Hannah Balikci, MPP Class of 2024
Hannah Balikci, MPP Class of 2024

As Pearson Fellow Hannah Balikci, MPP Class of 2024, worked with refugees at a U.S. military base, she thought about how the futures of Afghan asylum seekers in the United States would differ from those who remained behind in Afghanistan.

“A young girl told me that her grandmother made her and her sister leave for the airport so they could actually get a chance at an education,” Balikci said. “The grandmother was afraid that if they remained, she’d have to marry them off to Taliban fighters.”

Balikci's work for the International Rescue Committee inspired her to pursue her MPP and sparked an interest in humanitarian programs. Her family is from the Black Sea region, her father coming to the U.S. when he was 25, so she views herself as a product of social and physical mobility, which she acknowledges is “a privilege not shared by much of the world.”

Balikci’s observations introduced a panel discussion on Inequality and Social Mobility during the 2023 Pearson Global Forum, the signature annual gathering of The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts. In its sixth year, the Pearson Global Forum brings together academics, activists, policymakers, and students with the aim of preventing, resolving, and recovering from conflict.

The theme of the 2023 Forum was Disparity. In addition to the discussion on inequality, the Forum offered panels on The Iranian Future and A Perpetual Struggle for Afghan Freedom. It also featured a keynote and fireside chat on the Origin and Consequence of the Mexican Pre-Development Trap.

Professor James Robinson
Professor James Robinson

The forum examined disparity across the globe, encouraging participants to reflect on how it related to their local communities and the effects of the intersection of disparity and global conflict. The annual convening relates “the more grand kind of theoretical, social science-y, quantitative discussion with the nuance, stories, and the human side of things,” Professor James Robinson said in his remarks, noting the “exciting interdisciplinary adventure” that awaited attendees.

Economic Disparities

“Latin America has been the land of disparities,” began Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico, outlining two types: the disparity between levels of development among countries and disparity within countries between the well-off and the rest of the population.

Zedillo, who now serves as the director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, provided the morning keynote and then spoke with Viridiana Rios, scholar and political analyst.

President Zedillo
Mexico is caught in a pre-development trap, according to former President of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo

Ten years ago, Latin American countries were more optimistic about addressing disparities, with leaders boasting about economic success and social progress, Zedillo said. Now, Latin America has failed to reduce disparities and has not made progress because it is caught in what Zedillo calls a “pre-development trap.”

The trap exists because countries like Mexico suffer from weak rule of law, acute inequality, and very low GDP and productivity growth. Historically, policies were focused on addressing only one of these, and were not successful. Without addressing and acknowledging their interdependence, “we are bound to fail over and over again.”

The interconnectedness of economic disparities was also highlighted during the panel on Inequality and Social Mobility, moderated by Sasha Ann Simons, host of WBEZ Chicago’s Reset

“There are so many deep inequalities in the places that are affected by conflict and crisis,” said Jeannie Annan, Chief Research and Innovation Officer at the International Rescue Committee and Senior Research Associate and Pearson Associate. “And there’s such an overlap of extreme poverty in places that are affected by conflict.”

Annan cited an example in East Africa where there are about 4.5 million refugees from a range of different countries, many of whom do not live in refugee camps. IRC provides business grants, mentorship, and a connection to both refugees and host community members, because “social cohesion or social capital is supportive of people’s economic opportunities.”

Durlauf and Annan
Professor Steven Durlauf and Jeannie Annan

Professor Steven Durlauf zoomed in on the United States, discussing how to understand American inequality through what he calls the “membership theory” where a person’s life course and social groupings such as family, residential neighborhoods, schools, and the like, determine outcomes. His research has found that a vision of the different types of membership is fundamental to determining inequality.

Professor Durlauf, the director of the Stone Center for Research on Wealth Inequality and Mobility, referenced the work of Miles Corak, another panelist, for understanding the relation between equality of opportunity and income inequality in the U.S. and internationally.

Both Annan and Durlauf emphasized the importance of early childhood interventions. “Enhancing equality, enhancing justice in an economy makes it more productive,” added Professor Durlauf.

Disparity along Lines of Gender

After 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died following her arrest by morality police in Tehran, women took to the streets to protest the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now a year later, moderator Mary Louise Kelly, host of NPR’s All Things Considered, began by asking the panelists if there had been any meaningful change.

“Revolution has different phases,” said Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and activist. “We might not see people in the streets, but we are facing a different phase of revolution.” Thousands of protestors and their family members have been arrested and killed, but the number of women from multiple generations practicing civil disobedience has increased.

The protests have demanded the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, as well as increased rights for women. Amini was arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s mandatory hijab law.

Masih Alinejad
Masih Alinejad describes the protests and civil unrest in Iran that demands the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

Compulsory hijab “has been a core element of the regime’s control over the population since 1979,” said Suzanne Maloney, of the Brookings Institute. There has been “very little willingness to demonstrate flexibility” or adjust any other policies despite clear outrage from the population. Compulsory hijab is “the most important symbol” and “one that Iranian women have demonstrated they find deeply problematic but it is hardly the only challenge that Iranian women face,” she said. 

Alinejad, who launched a campaign against compulsory hijab eight years ago, agreed, adding that the protests went beyond a piece of cloth indicating that “clearly Iranian people want to end the gender apartheid regime.”

Naheed Sarabi, a former Deputy Minister in the government of Afghanistan, was encouraged by the discussion around gender in Iran, and compared it to her own experience during the panel on Afghan Freedom.

When she was ten years old, the Taliban took over Afghanistan and while the previous government had required hijab, a more restrictive covering was required by the Taliban. Leaving a friend’s home, she and her family covered themselves with bed sheets to comply with the law. Under Taliban rule, new decrees placed further restrictions on women, and Sarabi’s family went to Pakistan so that she could go to school.

Sarabi noted the differences between the two countries and the impact of sanctions for rights violations that would harm Afghans more significantly than other nations.

“We are a poor nation,” said Sarabi, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. She did see the benefit in recognizing that the regime was perpetuating gender discrimination, since she feels there is not enough support for Afghan women from the international community.

International Response

As the panels addressed different global issues, it also called into question how the international community should respond.

Anne Richard, the Afghanistan Coordination Lead and Distinguished Fellow at Freedom House and the Former Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, contributed to the panel discussing the perpetual struggle of Afghan freedom. Afghans “worry that the world will negotiate something with the Taliban to move on,” she said, which would signify approval of the treatment of women and ethnic minorities by the Taliban.

Andrew Wilder, U.S. Institute of Peace, agreed that the United States has to avoid recognizing the Taliban as the official government, while remaining engaged with counterterrorism and humanitarian aid.

A Pearson Institute/AP-NORC poll, released in conjunction with the Forum, reported that two-thirds of adults view the war in Afghanistan as unsuccessful, but think it’s somewhat important to eliminate the threat of extremists and advance the rights of women.

Kim Barker, Andrew Wilder, Naheed Sarabi, Carter Malkasian, and Anne Richard discuss the struggle for Afghan freedom.

For Iran, Philippe Thiébaud, former French Ambassador to Iran echoed earlier comments from a keynote by Shirin Ebadi, the first female judge in Iran and Nobel Laureate. Thiébaud felt the West should not interfere in what he sees as a cultural revolution by the people in Iran. He noted the international community recognizing the work being done by activists in Iran through awards such as the Nobel Peace Prize.

Alinejad countered that younger generations in Iran have different opinions than activists like Ebadi and doesn’t believe that Democratic countries should be told to not interfere when women are experiencing violence against them by the state.

Rather than standing with the people of Iran, Western countries can “make concrete decisions that help Iranian people,” said Alinejad. Showing solidarity is moving and powerful, but Western leaders need to stop solidarity acts and cut ties with the regime. “The real award is not just recognizing our movement, our revolution, the real award [would be] to stop legitimizing the Islamic Republic.”

Pearson fellows
Pearson fellows Myong Kun (Chris) Shin, Kirgit Amlai, Jordan Enos, and Hannah Balikci

In his closing remarks, Professor Robinson summarized a central question underlining the Forum of how to establish the rule of law to create a peaceful, egalitarian, and prosperous society. He contrasted examples of collective organization versus external intervention from the day, reminding attendees to consider the different impacts on change within society and, in turn, on reducing disparity.

A recording of the forum can be found here