Task Force groups take on world’s biggest policy challenges

 

By Kristina C. Bowman
May 2, 2013

It was one week before their Task Force report was due that the stress started to get to Madison Miller and her Task Force group, comprised of 16 International Studies undergraduates. The students, charged with writing a policy recommendation on “The International Criminal Court: Confronting Challenges on the Path to Justice,” had just eight weeks to complete the assignment so their evaluator, Kelly Askin, who is a senior legal officer at Open Society Justice Initiative, would have a chance to review it before they met to present and discuss the report.

Task Force evaluatorMiller and her group bonded that day and persevered to complete the report. Their instructor, Stefanie Frease, said, “They understood the importance of supporting one another through a challenging eight weeks.” Frease, a consultant on international atrocity crimes, participated in Task Force as a student 25 years ago. It was the first time a former student has come back to teach the class.

Task Force, a program that began in 1981, has become a much-anticipated capstone class for students majoring in international studies. This year, nine groups of students exchanged their jeans and sweatshirts for suits, ties, skirts and heels to present their policy recommendations on March 15 to some of the nation’s – and world’s – top policymakers and diplomats.

Ambassador Margaret Scobey One of those diplomats was Ambassador Margaret Scobey, U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 2008-2011. Giving the keynote address to a room filled with Task Force students at the UW Club, Scobey said, “Your enjoyment of this process and your enthusiasm may be as important as anything else you learn. I hope you keep that.”

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, who represents Washington’s 9th Congressional District, said leading a Task Force group was like having 16 research assistants who could focus on one policy topic and provide recommendations. The students formulated a strategy for defense, diplomacy and development in East Africa. Ambassador R. Barrie Walkley, special advisor to the Secretary of State for the Great Lakes region and the Democratic Republic of Congo, said he was astonished at how well the students mastered a complex issue in a short amount of time. “The recommendations made sense,” he said. Though, “some recommendations were unrealistic.”

Smith encouraged students to have a dialogue with Ambassador Walkley during the presentations.

Task Force studentsScott Morris, an evaluator for the U.S.-Burma Relations Task Force group, kept students such as Ariella Fish on their toes. He asked Fish to explain why there are 10 different exchange rates for currency. (Short answer: Because of a black market for currency.) These sorts of questions are encouraged by Task Force organizers and students are responsible for keeping discussion on track.

The Arctic Task Force group, “Centering the Arctic in Global and Local Security,” met with Tony Penikett, Premier of Yukon, Canada, 1985-1992, along with two other Inuit and Arctic experts, Donat Savoie and Jean-François Arteau. A lively discussion about food security threatened to throw off the timeline until a student stepped in to introduce the next presenter and limited questions to one per presenter.

Each year, one Task Force travels internationally. This year, the Arctic Task Force traveled to meet with the Inuit of Nunavik in northern Québec. The experience of visiting an Inuit secondary school, which embraced Inuit culture such as throat singing and dancing, had an impact on presenter Hannah Dolph, who viewed such schools as a model for educators working with indigenous populations.

For Associate Professor Sabine Lang, the instructor for “Empowering European Citizens,” her favorite moment came when she read a European policy recommendation in the New York Times that included some of the same recommendations her students had turned in two days before.

Conny Reuter, president of Solidar social platform in Europe, was impressed with the quality of the group’s analysis and encouraged students to stay involved in European affairs. “It’s important to have ambassadors on both sides,” he said.

During opening remarks at the formal dinner that included all the Task Force groups and their evaluators, Sara Curran, chair of the International Studies Program, and Reşat Kasaba, director of the Jackson School of International Studies, told students how proud they were of the hard work they had done to dig into topics and write reports. “This is what the Jackson School does best,” Kasaba said. “Come up with real-world solutions to real-world problems.”

studentsJohn Albert, a student who studied the promotion of First Amendment rights in U.S. foreign policy as part of his Task Force, said it was a fantastic opportunity to present for Ambassador Scobey and to dialogue with her. “It seemed more like a starting point than an ending point,” he said. His Task Force instructor was former U.S. Rep. Brian Baird (Washington’s 3rd Congressional District).

Alana Kim, who studied with Prof. Scott Montgomery’s Task Force class, “Next Steps for U.S. Policy in Greater Central Asia,” was nervous and intimidated by the evaluation process at first, but said the hard work paid off. “I like that she can tell us real-world advice,” she said, referring to the group’s evaluator, Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program.

The topics that students choose to study don’t have easy answers and some students lamented the fact that they didn’t have more time to research before formulating recommendations. But Eric Parker, who gave remarks at the dinner about his Task Force, “Defense, Diplomacy, and Development: Making a ‘3D’ Strategy Work in the Great Lakes Region of Africa,” had a different take: “I’m glad for the time limit to solve one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises,” he said. “I think this blows a lot of other capstone projects out of the water.”