How to have global impact

  • May 26, 2015
How to have global impact

Great leaders know how to listen. They are humble enough to learn from failures of their own and champion the lighthouse success of others. They act because their moral compass knows only that direction. And they build impact by igniting action.

“Building impact: listen, learn, act” was the theme of this year’s eighth annual Global Scholars Symposium (GSS) held at the University of Cambridge with generous sponsorship from the McCall McBain Foundation, Gates Cambridge, The Rhodes Trust and seven other scholarships. Over the course of this four-day conference, postgraduate students from across the United Kingdom had the opportunity to meet with leaders like social activist and reformer Medha Patkar; Dr Selim Jahan, Director of the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report Office; Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS-free World; comedian Francesca Martinez; Amy Goodman, journalist and host of Democracy Now!; and Dr Sanduk Ruit, co-founder of the Himalayan Cataract Project. The innovative format enabled students to engage with these speakers in fireside chats and small group sessions, bridging differences across generations and disciplines. Topics included the role of independent media, racism, ethical living, the struggle for gender equality, delivering healthcare to marginalised communities, climate change and the role of aid in development.

In face of these global challenges there was a spirit of optimism. The solutions do not have to cost the earth or be at the sacrifice of humanity. On the other side of war is peace; gender inequality can be overcome through women’s empowerment; and people’s inherent love for nature can galvanise politicians to doing something real about climate change. Wealth and deprivation may be two sides of the same coin, and perhaps what matters most is not the mathematics of the equation but giving it practical application.

It is tempting – and undoubtedly worthwhile – to try to measure progress and impact. At the panel on alternative measures of progress, we had the opportunity to hear from people like Nic Marks, founder of the Happy Planet Index, and enter into heated discussion about economic efficiency, progress and the tension between a good life today and a good life in the future. We can try to formulate this into measures like the Gini coefficient, the Human Development Index and build them into initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals.

Yet that is a means and not the end to itself. Our priority should be on innovating solutions to cherish the values like community, kindness, forgiveness, love and creativity that, as former US president John F. Kennedy famously said when criticising the Gross National Product, fill the gap of what is really at the core of human wellbeing. It’s a beautiful and messy world out there and the solutions are not neat, let alone concrete.

But that should not stop us.

As we set sail – on a journey in which we must learn not to drown when we fail – three simple words can help each of us navigate the waters to impact: listen, learn and act.

*Madeline Weeks [2014] is an MPhil student in Geographical Research and Executive of the Global Scholars Action Network (GSAN). She studies the wellbeing of coffee farmers in Mexico and has a deep passion for the pursuit of happiness. Follow her on Twitter: @madelinecacao or her blog: The other sponsors were Chevening, the Churchill Scholarship, Clarendon Fund, Commonwealth Scholarship, Fulbright Commission, Marshall Scholarship, Weidenfeld Scholarships & Leadership Programme, along with the SAID Business School of Oxford.


Madeline Weeks

Madeline Weeks

  • Alumni
  • United States
  • 2014 MPhil Geographical Research
  • Lucy Cavendish College

As a California native with bi-racial British and Chinese heritage, I sensed a deep commitment to promoting exchange from an early age. My research to date has focused on two commodities—chocolate and coffee—with cross-cultural and interdisciplinary overlap. I study how these commodities are linked to broader concerns like human wellbeing and ecosystem services in the context of an evolving world. In 2011 I graduated from Wellesley College in 2011 with a B.A. in Economics and Spanish. My undergraduate thesis examined the role of cacao through the dynamically changing sociocultural history of Mexico. Upon completion of this work, I returned to Mexico to study coffee—a similar yet distinctly different commodity. Supported by a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholarship (2013-2014), I worked in collaboration with an ongoing interdisciplinary initiative called Café In Red at the Institute of Ecology, A.C. to understand socioeconomic considerations of small-scale coffee producers in Central Veracr

Latest Blogs

How Cambridge Analytica influenced Nigeria’s elections

My research broadly tackles questions of technology, equity, and accountability within the Global South. I emphasise the West’s use of sub-Saharan Africa as a testing ground or laboratory for its nascent technologies before launching them in the West. This blog is an excerpt from my recent presentation at the 2022 Gates Day of Research, titled […]

Why algorithms are necessarily value-laden

Algorithmic decision-making systems applied in social contexts drape value-laden solutions in an illusory veil of objectivity. Machine learning plays an increasingly prominent role in mediating institutional decisions in everything from corporate hiring practices to criminal sentencing. This ongoing AI spring has invigorated discussions of the ethical dimensions of these techno-social arrangements. In particular, there is […]

Preparing for all scenarios in an unstable world

On March 9th, Mohamed A. El-Erian joined the Gates Cambridge community for a virtual fireside chat, where he discussed decision-making in conditions of uncertainty, the economic impact of the pandemic and relief efforts and the importance of diversity of thought and scenario planning. El-Erian is President of Queens’ College, Cambridge and Chief Economic Advisor of […]

How can the international community help Belarus?

Last Sunday represented a tipping point in the recent history of Belarus which has had an immediate effect on the lives of its citizens, including mine. Independent exit polls and observers representing the diplomatic community, verified by the crowdsourcing platform Golos, show that, had it been a fair and transparent election, the uninterrupted, 26-year-long reign […]