Political Science Major Explores the Inefficiencies of International Institutions
July 27, 2016
When Erin Graham, PhD, was branching out into a new research agenda to examine the efficiency of assembled institutions, she recruited Political Science student Allie Serdaru, '15 to help tackle the mountain of data. Together, they looked at groups like UNAIDS, which is tasked with managing six other agencies that all have a mission to fight HIV/AIDS. Their research uncovered the ways in which assembled institutions, working groups that incorporate a variety of groups and actors around a single mission, can lose their mission and efficiency in the internal competition for resources.
We caught up with Allie to ask her about working side-by-side with a professor on high-level research, the value of international institutions and her plans for life after Drexel University.
Q: How did you become involved in this level of research as an undergraduate?
A: I took Professor Graham’s International Law class and I was interested in trying some type of hands-on research, but I was sort of too nervous to just approach Professor Graham and ask about her research agenda. She actually reached out to me with an article and some readings on public health, since she knew I was interested in that topic, and from there I asked if she had any research opportunities coming up. Professor Graham has been an excellent mentor; she’s really taught me the ropes about research, about the nuts and bolts of what to do and how to do it. She’s always been really encouraging if I have questions or don’t fully understand something about what we’re researching, which has made researching for her very interesting and a lot of fun.
I would absolutely recommend working with a professor to other students – it’s so different from the research we do in “classroom only” settings. Actually doing research is better for understanding both the overall picture of a problem and the ins and outs of good research. It makes you a better political scientist.
Q: What sorts of data did you gather, and what did you learn about the data gathering and coding process?
A: I had no idea what I was getting into! Most of the actual work is gathering and sorting through annual reports, board reports, really any document we could get our hands on that reported data on the UNAIDS institution and project. From there, we did a lot of content analysis, running keyword searches and pulling out the relevant material for further analysis.
It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun. Actually getting into the data and getting your hands on stuff is so much more interesting than the sort of basic research design that we do in the Research Methods class; here you learn to apply the theory we’re taught at Drexel to actual data from the real world. You also learn that there really is no such thing as the “perfect piece of data” and that the challenge of research is how to manage around that and come at your question from different angles. It’s fun to look through documents and see a political institution in action
Q: On the one hand, you have these pretty interesting findings purely from a political science perspective, while on the other hand, you guys helped to detail this trend that has really important consequences for the policy world. Can you speak to this dual narrative a little more?
A: The takeaway is that these groups like UNAIDS have great missions and are doing really necessary work, but they’re not great on effectiveness. That might be kind of normal; we’re finding pretty similar trends on another project looking at both UN and World Bank institutions. What happens is that organizations like this strive for coherence, but in reality there is a lot of overlap, bloat and states and other actors just engaging in territorial behavior. All these actors are often scrambling over one another and competing with one another instead of striving for coordination.
Q: So what sort of impact do you hope this research will have for political science as a field, and for other political scientists?
A: I think as students we don’t see this kind of work. I certainly wasn’t exposed to international politics before coming to Drexel University, so it was eye-opening to see how institutions like UNAIDS affect so many people every day and also to see how much work their governing bodies set out to accomplish. I hope this research shows people just how big an impact international institutions can make. Especially in an election year, where so many people are so focused on just how expensive international organizations can be, it’s important not to talk down about international organizations. In reality they are trying to do what is necessary and best; sure, of course they should strive to do better and work more alongside one another, but in the end they serve valuable missions.
Q: Finally, tell us a little about the rest of your plans. Allie, you’re just coming off of a post-baccalaureate program. What does the future hold for you?
A: Yes, I did one year of a pre-med post-baccalaureate, and realized that that really wasn’t the best path for me, partly because I love doing this kind of research so much! So now I’m set on law school. I’m applying to law schools this fall, and after completing the JD, I’ll be back for a PhD!
Q: Seriously?! What on earth possesses you?
A: That’s usually what Professor Graham says! I really think this kind of work serves a valuable purpose in educating people as to how the international world actually functions, as opposed to how we tend to think it works. Honestly, I just love digging around in this kind of data and reading this kind of stuff – that’s what I want to do!