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It's party time at the UvA! UvA Economics and Business (EB) is celebrating its 100th birthday, and we marked this festive occasion on Wednesday, 29 June with the ‘A Fair and Responsible Future’ conference. Dutch and international speakers alike gave us a range of fascinating (scientific) insights on this day of celebration. They also offered a perspective on what is needed to build a sustainable and fair economy.

Professor of Environmental Economics Rick van der Ploeg kicked off the festive conference proceedings at the DeLaMar theatre on Wednesday afternoon with a video that covered the entirety of the faculty’s illustrious history in just 3.5 minutes. The video traced the faculty’s history from its founding as the former Faculty of Commerce in 1922 to the present day, where it is home to 8,804 students, of which no less than 60 percent are international students.

Geert van Dam (President of the Executive Board) and Roel Beetsma (Dean of the UvA Faculty of Business and Economics) then took the floor in turn. Both congratulated UvA Faculty of Business and Economics on its centennial and discussed the importance of the research that is carried out there.

Research into inequality more important than ever

President van Dam emphasised that research into inequality and resolving this issue is not purely a matter of self-interest. ‘Alongside other publications, the book ‘Spirit Level’ shows that unequal societies have far greater problems than more equal societies in terms of issues such as crime, obesity and teenage pregnancies. The search for answers is more important than ever.’

Dean Beetsma echoed his colleague's sentiments and was equally happy to emphasise that although the Faculty is one of the youngest at the university, at the same time, it has an incredibly rich history: erstwhile Professor of Macroeconomics, Wim Duisenberg, for example, became the first President of the European Central Bank.

Challenges hit developing countries hardest

Then it was time for the keynote speaker: Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Okonjo-Iweala received an honorary doctorate from the UvA at the end of 2021 to honour her work at the WTO as well as in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the fight against inequality and in advancing fair trade and sustainable development.

In her lecture, the economist discussed three propositions, which outlined the challenges and solutions to achieving a more equal world. First and foremost, this involved recognition of the fact that we live in challenging times: a COVID pandemic that largely paralysed global trade and is still lurking in the wings and the war in Ukraine that loomed into view just as the pandemic abated.

Challenges that hit developing countries the hardest, with vaccines, for example, remaining out of reach to a large portion of the African population. Meanwhile inflation in developing countries increased to 14 percent, whereas this only rose by up to 11 percent in the West.

Trade offers a solution to challenges

Okonjo-Iweala subsequently argued that trade offers the No. 1 solution to the challenges of the present day. With regard to the greatest challenge of all – climate change – she referred to the global pursuit of achieving more sustainable fisheries – an issue the WTO recently reached an agreement on with all 164 Member States.

The esteemed economist went on to say that although trade constitutes a crucial solution, it is not an end in itself and should not be to the detriment of others. She proceeded to explain that fair trade requires a different type of supply chain: ‘A little less "just in time" and a little more "just in case".’

International cooperation crucial

In recent years, developing countries have increasingly become part of that supply chain. Okonjo-Iweala is of the opinion that this should be taking place more often. Expounding on her third proposition, she asserted that fair trade cannot be achieved without international cooperation.

‘With more small businesses in the chain and women involved in that endeavour, we can tackle global inequality.’ Finally, she called on the UvA’s Faculty of Business and Economics to continue to conduct research into trade issues. ‘We are ready to work with you and to benefit from the knowledge you gain.’

Fair trade in a world that is changing rapidly

Professors Joyeeta Gupta (Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences) and Sweder van Wijnbergen (Faculty of Business and Economics) subsequently sat down for a conversation with Okonjo-Iweala. Professor Gupta wondered whether we might need to review the way we use our land if we are to continue to meet everyone’s needs, which is a point Okonjo-Iweala agreed with. ‘And what’s so great about that is that trade is an excellent means of achieving that! Learning to use our land in different ways and thereby lifting people out of poverty.’

Van Wijnbergen primarily focused on the successful approach taken by Okonjo-Iweala. No mean feat, given the level of distrust between the Member States. ‘The United States and the European Union don’t trust China; it was important to me that we focus on building trust', the Director-General explained, ultimately leading to the Geneva package as a tangible outcome.

EB talent share their research

Although Van Wijnbergen, Gupta and Okonjo-Iweala can safely be referred to as the economic establishment, the conference equally provided room for talented individuals of the Faculty of Business and Economics to share their research. Studies that vary considerably in terms of subject matter.

Albert Jan Hummel, for example, spoke about conducting research into the optimal carbon tax, taking into account inequality as a key variable, whereas Jantsje Mol spoke about examining risk perception and the extent to which people prepare for natural disasters. Tanja Hentschel spoke about the fact that job vacancy texts are currently still very masculine oriented, whereas more gender neutral and/or feminine language could help attract more female leaders.

EB donates Arnold Heertje collection to UvA

Arnold Heertje passed away on April 4th, 2020. He had previously been affiliated with the UvA Faculty of Business and Economics since 1964, and taught at the university for no less than 35 years. Not only was Heertje a professor, he was also an avid collector of antiquarian books on economics,

with a collection spanning publications such as Das Kapital by Karl Marx and leading publications form authors such as Smith and Pearson. Arnold Heertje’s collection was donated to the Allard Pierson, the UvA’s public library, by the Faculty of Business and Economics in the presence of his widow, Betty Heertje.

A recession the most logical outcome

Finally, there was an comprehensive roundtable, featuring the characteristic Chesterfield seating of the Room for Discussion interview platform, with guests including Feike Sijbesma (former Chairman of the Managing Board of DSM), Ester Barendregt (Chief Economist at Rabobank) and Olaf Sleijpen (Member of the Board of Directors of the Dutch Central Bank).

The discussion included the possibility of an oncoming recession. ‘That is the most logical outcome, looking at current developments', Barendregt commented.

Unsustainable growth has become impossible

Can we handle another coronavirus pandemic? ‘We cannot continue to pursue the same fiscal policy as we have in recent years. It was possible at the time, because we had substantial financial buffers – but by now those have largely been depleted', Sleijpen explained.

One of the most persistent questions that continues to occupy the thoughts of many ‘is sustainable growth achievable?’. Sijbesma responded by turned the question around and stating ’Non-sustainable growth is impossible. We have to be sustainable because other forms of growth are no longer future proof.’