The Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) kicked off the beginning of its Fall 2021 Lecture Series with a lecture and career talk by Aaron “Michael” Stern (PhD, Political Science, University of Michigan), a current foreign service officer with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), on the topic of disaster declaration in Southeast Asia. 

In his lecture, titled “How Governments Declare Disasters: Thoughts from Southeast Asia,” Dr. Stern combined political science theory with his own practical experience with USAID to think through the politics of if, when, and how government entities in Southeast Asia declare disasters. His talk centered on issues of ‘face,’ legitimacy, and trust in a government’s decision to declare a disaster in order to receive international aid, while also questioning the possibility of formulating a model for disaster declaration and aid that encapsulates the nuances of both individual disasters and the particular needs of the affected population. Dr. Stern also situated the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic within the framework of disaster declaration, noting that certain Southeast Asian governments have demonstrated a certain swiftness and efficacy in their response to COVID-19 in ways previously unseen when they were faced with natural and non-natural disasters in the past. While the talk focused squarely on the act of declaring disasters, Dr. Stern’s analysis left space to continue the conversation on matters post-declaration, including disaster management and post-disaster reconstruction.

This lecture was the first hybrid event held through the International Institute this semester. Masked attendees gathered on the tenth floor of Weiser Hall to listen to the talk; the event was also live-streamed on Zoom for virtual attendees, who were able to ask questions and engage with the speaker during the Q-and-A session. 

Dr. Stern discusses career-building with U-M students. Photo by Do-Hee Morsman.

After the hybrid lecture, Dr. Stern and CSEAS hosted an in-person discussion with current students on the topic of career building in international development and Asian Studies. He shared his own experience making the decision to work with USAID, in comparison to pursuing a career in academia post-PhD. The conversation focused on the question of what a good “fit” looks and feels like in terms of choosing a career path: would someone prefer to experience a variety of cultures and environments or settle in and “go local” in a specific community? Do they want to pursue academic research or do more on-the-ground work as a practitioner? Throughout the discussion, Dr. Stern highlighted the importance of maintaining a long-term perspective while building a career, which includes not only the matter of landing a job, but also considering benefits or having a family in a job that requires constant relocation. Students had the opportunity to ask questions about the specifics of going into government work, especially in relation to the exam-based system of recruitment at the U.S. Department of State versus the job application process at organizations like USAID. 

A recording of Dr. Stern’s lecture will be available soon on the CSEAS website.