New Winds at UNU-WIDER – An Interview with Channing Arndt

25 June 2014

Professor Channing Arndt is a US citizen who recently started as a Senior Research Fellow at UNU-WIDER. He was especially attracted by the exciting work environment, the research programme, and the opportunity to work with people in developing countries. He has previously worked as an economist in countries of the global South and lived for many years in Mozambique and Morocco. He has also been a professor at a number of universities, including Purdue University in the USA, and continues his work with the University of Copenhagen.

In the first part of his interview with Carl-Gustav Lindén (CGL) Channing Arndt (CA) explains in more depth what brings him to Helsinki, Finland

CGL: Why have you joined UNU-WIDER at this time in your career?

Channing Arndt
Channing Arndt

​CA: UNU-WIDER has an exciting work programme going from 2014 to 2018, with a series of activities scheduled. We are working in three big areas: transformation, inclusion and sustainability. I have the ability, or the pleasure to, work across all of those areas, but I have particular responsibilities in sustainability. That is where I plan to be working more as I think it is an exciting programme.

CGL: What do you think makes UNU-WIDER unique?

CA: UNU-WIDER is unique in a number of ways. It is a UN institution. There are other UN institutions that do research, but UNU-WIDER is particularly well known and has a reputation for doing solid research, which I think precedes it.

It is also a small organization. There are only eight or ten researchers on the floor here, but we work with a broad network of people all around the world. I think that is unique, and this small core combined with this very large and high-quality network makes UNU-WIDER a very flexible organization, really able to move and adjust to new ideas. I also think that UNU-WIDER as an institution is hooked into the UN but not dependent on any particular programme or set of financing. We have an ‘honest broker’ appeal that makes our work in developing countries, frankly, a lot easier. When I go to countries and give policy advice it is actually a tremendous advantage that the politicians, or the bureaucrats or whomever else I am working with, has no repercussions if they ignore me. I can go and I can tell them what I think. If they do not want to do that they can ignore it without worrying about anything. As a consequence the advice is quite welcome because they can always turn it down. This builds relationships and allows us to have quite a lot of impact in a soft way. I actually think these kinds of soft impacts are going to be the major channel for influence that international institutions can possibly bring as this century progresses.

CGL: What do you think is the difference between working in a university department and at UNU-WIDER?

CA: Well, to start with there are not students here, so we are not teaching classes. Students come in working on their research projects, but we do not have a substantial teaching load.

The other thing that is different here is UNU-WIDER does not follow the traditional academic model of doing research in whatever area you think is the most productive. We work a bit more as a team and we try to develop a more coherent programme that has impact. Generally researchers here are articulating off of a series of themes, a work programme that is broad but still fairly well directed. That is quite different from most university departments where professors are looking up at the apple tree and trying to pick whatever fruit it is they think they are most capable of going up and getting.

CGL: What do you hope to achieve during your time at the Institute?

CA: I think a principle objective is to continue to expand the reputation of UNU-WIDER as a solid place for doing work, but more integrated with developing countries and particular policy issues. We are in the process of fomenting relationships with important international institutions in the developing world, with governments, and so forth. The continued establishment of these relationships is really crucial and is a key advantage of the Institute over say the World Bank. When they go and provide advice it comes laden with their loan-giving capability and their history of imposing policy conditionalities. We need to be invited into the door, but if we are invited in then I think we can continue to be a positive and influential force in a large number of places. That is what we would like to achieve.

CGL: What is the main focus of your research?

CA: What I am working on right now involves sustainability issues. I work on other things but this is a big one. Countries that are developing these days in essence have to consider a different recipe than the twentieth century recipe. If we are going to maintain reasonable environmental conditions globally then everybody has to make some adjustments. This is going to include developing countries at least eventually. Take for example dealing with emissions related to climate change. It simply cannot be done mathematically without incorporating the middle-income countries.

At the same time we can get away with providing needs to low-income countries but what we are hoping for is that they grow and become middle-income countries. That will happen within relatively short periods of time, especially when you consider climate change. As middle-income countries they will be coming to grips with global environmental issues at the same time. It seems to me that in many cases to confront global environmental issues now, even in low-income countries, then start to make some sense because you do not want to arrive at middle-income status within an entirely inappropriate structure. Obviously, there are important trade-offs here. We do not want to give up development objectives in order to maintain environmental objectives, but there may not be as much tension as we think in all of these particular instances. That is where a lot of work is concentrated.

In the second part of this interview Channing Arndt tells us more about past projects he has worked on at UNU-WIDER and his integrated approach to research in developing countries.

Carl-Gustav Linden is Communications Consultant at UNU-WIDER

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June-July 2014
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