Podcast Review: @MarkLGoldberg's Global Dispatches for @UNDispatch

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

As I have prepared for my upcoming presentation at the APHA Annual Meeting in Chicago next week while managing a massive database project at work, I have allowed this blog to sleep a bit - somewhat longer than I realized, in fact. With the meeting right around the corner, it occurred to me that I ought to have some recent content here when people Google me, so I thought I would kick things back into gear with a podcast review - specifically, a review of Global Dispatches, the foreign policy and world affairs interview podcast series done by UN and foreign policy expert Mark Leon Goldberg for UN Dispatch.

Full Disclosure: I used to work for DAWNS Digest, global humanitarian news project that Mark started with his colleague, Tom Murphy of Humanosphere.

I am able to review this podcast in its entirety because, as of my eight-mile run this morning, I have now listened to just about every episode in the library. For most of my adult life I have had a bizarre goal of running a marathon but had an unfortunate tendency to develop injuries around the ten-mile mark. I finally seem to have gotten it right this year after buying calf compression sleeves for my first shin splints ever this spring, figuring out how to refuel with gel packs, and refilling my water bottles by strategically incorporating my parish into my running route while the doors are unlocked. However, distance running takes an inordinate amount of time, and a runner can only listen to Nicki Minaj and Muse's entire discography so many times before craving a slightly more intellectually stimulating soundtrack. So, I decided on podcasts and chose this one because it has a stand-alone app for Android users like me who do not use iTunes on their phone.

Global Dispatches is billed as a podcast on "foreign policy and world affairs." It alternates between discussing some current event or newsworthy topic of interest with an authoritative commentator (for about twenty minutes) and interviewing a well-known (to those in the industry, at least) foreign policy figure on his or her career and life story (for 45 minutes to an hour). The podcast features people from most walks of life, including academics, journalists, diplomats, bureaucrats, academics, and even a few celebrities and heiresses. Some talk more than others, and some are more animated than others, but there is a decent mix of younger and older individuals, and Mark makes a particular effort to maintain a gender balance with his guests (which is much appreciated by me). I would estimate that the discussion is evenly split between foreign policy/diplomacy and human rights/humanitarian issues, with a little bit of research commentary thrown in.

Since I was listening while running, I was mostly avoiding cars and dodging puddles rather than compiling statistics and taking detailed notes for analysis on the content (although it would be very interesting to see Mark compile some metrics). Rather than providing a detailed analysis, then, I thought I would provide some passing observations for consideration:
  • The gender balance is fabulous. However, this brought some fascinating differences to the forefront in the way guests engaged during interviews. Generally speaking, I thought that the women allowed themselves to be interrupted much more often than the men, who often kept talking until they had finished whatever thought they wanted to carry to its conclusion. I want to avoid cries of sexism by stating unequivocally that Mark is an equal-opportunity interrupter (he functions more or less as a journalist, after all), and that guests who allowed themselves to be interrupted generally had much more dynamic episodes. Also, younger people rolled with interruptions better than older ones did.
  • The bureaucrats love to hear themselves talk, especially some of the older guys from multilateral institutions. While I understand that they have a lot of experience and thus a lot to say, this is why UN bureaucrats do not make for very entertaining guests on news segments or talk shows. Public speaking is an art, guys. Go to a Toastmasters meeting or something.
  • The research episodes were super interesting, and there needs to be more of them. Research episodes included an interview with Columbia economist and professor Chris Blattman on cash transfer programs, a conversation with Tom Murphy about the Worm Wars, and a great segment on an analysis of "fortified boundaries" (i.e., border fences) done by two political scientists at UC Berkeley. Granted, as a research specialist, I may find these more interesting than most, but I will lobby for more of them nonetheless.
  • A huge number of foreign policy people come from the northeast US. This probably stood out to me more because I am from Texas, but it created a bit of an impression that there is an "insider's culture" to foreign policy and diplomacy (and I imagine I am not the first to notice). There are exceptions of course - Jeff Sachs is from Detroit, for instance, and there was at least one ambassador from the Midwest. But I lost track of how many guests were raised in DC, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, or Connecticut.
  • It's a great history lesson on both world history and the field of international relations as a discipline. I have learned quite a lot about the war in the Balkans and the Dayton Peace Accords, the Rwandan genocide, the IAEA, the World Bank, the first Gulf War, the North Korean nuclear negotiations, the MDGs, World War II, the US Civil Rights movement, the US Congress (when it was slightly more functional and filled with slightly more useful people), and several past US presidential administrations. I have also picked up a bit of IR theory, which has been a nice way to engage with my husband while he works on his Master of Global Policy Studies.
The one turn-off for me (besides guests who drone on and do not engage well with the host) is the UN cheerleading. I understand that the project is sponsored by the UN Foundation, and that Mark is a UN expert often speaking to UN people, but I have little patience for the UN and am perpetually frustrated by its slowness in dealing with crises and diplomatic impasses in a meaningful way. A prime example of this is the recent interview with Felice Gaer, US appointee to the UN Committee Against Torture, in which she credits the UN with the increasing number of North Korean defectors, some of whom have provided intelligence on North Korea's catastrophe of a human rights record in general and its gulags for political "dissidents" in particular. While the UN Human Rights Committee finally grew enough of a spine last year to release a report on the Hermit Kingdom's human rights abuses, crediting it with the escapes of desperate and starving North Koreans who risk life and limb (and often have to sell themselves into slavery in China to get a broker to smuggle them out) seems like entirely too much of a reach to me.

My own impatience with multilateralism aside, I would call this a dynamic and varied podcast that is certainly worth listening to for those interested in foreign policy and even global health (like me) and development, as there is quite a bit that is applicable or even directly transferrable.

My next project will be to tackle the Humanosphere's podcast library, as that will probably be more directly related to my own interests.

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