people who needed some help. So I went to Guatemala and I ended up being there for about a year. While I was in Guatemala – this was the first time I was in a developing country – I discovered, like so many people do on their first trip to a place like this, “Wow, people really are poor here.” Then I wondered and started asking questions: Why are they poor? What are the factors that have caused this? What could I do? What could my nation do? What could my church do? What should we do? All those questions were on my mind. It was at that point that I received some clarity about what direction my studies should take.

So I came back to the United States and studied the thing that I thought was most important to study related to poverty –economics, at Calvin College. One of the economics professors at Calvin, after getting to know me, said: “Maybe you should think about getting a doctorate in economic development.” And I thought “yes, that does make a lot of sense.” So I started to explore those possibilities and I studied further. There’s always this tension in the work we do about reflection and action. There’s part of me that is a student, reader and thinker and I want to reflect on how to do it, what’s being done, and the significance of all that – that’s the academic part of who I am; but I also know how important it is to do things. So usually when I’m in an academic setting teaching I feel a little anxious because I’m not doing something practical; and then when I’m in the field actually working, it feels to me that I’m not doing as much thinking and reflecting as I would like to be doing. I’ve tried to find a balance that has allowed me to do some of both.

Career choice

Evelyn: For how many years did you work in the field?

Roland: About six years. The year in Guatemala, then two years of dedicated work in Nicaragua in the mid 90s, in the 80s for three years I lived in Central America and Costa Rica.

Evelyn: Why did you end up becoming a professor instead of a program manager?

Roland: That was that academic side of life – I have that yearning to be reflective and part of my identity and my nature was to think things through and to talk to people to just figure it all out. And, I realize how many open and interesting questions there are and I was naturally drawn to trying to answer these questions.

Secret in engaging people

Evelyn: How do you inspire and engage people who don’t yet have a strong interest in international development?

Roland: The best way to engage people – I can’t say it works every time and I don’t see well enough into the heart of anybody to understand how this works – but I know that the single event that inspires most people and most touches their heart is to connect with other people. For many students and young people, it is the simple act of going overseas and living in environments where they meet real people and see the faces of the children, the grandparents, the parents, and listen to the stories of people about their lives and about the way things are – that’s what touched me in a very particular way in Guatemala when I was twenty-two – it’s the real people. Statistics do little in touching people. Sometimes people are touched by stories, and sometimes people have a natural orientation towards compassion – like I did somewhat. Not everybody seems to have that natural orientation, but when they see people or encounter a needy person, most people are touched by that.

Oftentimes that can occur right here in the United States. For example, I took a group of students once to Chicago. We visited and talked with a number of people. We listened to their stories. They told us how their lives were and the struggles they faced in making it in Chicago in a difficult economic environment – a violence plagued area of the city. Several of these students who had not really thought much of this before had their lives changed by it. You cannot achieve that nearly as easily, readily, quickly, and transformational without having people see, and hear, and touch, and be near other people. That is the key, and that’s the biggest tip that I have. I have very few words or gimmicks or strategies for doing it other than introducing people to the world and the people.

“Is there a job for me in development?”

Evelyn: I’ve seen so many students here at Calvin College so enthusiastic about international development. That makes me wonder: are there that many jobs for everyone who would like to work in international development?

Roland: Probably yes and no. The no answer first. If you look at the people who are out in the field – practitioners, representatives of organizations who are in the different countries around the world, playing roles as expatriates in those positions – Then the answer is no. Some people think all expatriates should be working themselves out of a job, which would mean fewer and fewer such jobs for our graduates over time. But I’m not that extreme. I think we need to be in constant relationship. We will always have a need for people to be interacting and working together across organizational, cultural, language and regional lines, and in all sorts of ways. So while there are overseas jobs that need to be done and there are positions to be filled, the number of those particular types of jobs is somewhat limited. I don’t know what the limits are. Nor do I want to say that I know for sure that there are only these many jobs out there and that’s all there is – because there’s always room for creative potential and possibility.

Now let me answer the yes side. One part of the yes side is that there are places in the world for everybody who wants to make a difference. Some of those places are waiting to be created. We don’t know exactly – it’s not like we have all these predetermined niches and notches in the world that we are trying just to fill with people. The world is always changing and evolving and developing, and along with that, different jobs, different placement, a lot of globalizing, integrative work in a mission, in a business, in a political, civil society… all these different levels keep arising. Many of those positions are constantly forming and reforming, phasing out and new things are developing. A lot of that is up to our creativity.

The other part of the yes answer is that the people who study international development are in this because they care deeply about the world and want to be a constructive influence. Some of them realize that, given their own circumstances, it’s not likely that they are going to be able to spend their lives overseas. I’ve run into people who go overseas and say they really want to be involved in a global arena, BUT, they’re not cut out to live overseas; They need to be close to home. And that’s a very valid reason to stay closer to home. But that doesn’t mean that their education and the role they might play in their church, in their local business, in their local community can’t be related to international development. They can still play a very significant role – whether that be a citizen role or a volunteer role or a professional role, I don’t know. For example, a person who studies international development and then gets a job in a business here may have much greater sensitivity to some of the global business issues that that business might get involved in and play a developmental role in some significant way.

Evelyn: So international development is a very broad issue and people can contribute in many ways.

Roland: Some people work in the field, some in the home offices of organizations. There’s a significant role for people in home offices, like me – I’m teaching here at Calvin College and I manage to travel now and then and get into other places of the world. Then there are lots of people who work in just every area of life that are globally aware and then integrate that sort of thinking, that sort of life, and those sorts of values into whatever network and whatever area of life they get involved in. All of these roles are very important.

Network, network, network!

Evelyn: To follow up something you mentioned earlier – the connection between people. Speaking of connections, a lot of students now have realized how important knowing the right people is. Many students want to approach professionals and professors and learn from them. How can students approach and impress professionals?

Roland: Students and young people wanting to network and to know people in the field will do that naturally if they really care about this field. One way is to attend conferences and interact with people. For example, at a conference like this [note: referring to Faith and International Development Conference], a lot of the speakers and presenters are available at those sessions and are available after those session to talk, and they are available at topic tables too. It is extremely wise and absolutely appropriate for students in those circumstances to take advantage of the opportunities to meet people, discuss and share ideas, and ask questions.

Development professionals are a lot more impressed with young people who show a real commitment to the issues as opposed to those who seem to want to get to know you because you might be useful to them. If people see students and young folks who really care, who are really interested, who really have ideas, and who have shown that they’ve done some prior work and evidence of commitment in a variety of ways – well, that’s what’s most impressive. That’s not something that you can pretend and you shouldn’t try. But I am amazed that young people are often a little bit intimidated, they are scared, and they think we don’t have time. I suppose it is true that older people sometimes behave that way and I wish we didn’t. For my part, and I better speak only for myself, when I see young people who care and are committed, and want to know, and want to learn, I’m willing to spend time with them. Many of the people at this conference and at similar events are the same. When they see a committed young person they say: here’s a person who is worth my time.

Evelyn: Could you elaborate what you meant by “commitment”? I know a lot of young people who are not really ready to committed to anything in particular, still struggling to find out what exactly they want to do in the future – they don’t know; they’re exploring. They are committed in a sense that they really want to do something good.

Roland: When I say commitment, I mean honest questioning and caring about things that are worth caring about, in a general way. I’m not saying that somebody has to be interested in knowing how to do, say, a business partnership, because that’s a fairly detailed aspect of the a particular development strategy. Maybe they’re not ready for that yet. But if they listen to a presentation on this topic by someone who has had experience in it and then simply explore with that person some of the questions they might have – giving evidence of a true desire to learn – that shows caring about things and commitment to the exploration of what the speaker was talking about. I don’t think it has to mean a commitment to this particular strategy or this particular agency or this particular country the speaker might be working in, but a general, committed heart –a personal commitment to invest personal resources in discovering, learning, and building ourselves to care in ways that make a difference. That’s what I mean by “commitment”. Not to a particular field or line of work, but a general and honest to care about what God wants us to care about.

Evelyn: What do you think a network organization like CCIH as well as professionals can do to help students better develop their networking skills?

Roland: That’s a very good question. First, as I alluded to before, I don’t think you are going to instill that commitment. That’s something that needs to come from within. But if that commitment is there in seed form, then it can be nourished and affirmed, and it should be – I would think that professionals and an organization like CCIH might do as much as they can to let the students and young people know: one, it’s ok to interact with professionals; two, to provide opportunities for doing that; and three, to try to help build up the young person’s confidence in being able to do that in appropriate ways – that’s where I don’t want to get formulaic because that’s where you hear people say things like “well, it’ll look good on your resume” – I don’t like that language. That’s when it’s a little dangerous to say how to improve networking skills.

I want to tell students that, whenever we are talking about studies and careers and networking and such, that they should make their decisions because it’s in their heart to do it; if it’s in their heart to do it, then it will also look good on their resume because it represents them truthfully. The important thing for a resume to do is to represent the person truthfully. So for networking skills, we can help people by giving opportunities, building up confidence, letting students and young people know it’s ok to interact, and maybe providing the context within which to do that.

Now, how might that be done? Certainly a conference like this [note: referring to Faith and International Development Conference] is one way. I can imagine other ways too. Some of them might be probably virtual – a lot of web work is being done now with blogs and interactions of people. It’s less personal, you don’t know the people – I’m not sure it’s as helpful. Mentoring possibilities come to mind, too.

“What if I don’t want to look stupid?”

Evelyn: What would you say to young people who are reluctant to ask questions or approach professionals because they are afraid to appear “stupid”?

Roland: I know what you mean. And I know it’s a real issue. Let me say before I try to venture any sort an answer to that: professors and professionals are insecure too; they also are afraid of looking stupid. That has a lot to do with our human sense of insecurity and our fear that we are going to look vulnerable, that we are not going to look in control, that we are not going to portray the image that we would really like to portray – strong, knowledgeable, wise, capable people. So we have a tendency, not just students, but everyone, to keep any windows into our vulnerabilities tightly closed. We don’t want to or say something such that people are going to walk out afterwards and say “I can’t believe you said that”. So one thing to say to young people is that there’s nobody who is immune to these fears. If you are worried about looking foolish in your question, just know that most everybody else in the room feels exactly the same way about the questions they might ask.

The other thing – I recognize this, too, that we all, including professors, often take advantage of the opportunity to put someone down so that we look better. We all do this; young people do it to old people, old people do it to young people, and it comes from our own insecurity. It’s a very unfortunate part of our fallen natures. So we do laugh at people. We will say “what a dumb comment” about others. And we know full well that when professors say “there’s no such thing as a dumb question” that this is not totally true, because when a student asks a question, they will chuckle at it, or they may say something that is really harmful and hurtful to the student. We know this happens too. When it does, it tends to shut the student down, because he/she doesn’t want to encounter that again. We are all very sensitive to our self-esteem and self-respect. We really need to learn how to respond to others in love. That’s part of it.

The other part of it for students and young folks is to think carefully and to learn how to pose questions in ways that are diplomatic; we also need to learn that it’s ok to laugh at ourselves. It’s hard. I don’t know how to instill that – a sense of willingness to be vulnerable. I know how important it is – you look at the Philippians 2 passage that tells how Jesus gave up everything, like our plenary speaker said the other day, to give up everything, to be an absolute and totally vulnerable person, a human being. We need to be able to show that sort of vulnerability, too – to give up our power, to give up our need for control and esteem and images that we create for ourselves. We have to try to put that all aside and do our best and not apologize for that.

Evelyn: Being willing to be vulnerable is showing love. When you love, you become vulnerable to the people you love.

Roland: I think that’s exactly right.

More about Roland – A reader and thinker with contagious enthusiasm

You must remember moments when you were so tired and you only wished to be left alone so you could collapse in your seat, don’t you? That was exactly how I felt when I found out that Roland and I would take the same train after an exhausting all-day meeting in Washington, DC. We just met that morning and barely knew each other! I became sort of nervous since my brain had started to hibernate as I tried to figure out what to talk about with this near-stranger on the train… oh, man!

It turned out to be a lot easier than I thought. Roland was such a pleasant conversation companion – he was very eloquent in an attentive and non-boastful way. We talked on and on about books, and random passengers on the crowded train started to join our conversation! If you ever wonder what you would talk about with Roland on a trip, talk about books on international development. He’s a real reader and thinker with contagious enthusiasm in international development!



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Last Updated ( Friday, 16 July 2010 18:52 )