Student Spotlight: Andrew Lohsen (SIPA ’15)

Friday, May 15, 2015

Andrew Lohsen (SIPA ’15) became interested in corruption while living in St. Petersburg on a Flagship Language Fellowship (2007-8), where he frequently encountered low-level officials seeking bribes. While working on security and nuclear nonproliferation issues at the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism (2010-13), he became convinced that systemic corruption was a critical problem for Eurasian states. The desire to take more direct action against it prompted him to enroll in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) in 2013. “I wanted to learn more about how to address corruption effectively. To understand what factors perpetuate it, what works, and what doesn’t work when it comes to fighting it.”

When he started SIPA, Lohsen embarked on a regional concentration at the Harriman Institute in order to develop a deeper understanding of the political and institutional history of the post-Soviet space. “It’s really important to have a regional context while learning political theory,” he says. “And what made Harriman extremely attractive to me was the wide variety of courses offered.” One of his favorite courses was Professor Viktoriya Koroteyeva’s “Reforming Legal Systems after Communism,” which he took during the Spring 2014 semester. “The subject matter was tailored to my interests,” says Lohsen, who was intrigued by the conversations that had taken place in the post-Soviet region during the late 1980s and early 1990s, “about lustration, concepts of transitional justice, resetting national values and drafting a new constitution, how to deal with the post-Communist legacy.” Two months later, as an inaugural recipient of the Harriman Institute’s Civil Society Fellowship, which provides travel and living expenses for unpaid practical summer internships at any international or non-governmental organization benefiting civil society in Russia, Eurasia, or East Central Europe, he was able to go to Kyiv and intern at the Anticorruption Action Center (AntAc). “It was incredible to see these conversations play out in Ukraine,” he says, explaining that the country had skipped this step in the early 1990s, opting to keep “red managers” instead of reinventing its systems and institutions.

Kyiv was fertile ground for building civil society and supporting anticorruption work. “Maidan was about pushing back against impunity and trying to produce reforms,” Lohsen says. “There was a real sense that change could happen.” At AntAc he worked on pinpointing the most effective ways to implement change. “Ukraine is not the first case of a kleptocratic leader robbing a state,” he explains; his task was to study previous models of asset recovery that might help to identify best practices for Ukraine’s new leadership. He researched the cases of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Sani Abacha in Nigeria, and Vladimiro Montesinos and Alberto Fujimori in Peru.  “One of the more interesting models was used in a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act case in Kazakhstan, where the U.S. and Swiss governments seized about $80 million and were trying to repatriate it.” Because Kazakhstan had not undergone regime change, they had to find creative ways to return the funds to the Kazakh people—they pioneered a successful model by supporting a foundation oriented toward improving child development. It remains to be seen whether or not this model will work for Ukraine. “The jury is still out. It’s hard to see what’s best for the country.” 

The experience was transformative for Lohsen, not only did it help him to pinpoint skills he wanted to develop during his second year of graduate school, but it also gave him an idea of how to apply what he had already learned. “Being able to participate in the civil society community through this fellowship was a really great way to make my entrance into the field,” says Lohsen, who also received the Hazard Rule of Law Fellowship from Harriman this year, and is currently interning for Open Society Foundations (OSF), where he plans to work this summer as a consultant mapping out procurement policies. “I can draw on connections I made in Ukraine to contextualize the projects we’re working on at OSF.” 

Masha Udensiva-Brenner

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