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The Templeton Ideas Podcast is a show about the most awe-inspiring ideas in our world and the people who investigate them.

Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

Dr. Murtazashvili is the founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the school of public and international affairs. As the author of notable books about the political order of Afghanistan and economic development more generally, Jennifer studies communities, power, conflict and how they all intertwine.

Ben: Well, Jen, welcome to Templeton Ideas.

Jennifer: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Ben: I want to start by situating your ideas and your academic expertise in you and your story. So why don’t you start off by telling us where did you grow up and what did you love to do as a child?

Jennifer: So, I’m living the dream. I’m from Pittsburgh and I grew up about Squirrel Hill, which is a tight-knit community in the city of Pittsburgh. And I have the pleasure of raising my I have four children in the same neighborhood that I grew up in.

So, you know, as a child, I loved everything about my neighborhood. I loved all the gossip. I loved all the neighbors. And I loved living in a place where I felt so connected to other people. And this has really driven so much of my research. I study communities and it’s been just a dream of a lifetime to be able to live in the community that I grew up in and study communities in this beautiful place.

Ben: And when you were growing up, what subjects did you gravitate to? Did your family have certain expectations of you.

Jennifer: You know, my parents always just said, work hard. We don’t care what your grades are, we just care that you work hard. And I learned how to read, from my grandmother. My grandmother was blind, and she lived with us growing up, and she would make me read the newspaper to her every day.

But it was this, reading the news that got me really interested in world affairs. And when I was in public high school in Pittsburgh, they offered Russian language and it was during the height of Paris Ika and Glasnost, and there was so much going on and I started studying Russian and it really changed my life.

Ben: What age were you when you started studying Russian?

Jennifer: So, I was ninth grade.

Ben: And was that offered as part of a Cold War preparedness curriculum?

Jennifer: I think it was an old Cold War hangover, and it was amazing during that period, we had a huge influx, this was in the early 90s, of Refuseniks. These were Jewish immigrants who came from the former Soviet Union. And there were tons of them at our high school. And I tutored them, I taught them English. They helped me with my Russian. And I then actually developed a love for teaching.

Ben: Wonderful. Well, what sparked your interest specifically in something you’ve gone on to study and made a specialty of? Human cooperation and the opposite, which you can’t avoid looking at if You want to understand cooperation, which is conflict.

Jennifer: So, as anybody curious about world affairs knows: conflict is everywhere. And as I graduated from college and went off into the world, I joined the Peace Corps. And I ended up in Central Asia and Uzbekistan, and that was because I spoke Russian. It’s a country in the former Soviet Union And so I lived in this tight-knit community in the city of Samarkand, which is the second largest city, in Uzbekistan. And it was a very authoritarian state. I saw the incredible ways that people worked together to overcome differences, to solve problems, things they couldn’t take to the state.

I saw how community activities dissimulated underground, because of authoritarianism. So, I eventually went back to graduate school and as a political scientist, most of the ideas were focused on big picture things like constitutions and. reforms, post-communism and macroeconomic reforms and democratization.

And I never felt like most of those approaches captured the unique things, the theoretical approaches that I found so exciting and it wasn’t until my second or third year in graduate school, where I found the work, of Eleanor Ostrom, who works a lot on communities. and how communities solve problems.

She was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. And she said, people are not trapped in cycles of conflict. If you look at the local level, you can see a lot of beauty in the ways that people cooperate. And I was hooked. And this is something that I’ve been working on for such a long time because I really see the beauty of people, the beauty of people’s abilities, their creativity, and their desire to solve problems together.

Ben: One thing I want to go back to, you mentioned how when you were in Uzbekistan, you observed the way that people managed to live their lives and keep community vibrant and healthy, despite authoritarian pressures, and then you went off to grad school. And if I’m understanding correctly, you didn’t feel like those experiences were reflected in the theories that were being offered. Can you dig a little more into that? Because I’m curious about how policy and academia interact, and even more than policy, how real-world experience and academia interact in your expertise.

Jennifer: Right, that’s a great question. I ended up spending five years in Uzbekistan. I did two years in the Peace Corps. And then when I was leaving, I got a job with the U. S. Agency for International Development. And in that job, I was doing democracy assistance. So, I was promoting democracy and working with government officials in one of the world’s most authoritarian states, especially at that time.

It was up there with North Korea and Syria, and it was hard work, and it was really discouraging and dispiriting because I ended up spending so much of my time getting human rights activists out of the country. It wasn’t really developing a democracy.

And when I went back to graduate school, most of the theories, especially about the post-Soviet space, you know, this was right after 9/11, were focused on democratization, that there was this belief, that the end of history was upon us. And all these countries would transition to market democracies.

And so many of these academic theories, especially in political science, focused on these national level institutions. They focused on designing electoral institutions to help people avoid conflict. And I never really felt comfortable with this really, macro scale. I was really interested in the micro scale.

And then, I met a bunch of professors who were doing international relations. And they said, ah, you have this aid background. You can talk about how aid projects at the local level help people. And at first, I thought that was exciting, and I ran in that direction, but what I realized is that you know, unfortunately from my experience, I didn’t find this international aid to be terribly effective.

And I felt like by studying it, I was reifying something. I was making something more important than it was. And it wasn’t until I did a master’s degree in, agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin that I came upon Ostrom and these theories that were really on bottom-up cooperation. And it was in economics I found these ideas to be much more relevant than they were in political science.

Ben: That’s fascinating. It sounds like early on you had this sense that there was something not being captured in the paradigm, both of academia and in the nonprofit world and NGO world. I want to delve a little deeper into that because I know it’s a theme that you’ve really developed in your work. So can you identify some of those areas where, at least in the past, and maybe you would say still in the present, but let’s focus on the past.

I mean, you’ve studied Afghanistan on this. Where well-meaning international efforts to help a country democratize or have noble aspirations to govern itself with the people’s consent really miss the culture on the ground and the actual elements of society that they need to cooperate with. Can you talk about what has gone wrong, and how you can, help us see this picture more clearly?

Jennifer: Sure, so I can illustrate that from a couple of, real experiences I had doing this work as a policy person. I remember, there was a lot of ethnic conflict in, certain parts of Central Asia in a place called the Fergana Valley. It’s a third of the population in Central Asia lives in this very, very small valley.

And Stalin drew the boundaries such that you have ethnic groups of all types on all sides of these boundaries. They don’t make sense. You have a lot of Uzbeks living in what is now Kyrgyzstan. You have a lot of Todd Cheeks living in what is now Uzbekistan. You have a lot of Uzbeks living in what is now Tajikistan. And during the Soviet period, this didn’t matter that much because you could travel freely between these places.

But when independence happened, these boundaries were drawn, and families were then split up and these were all authoritarian states in the very beginning. And so, strict visa controls and, then you begin to see a lot of ethnic conflict, fighting, riots. Pogroms of different groups, and so here comes international aid to the rescue.

So, I was part of designing, a project that was intended to help ethnic minorities on all sides of these boundaries. And I remember going to one village, and it was in Kyrgyzstan, where our aid projects had given resources to the Uzbek minority group.

And the Uzbeks said, oh, you know, we’ve never had natural gas in our village, we never had lines that came to our village, and so grateful for this project, now we have natural gas. And I said, has anybody gone to the Kyrgyz village next door to see if they have gas? And it just didn’t dawn on anybody. They were just targeting the minority groups. So I went over to the Kyrgyz community, and lo and behold, they didn’t have gas either. And so, what was made to be an issue of ethnic discrimination wasn’t. And I felt like in this case, our aid projects helped create division rather than, smooth them over, solve these problems, or bring people together. You’re just targeting people because they were members of a certain group.

I’ll also never forget going to a community center in Uzbekistan. And we had a grants program to have communities sort of identify their own projects, come together, and solve them and the grant money would go to the thing that the community had identified as a big problem.

So, I meet this community leader and he has a computer, and he has a modem, and he says, look, thanks to the people of the United States, I have this great modem, and I’ve collected all this data about all of the people in the village, and I’m uploading it to the Ministry of Interior. And I can see who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, who’s been drinking too much, who’s engaging in bad behavior. And isn’t this wonderful? And my jaw dropped, right? I couldn’t believe what I saw. So, this led me to be skeptical of how we take big ideas, and well-intentioned efforts, and translate them into things that are meaningful and contribute positively to people’s lives.

Ben: So, what do you see as the crucial factors that allow for people to cooperate to overcome differences and what makes it harder for people to cooperate? So, in every society, the answer might be different, but I know that you’re also trying to abstract from these powerful grassroots experiences to things that can be models for how we could do better. So, what do you see as the factors that contribute to either the conflict or the cooperation taking over?

Jennifer: This is where social science theory, has really established the kinds of things that make it easier to cooperate. And the first thing is homogeneity, right? When you’re all similar on, ethnic, religious lines, it tends to be a lot easier to cooperate. When groups are small, it’s much easier to cooperate.

So, when you have diversity or larger groups, that’s when we see, cooperation tends to break down. So, what I’m really interested in, and one of the things I’m working on now, is how do people navigate deep differences. And I don’t have answers right now, because I’m about to collect a bunch of data on this, over the summer.

But a key hypothesis right now is that this cooperation tends to break down because of a lot of national-level rhetoric. And one of the things that really surprised me from my fieldwork in Afghanistan, which I can talk about in a minute, was the ability of people to overcome those differences at the local level when they were empowered to do so. Or when nobody really got in their way. I was just really impressed with the ways that Afghans did this. And I saw over the course of 20 years how cooperation really frayed. because of the behavior of politicians at the national level.

Ben: So, tell us about that. What gap did you see between what was said at the national level and what was experienced at the local level?

Jennifer: So once again, this goes into some of the heartbreak of international development, policy makers, how we think about international security and interventions. I ended up doing a lot of research in Afghanistan because there was a political uprising in Uzbekistan.

And what I found was robust cooperation. Over decades, people had expected very little from central government authorities. And so, what they were doing is they were providing public goods, they were organizing, they were providing even collective defense. They were fixing irrigation canals.

They were building schools. There was so much robust social cooperation and so much optimism, especially in these early years after 9/11. But what I found was public policy that was unwelcome to these kinds of organizations, policymakers in Kabul or in Washington looked at these villages as backwards, backwaters.

Or these traditional leaders had been, eliminated, killed during decades of war and migration. And so, there was this assumption that rural Afghanistan was this tabula rasa that needed to be rebuilt from the ground up and you needed to extend the writ of the state. This was the problem.

Build the state, state building. And what happened was that these community voices were not included, they were ignored, and they were made to feel like second best. And you could feel this, in their own dignity, and the way they talked about the state, the way they talked about the government. So, for years, I spent screaming at the top of my lungs that, yes, these community structures aren’t perfect.

There are certain, problems with gender, right? But they are highly legitimate in the eyes of the people. And that legitimacy was never really translated into public policy. And to me, that explains why the government collapsed.

Ben: Why do you think that is? Why, psychologically, sociologically, whatever framework you want to put on it, why was there this resistance or just plain ignorance to what was already there on the grassroots level, from the people making the decisions,

Jennifer: I think, number one, it had to do with ideas of progress. And I think these ideas of progress are inherent in how, especially development actors think about the world. Eventually we’ll all democratize, you remember this from the 90s, the 2000s, there was this great optimism Oh, these traditional things,

Ben: These things will sort of wither away as people become more educated and more cosmopolitan, and they won’t need these things.

Jennifer: You know, you kind of exclude them, and this is the way you build a state. You see them as competing with state authority. And that kind of zero-sum view of the world, I think, was something that, tends to be quite pervasive. And what I found is that when you have stronger community-based organizations, especially in Afghanistan, ones based in tradition, people were actually much more likely to support the central government.

That they serve as complements, not competitors to the state. But people tend to think in this sort of Weberian, hierarchical, way of organizing the world,

And what I found, especially in those early days after 9/11, people were so excited about that. the state building project. They were really excited about having a democracy. They were really motivated. They wanted to participate. I heard calls for more American soldiers to help eliminate the Taliban, rather than fewer soldiers.

And so, what Afghans, I think, experienced was that they know how to participate. They were ready to. But alongside the complete disregard of custom and tradition was a heavily centralized government structure that did not allow any kind of representation at the subnational level. Society is so unwieldy; we must control it from the to and they said, how is this different from communism that we had before.

How is this different from the monarchy?

And rather than getting rid of the old pernicious system, they rebuilt it. We rebuilt it, the United States, because of its desire to control. And we, diagnosed the problem as these unwieldy areas. And so how do you fix that? You create these strong centralized. institutions but they completely neglected people’s voices.

Ben: Given all your experience studying how things can go wrong and how things can go right, you are given this rather unenviable job of helping democracy to flourish in the world. What rules of the road would you lay down? What questions should you confront to put in policies that will work?

Jennifer: I think it’s really, I mean, now you’re asking the hard questions. there is no one recipe, especially in places that are, racked by conflict, which is where I spend a lot of my time. We should not expect a Hobbesian state of nature. Number one. We should expect an incredible amount of cooperation, especially in places affected by conflict. Because people have a need to want to work together, live together, help each other. We need to understand how people are doing this. So, that’s the second principle. There are no tabula rasas. Okay? Now, number three is humility.

It is hard for any of us to fully understand or diagnose. So, I would really scale back the kinds of interventions, especially at the local level. That’s where action is so attractive and so appealing by so many. Because you can go into a community, you can give them a hand pump, you can pave a road.

Really easy benchmarks for donors, for example. Look what we did!

Now, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be aid. Aid is going to be there. This is where I depart from a lot of my colleagues who say, well, then we just shouldn’t do anything. We should just walk away.

Aid isn’t going anywhere. And so, I’m making it my life’s mission to engage constructively, to help us think about how we can infuse These ideas of self-governance and capabilities, local capabilities, into these development models, and it’s not easy, I got to tell ya.

Ben: I have another question about how we, as American listeners, or Western listeners, can learn from the communities in Central Asia that you’ve studied. What sort of lessons and insights can we draw from that experience that we could apply in our own communities and lives?

Jennifer: It is hard to draw lessons right now. I must tell you I’m a little downbeat. I think in, the U. S. and around the West, we’re seeing this epidemic of loneliness, this isolation, and, yet we look askance at these countries that are so rooted in, community. Now, it’s not that communities can’t be oppressive.

They can be very oppressive. I shared with you the story about the local official who was spying on the neighbors and, gossiping and that can be harmful. It can be hurtful to women. It can be very suffocating. So, I don’t want to romanticize it, but I think there are huge tradeoffs.

And one of the things that really worries me about our society and that I value so much about living in Pittsburgh and the community that I grow up in sort of circling back to where we started is. I love walking down the street, knowing everybody, and getting a sense that everybody knows everything about me and my family and my kids.

And it’s a special thing, that I think that we’ve lost and that we don’t really know how to replace. We’re not obviously going back to that. Our economy is just not tailored for that. Our society is shifted, but we haven’t found anything to replace that.

And that community gives us meaning. It gives us a sense of belonging. It helps us fight loneliness. It gives us a sense of purpose. And it really, really worries me. It makes me sad to think about people not having the richness of this kind of experience and not being able to rely on neighbors, not knowing their neighbors, not trusting their neighbors.

It is something that I think frays at our social fabric here in the U. S. that we can really learn a lot from our friends in Central Asia, whose homes are always open. You can walk in your neighbor’s house at any time. I’ve told my family here, that’s, the kind of home that I want, where people’s kids feel, welcome.

Our neighbors are always welcome. and it’s unusual now. unfortunately.

Ben: In Pittsburgh as a teacher, I’m curious, what do you learn from your students, and what, do you strive to impart to them?

Obviously, there’s the curriculum, and then there are also some broader life lessons that inevitably come through when you’re teaching them. a subject like what you’re teaching. So, I’m curious, what do you, find in those interactions?

Jennifer: Well, you know, I learned so much from my students.

But one of the things that, you know, does worry me in this age of social media. And our polarization here is that I have found teaching over the past, 12, 15 years increasingly difficult because students are worried about maybe they’ll say the wrong thing.

Maybe they’ll upset someone. Maybe they’ll get on social media because they offended someone. They don’t want to take a stance. They don’t want to say exactly what they’re thinking. And I think what we’ve seen on our campuses in recent months is a complete breakdown of civil discourse.

Is that we talk a lot about freedom of expression, which is extremely important, and I’m an absolutist in those terms. But I think that we have failed our students enormously in modeling civil discourse, in showing our students what that means, and really understanding that we must be professors to all of our students, regardless of what they think.

And we can’t use our classrooms as platforms for ourselves and our ideas. And really, doubling down on that kind of humility.

That is so powerful. Well, Jen, I want to take us back to when you were in the Peace Corps and allow you to do a little bit of imagination and think, what would Peace Corps Gen think of what you’re doing today as a scholar and teacher.

I think that gen would be not surprised. I’ve been doing the same thing, I think, for the past two or three decades. It looks different forms, but I have been really blessed to be able to follow my curiosity. My curiosity led me to Russia, then led me to Central Asia, then it’s led me to Afghanistan, and I never had plans to do any of it.

It was just going by your gut. And taking risks. Taking risks on ideas and taking risks in people and really believing at the end of the day that no matter where I am around the world, I’ve been surrounded by incredible people who have taught me so much.

People say, oh, you’re going to Afghanistan. Isn’t that hard? Isn’t it dangerous? Isn’t it scary? And, well, yeah, there were threats there, but I knew at every step, I was really surrounded by good people. And good people who would keep me out of danger and that takes trust. And I’ve always been trusting, maybe sometimes too trusting.

But I don’t think that Jen would be terribly surprised.

Ben: I do want to spend just a minute on your new project, which involves looking at how societies and people live with deep differences. And I know as part of it, you’re going to launch a podcast soon, and there are other elements of the project that I’d love to hear about. So, can you update us on what’s going on there?

Jennifer: Sure, so this is a project, it’s called Governing Deep Differences, and it’s done with my dear friend and colleague Paul Dragos Alogia, he wears two hats, he’s a Senior Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason, and he’s a Distinguished Chair of Governance at the University of Bucharest, and, we’re marrying his brilliance in political theory and philosophy, looking at different approaches in political theory to overcoming deep differences, and what he’s focused on is, what philosophers call modus vivendi theories of liberalism, modus vivendi, live and let live.

And marrying those with polycentric theories of governance and that’s Eleanor Ostrom who I talked about polycentrism meaning different centers. So, the idea is that maybe there are differences that are so deep that you cannot overcome them. But the solution to living together is by giving space to people to live separately.

But in one system, where they have some common interactions, but they respect the deep differences among those communities. So, he’s building out the political theory and the philosophy behind it, and I call myself the dirty empiricist, where I’m going out to test these theories, to understand how they work, and then to help build those theories in practice.

So, over the summer, we’re going to be going to places like Ukraine. we’re doing this in, his native Romania, and we’re also doing this in Rust Belt communities here outside of Pittsburgh, because we know that these have been sites of extraordinary polarization and political shifts over the past, decade or so.

So, we’re going to be doing a lot of field work, analyzing, statistical data to help us understand and pinpoint the sources of polarization.

And we’re really, really excited about it. And we’re thinking of adding another case over the summer, which is Israel. so, we don’t shy away from the hard cases.

We want to be in the places where the divisions seem most austere. So, we’re selecting on the dependent variable, as we say in, in social sciences. But we really want to tackle the hard cases.

Ben: That’s important work, and I can’t wait to see what you find.  One last question from me I would love to hear what gives you hope when you look at the future

Jennifer: Well, I think I’ve talked a lot about this, but it’s, it sounds trite, but it’s people. You know, I think that we, tend to look at what’s wrong with the world rather than what’s right. And if you study communities, you tend to find a lot more cooperation, a lot less conflict. You tend to find people working together and this gives me extraordinary hope.

When I think about what I want for my children, I want them to be deeply embedded in their communities. I want to teach them these tools. Of, bothering their neighbors. building community is more than just giving to people. It’s also being able to ask for help. It’s being able to ask questions.

It’s being able to ask for that cup of sugar. And we always don’t want to bother people. It’s learning how to bother people. Just go and knock. Go ask. Go pick up the phone. Go call. and see what happens. And being able to really go with the unexpected. But I’m just optimistic about human nature.

I hate to say it. I’m not optimistic about politicians all the time. I want to be clear about that. I think we can live in a very dark world, but I do think that people are hopeful, they want better lives for their children, and that’s what they’re focused on. And if we can really have politics focus so much more on that, and on the things that divide us, we’d be much better off. But that’s a paradox with democracy.

Ben: Thank you so much Jen this has been a real pleasure talking to you today.

Jennifer: It’s been wonderful. Thanks for these thoughtful questions.