Economics and Conflict: An Interview with Danielle Korngold

Danielle Korngold

Danielle Korngold

OID: Tell us a little bit about yourself: Why did you decide to pursue a Masters in IDS at GW?

Danielle Korngold: Looking back, it’s interesting how I came into the development field. From an early age, I learned languages quickly and was interested in other cultures. My kindergarten teacher saw that I was fascinated by reading and taught me how to read (against school policy, which stated that reading was supposed to be taught in the first grade.) I went to Hebrew school growing up and learned how to read Hebrew faster than my classmates; regrettably, we were never taught Hebrew grammar in my 13 years there. It wasn’t until high school, when I started Spanish, that I realized that languages were a passion and talent for me. When I entered New College of Florida, where I earned my BA in Political Science/Economics, I started my study of Russian and Turkish.

My interests, combined with my background, are what ultimately drove me to this field, I think. I grew up in Davie, Florida, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, in a Jewish family with Eastern European roots. One of the most important edicts of Judaism is to help others; this is a lesson that resonates with me deeply. My parents believed in letting my sister and me maintain a certain autonomy over our lives; they always let me make my own decisions when it came to the big choices in life and supported me in whatever I chose. In relation to this, my mother describes me as the quintessential diplomat. “It amazes me that you are able to tell me ‘no’ without really saying no,” she has said to me on multiple occasions, particularly when it came to discussing options in decision-making. In general, we lived comfortably as a middle class family and I realized just how much of a difference that made. I had opportunities that I suspect were not open to many of my classmates growing up.

It came together when I took a seminar called Transitions from War to Peace at New College, taught by a consultant for the World Bank. Not only did the subject fascinate me academically, but I loved the projects in which we were tasked with creating possible solutions, which had heavy development aspects. It made me realize that this was the field I was meant to go in, because doing this in practice would allow me to help others. I want to help give people the kinds of opportunities that I had growing up.

After I graduated from New College in May 2011, I spent ten months in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Siberian Federal University. I don’t know how many people can say that they were thrilled to be sent to Siberia, but whatever their number, I am one. I met people from all over the world, people that I never would have met without pursuing this opportunity. I got the chance to show my students that the U.S. and Americans in general are not quite what they might expect and in turn I learned so much from them about the Russian view of the world. I made wonderful friends and did things that I doubt I would have had the chance to ever do in the U.S. I went rock climbing at Stolby National Park, fed the friendly squirrels that hang around the university, received a blessing from a Siberian shaman, attended a Tuvan throat singing concert, sang at two charity concerts for one of the local children’s hospitals, and collaborated with friends to produce a song in a professional recording studio. I witnessed firsthand both the parliamentary and presidential elections — and voter fraud to boot. All of this was an eye-opening experience. But it drove home for me how valuable intercultural connections and understanding truly are.

I specifically chose IDS at GW because of the professional aspect of the program; I was impressed by the curriculum and I look forward to doing the capstone. (I suspect some of the second year students might laugh at me for this, but considering I’ve done a thesis already, I find that having a more practical project suits me.) I have had plenty of experience in hard academics, so I felt that learning how to be a development practitioner was the next step. I feel this will allow me to be more balanced in approaching the field.

OID: You have previous work experience working domestically in government, how has this impacted your view of governance and international development?

Danielle Korngold: I worked as an intern for a representative in the Florida Legislature in the summers for a few years and, after graduating, was hired as an administrative assistant. One of my main jobs was to assist constituents who called in for help with their state-related issues, including things such as driver’s license obtainment/reinstatement, unemployment benefits, food stamps, Medicaid, child custody, and child support. Some of the constituents broke my heart with their stories. Many of them just wanted to be able to afford food and medicine for their kids. Others wanted to know what their options were once their unemployment benefits had been used up. It reminded me that our own society has many problems that are not unlike many of the ones found in “developing” countries. Some days I would come home depressed, because there were many times where I could do nothing to help due to laws, regulations, and/or the general bureaucracy. The most I could do was pass on the message to the representative. I feel she’s one of the few in the Florida Legislature truly fighting for the lower and middle classes, which isn’t easy as a minority Democrat in a heavily Republican House at a time when bipartisan divides are wider than ever.

View at Stolby National Park, near Krasnoyarsk.

View at Stolby National Park, near Krasnoyarsk.

OID: Your concentrations include economic development in conflict zones. What got you interested in these aspects of development, and how have you found them to be inter-related?

Danielle Korngold: I have always had an interest in both economics and conflict because of the issues of justice involved. Justice, for me, involves helping others attain what they need, though I realize it is naturally much more than that. Economic issues generally have a very strong tie to almost every conflict. When you consider that economics, in its essence, looks at how scarce resources are distributed, you can start to understand the issues that come along with this distribution. How should resources be distributed? Who makes that determination? These are all issues whose importance becomes clear if you dig to the core of most conflicts, particularly in the “civil” conflicts that have prevailed over the past half-century or so.

OID: You did your undergraduate thesis on Chinese foreign policy and how has that previous academic experience impacted the direction of your current interests?

Danielle Korngold: I’d written several previous papers on China throughout my time at New College, so as I struggled to find a topic to research, my thesis sponsor recommended I use those papers as a jumping point for my thesis. In the end, I was glad this was the route I took. Researching was difficult, mainly due to the fact that I don’t speak or read Chinese and that reliable data for China is hard to find, but I learned a great deal about how the Chinese use unorthodox methods – that is, not conforming to the neoliberal ideology that most countries adhere to today – to drive development through their foreign policy. I don’t think this is entirely a bad thing, though there are certainly those who lose in the foreign policy game with China and with it come many questions, some of them ethical. My thesis covered three major controversies: the yuan-dollar exchange rate debate, human rights, and outgoing foreign aid from China. The final chapter featured a case study on Sino-Sudanese relations, highlighting the ethical issues of dealing with states that commit violence against their own citizens and what repercussions that has for China both abroad and domestically. The successful carryout of this research solidified my interests in both economic development and conflict.

OID: You’re interested in culturally-based gender violence AND you have a black belt–tell us more about how violence impacts societies and why do you feel that this is the most important intervention or area to look at?

Danielle Korngold: This is a fantastic question. I started my study of Tae Kwon Do to boost my confidence, to become strong and fit, to gain discipline, and to gain skills of self-defense. While I’ve never had to defend myself (thankfully), there have been situations in which it has come close.

A black belt in Taekwondo

A black belt in Tae Kwon Do

In my experience, though perhaps stating the obvious, violence takes away security and trust between people, hampering those against whom the violence is being committed from excelling individually and contributing to society more generally. I strongly believe that no one should have to keep looking over their shoulder when walking down the street for fear of being attacked, that no human being should ever feel unsafe in their own home, that none should be isolated in attempts to protect themselves – for any reason. This goes for men, women, and anyone who falls elsewhere on the gender spectrum. In relation to this, I’m currently doing some independent research on honor killings (which, for the most part, targets women) and blood revenge (which largely targets men) as culturally-based gender violence. While it can be argued that gender itself is culturally constructed, my intention in using the phrase “culturally-based” refers to the internalization of these methods of violence as a way of carrying out relations between men and women. I want to bring attention to the fact that violence internalized as a cultural norm occurring between individuals, even if not intense in scale, destroys society as surely as war. Both honor killings and blood revenge involve restoration of justice and honor; I would go so far to argue that it has become a cultural mechanism for reinforcing other cultural values.

Road sign in Krasnoyarsk, Russia that says "beskonyechnost" or "infinity"

Road sign in Krasnoyarsk, Russia that says “beskonyechnost” or “infinity” and points to the Yenisei River

OID: If you could draft the perfect position based on your interests, what would it be, and where would you work?

Danielle Korngold: In my ideal position, I would be working for an organization that would require me to construct policy based on research and assist carrying out that policy in the field. This sounds somewhat vague, I know, but I truly am a person who loves both theory and practice and the way they play off of one another. Understanding this interplay is, I think, crucial to working in the development field, where people’s lives are actively impacted and changed as a result of this work as a way to keep a balanced perspective. For this reason, feel that an organization with a lot of reach and breadth in multiple practice areas, such as the World Bank, would be the most ideal kind of place for me to work.