Over two intense weeks this summer, students at the University of Virginia studied groups like Doctors Without Borders and how these nongovernmental organizations are impacting state-to-state relations and human rights.
“We don’t capture a lot of what is going on in the world if we focus solely on inter-state diplomacy or on the formal proceedings of the United Nations,” said Michael Smith, an associate professor of politics in the College of Arts & Sciences, who led the class this July. “There is a lot going on that does not fit into the existing structure of sovereign states and intergovernmental organizations.”
His new course, “Human Rights and the Emergence of Global Civil Society,” had students reading everything from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s writings to extensive text on NGOs and their roles in global civil society. Each student also researched an NGO of their choice.
Reuben Han, a rising third-year student studying political and social thought, relayed a funny exchange he had with his mother about the class, saying it seemed like a great substitute for an internship at an NGO.
“You learn a unique perspective on how these organizations fit into this messy quilt of world governance,” he said. Instead of waiting for a United Nations resolution, he said NGOs can take incremental steps in places like Syria “to start working on the ground to make the lives of the people who are refugees in Syria better, so they can live their lives with dignity.”
Smith said he sought to teach the class because he wanted to think more about the notion of emerging civil society. “I knew I had a lot of former students working in the
area that I wanted to draw from, and I thought this would be an interesting thing for me to pursue as well, to look at some of the literature on NGOs and civil society,” he said.
At one session, Smith and the students discussed the case of Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor who leaked details about mass surveillance in the United States. Snowden was working for a different type of NGO, a government contractor (Booz Allen Hamilton), and how his actions affected civil society.
Smith said there is an inevitable tradeoff between security and civil liberties and the public seems to tolerate intrusions into privacy the closer they are to an attack. “We are 12 years out from 9/11, so maybe we are more willing to scrutinize what the government is collecting about us than we were in the aftermath of that.”
Smith said it has been a pleasure to teach such a small group of students and to see how engaged they are.
“What I like about this setting is I feel like we are on a journey together. It’s a collaborative learning model in every sense,” he said.
Chloe Squires, a fifth-year student majoring in political and social thought, concurred. “For somebody who does not have a lot of experience working for a U.N. organization or an NGO, it’s nice to discover these things through an academic lens, so when you do go to those places you are prepared.”