So many lectures, so little time!

It’s been quite the week for lectures at the LSE… and it’s only Tuesday! Yesterday we welcomed Paul Collier from Oxford and today we hosted Muhammad Yunus (founder of the Grameen Bank) and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (Col. Gaddafi’s son). We also have a panel with Rory Stewart tomorrow, a lecture on the career-family conundrum on Thursday and a lecture on HIV/AIDS in Uganda (and anti-retroviral distribution) also on Thursday. Biiiig week with loads of interesting stuff. In any case, you probably noticed my lack of updates for the past few days — I’ve been so enthralled with creating the yearbook for my MSc (which is coming along spectacularly, by the way) plus hitting up these amazing lectures that I haven’t had a chance to update. So here is a bit of a recap from the past few days:

Oxford’s Paul Collier came on Monday evening to speak about his new book, The Plundered Planet, to give us some insight into the situation of natural resources in Africa and the idea of ‘ownership’ of natural resources. I actually attended the lecture primarily to see Paul Collier (rather than for the subject matter as such), but was pleasantly surprised with the lecture (unlike some of my colleagues who fell asleep half way through…). He addressed the idea of natural assets and the future generations’ entitlement to said assets; the idea that we may have certain assets now, but they don’t necessarily belong to us (‘us’ meaning our generation) but rather belong to us and to the future. As such, we have to make sure that we either a) preserve the assets (whether it be gold, copper, fish, forests, etc.) to pass on their value to the future, or b) convert them into other assets that will have equal value to our children in the future… I actually left the lecture wanting to buy the book to check it out. That’s clearly the intent of the lecture, but it’s rare that I leave a public event and feel so inclined. The general concept was quite interesting plus he referenced the idea of the bottom billion which, of course, he wrote about in his book by the same name. All in all, pleasantly surprised, plus it just added the ‘wow’ factor to my present trifecta of aid voices: Moyo, Easterly, and now Collier. If only Sachs could take time from making MTV videos to come visit the LSE… maybe one day.

Now, as I mentioned, Muhammad Yunus and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi both came to campus today and both events were ticketed. Being a development student, I originally tried to grab a ticket to the Yunus lecture which I was super pumped about. Being that microfinance has made such a contribution, it seemed fitting to attend his lecture and hear his insights. Sadly (I use ‘sadly’ very loosely), I was in Spain when the tickets went up for grabs and by the time I landed (about 3 hours after the tickets went online), I was too late. A few days later, I checked out the events site and saw the lecture on Libya (also ticketed) and decided to try for a ticket. Fortunately, I managed to get one despite the fact that my interest was only so-so. I’m actually kind of happy that I ended up with a ticket to this lecture instead. Though Yunus is clearly a huge draw, there’s something a bit cooler about going to such a controversial speaker.

My energy levels skyrocketed even more when I was waiting in the New Academic Building around 5:30P, an hour before the lecture was actually slated to begin. Sitting on the lower ground floor, I heard shouting from the entrance and looked up to see two grown men yelling and swinging. This is what I came for! I thought — not another feel-good speaker, but someone who brings out some protesters. Indeed, there were a few protesters outside, police cars, bobbies and body guards around the building. I was excited for a heated debate and an LSE-style Q&A sesh (read: interrogation).

Saif, the son of Colonel Gaddafi actually attended LSE for a Masters degree (he has two) and for his PhD. David Held, the chair of tonight’s lecture, was actually his PhD dissertation advisor, so they know each other quite well. Gaddafi spoke about where Libya had been as a nation, what had brought them to that point, where they currently were and where he saw the country going potentially. He spoke about democracy, building civil society and accountability, representative government, etc., etc.; he brought up a lot of facts but the lecture still had a bit of a romanticized (read: BS) feel about it; direct quote: ‘in theory, Libya is the most democratic country in the world!’ Cue laughter. I was a bit turned off by his speech from the get-go. Though he is entitled to a little choppiness (English is obviously not his first language and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he doesn’t give speeches/lectures all of the time), I expected a more… natural delivery, I suppose. He was literally reading his speech; not just notes and cues, but a word-for-word, rather staccato speech. Like I said, a bit disappointed. Though I wanted to believe that he came up with these ideas and penned them himself, it was a little rough.  After his speech came the Q&A… this is what I had been waiting for! I don’t know enough about the Libyan situation to form a qualified question, but being at a school like the LSE, I was sure that there were people in the audience that had fiery questions to ask… but no. Many of the questions came from people in the reserved seats in the front rows; supporters that came with him. Even when students did ask questions, they weren’t particularly hard-hitting (e.g. ‘it seems like tourism is the cornerstone of your plans for Libya, what are your thoughts for building tourism in the country?’ ‘Solar power is a prominent new area for Libya, can you speak to that?’) What the eff? There were a few questions that I was interested in (e.g. a question on the brain drain, the media, Col. Gaddafi vs. the idea of democracy, women’s involvement in civil society, etc.) but the questions from the audience were surprisingly tame. A bit disappointing…

I think the only reason that I left the lecture feeling kind of okay about it was because a) I went in with fairly low expectations, just wanting to hear him speak on the topic at hand; and b) I wasn’t too familiar with the situation in Libya. While many IR and Middle Eastern studies kids were a bit put off by the whole lecture, I was only mildly disconcerted. If you want to read another account of the lecture, the Hybrid Diplomat, who was also at the lecture, has written about it at his blog.

In any case, being able to attend all of these awesome lectures (with pretty incredible speakers) just reminds me why I love the LSE so much — I think I’m going to miss the public lectures more than anything when I’m gone! I’m sure you guys are already aware, but if you’re interested in hearing any of these lectures, they’re all available through LSE on iTunes for free! We have a lot of great events, so download them and get to listening!

Lots of love from London,