Learning by Doing


Liliana Andonova's students develop practical solutions to global problems

By Ruth Jacobs
Photography by Fred Field


Photo by Fred Field
Before banker Muhammad Yunus brought attention to micro-lending by winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Government Liliana Andonova had created a course on poverty alleviation and sustainable development and had assigned Yunus's book, Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty. As she sees it, extreme poverty is one the three major challenges of the 21st century, right up there with climate change, which she tackles in another course. (The third, she says, is security: "I don't work on security, but climate change and poverty are right down my alley.")

Now in her third year at Colby, Andonova guides her students through these complex global issues"and teaches them to find practical solutions. Her students begin by acquiring in-depth knowledge of their subject, then put that knowledge to use in exercises that might include negotiating a proposed international treaty on emissions or interviewing local volunteers in Paraguay. "It's a completely different kind of framework"of learning and participating," said Renzo Mendoza Castro '07, who took the climate-change course last spring and the new sustainable-development course in the fall.

In Climate Change Politics, using the Kyoto Protocol as a starting point, students collectively created a treaty more likely to be ratified by key countries. Each student represented a country in the negotiations. "Every student got to know in depth the country they were representing," said Mendoza. "We learned a lot about how countries make concessions and stand strong on certain things." Mendoza represented Peru, his home country. And in February he is traveling to Chicago with Andonova to present a paper about this course at the International Studies Association's annual convention.

Mendoza's paper will discuss the international solution that his class devised, a solution that Andonova called "very, very ingenious." One of the reasons the U.S. pulled out of Kyoto, she says, was the failure of some developing nations (and major polluters) to ratify. Her students found a way to appeal to those countries, namely China and India. The class set emissions targets for developing countries to just slightly below "business as usual," making the target attainable. If the countries dropped below target, they could sell their credits to the international market.

"Even though it looks weak, it commits countries to a target and it's no longer a question of whether they're in or out of the treaty," she said. "It's important that they're in, because we have seen that if countries have at least some commitments, even if those commitments are not perfect, industry starts to organize, industry starts to look for alternative technologies. The incentives to innovate are much greater than if you don't have any commitments at all."

And so goes the discussion"from the environment to governmental policies to the economy and technology. It's the web of interdisciplinary study. As Andonova explains, "You need to understand both the politics of environmental policy as well as how different pieces of environmental legislation affect societies"both politically as well in socioeconomic terms"which translates back into politics. So I don't think you can neatly separate these things."

The same is true when studying poverty and sustainable development in Andonova's Environmental Policy Practicum course. Seniors majoring in environmental studies, government, and international studies read diverse theoretical texts about challenges and new ideas around sustainable development. Then Andonova explored a real civic engagement piece: "What could a group of very committed, interested, and intelligent students do?" she asked.

Focusing on the town of Carapegua, Paraguay, students collected information on the progress of a research institute working to help the municipality adopt a development path in line with the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The institute had trained volunteers to work with people in this community, one of the poorest in Paraguay, according to Andonova, on everything from marketing handmade items to giving vaccinations.

Students each explored one area of reform, from health to infrastructure to education to agriculture. Some students conducted phone interviews and surveys; some received original documents that classmates then translated into English. What was working, they asked, and what was not? They planned to share their findings with officials from the institute and leaders in the community of Carapegua. Beyond helping the town determine a path ahead, said Andonova, "Having the attention put on that project and having an assessment of its impact is helpful in sustaining it, in making it last."

She should know. Prior to coming to Colby, Andonova studied the role of local and global institutions in climate-change policies while at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Before that, while earning her Ph.D. in politics from Harvard, the native of Bulgaria focused on how European Union integration influences environmental policies in Central and Eastern Europe.

From Harvard to Columbia, Andonova met people she has engaged in her Colby courses. Some have visited Mayflower Hill, and, in October, students in her poverty course traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with others. Students flew out early one morning, visited The World Bank, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the World Resources Institute, then flew home. "They took a six o'clock morning flight to Washington to be there for a nine-thirty meeting... college students waking up at four-thirty to go to a meeting!" she said with a chuckle. "That means they were interested."
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  • On March 5, 2007, Geo wrote:
    I think you are sitting in glass houses always, without knowing facts and numbers about greenhouse emission. Don't accuse the developing countries for the pollution. For example India is 4 times population, but they produce only 12 times less pollution than US. It is industrial nations, especially US and Europe to be accused of world climate change, and also poverty. Without changing their atttitude and consumption pattern nothing will change in this planet.