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Hobart and William Smith Colleges - Connecting Climate Change and Colonialism in Afric
The HWS Update
Willa Dow DU

Connecting Climate Change and Colonialism in Africa

As a 2020 Woodworth Fellow, Willa Dow ’21 researched the impact of the French colonial legacy on the economies and environmental outlooks of four central African countries.

Willa Dow ’21 was selected as a Stephen W. Woodworth ’54 Fisher Center Student Summer Fellow. Offered to students in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Fine and Performing Arts, the fellowship encourages students to pursue their own academic projects over the summer. The central criterion is that the project must reflect the Fisher Center’s mission of social justice around issues of gender, race and class.

A double major in French and Francophone studies and international relations, Dow began exploring the connections between colonialism and climate change in Africa during her international relations capstone course, “Environmental Insecurity & Global Climate Change.” As a Woodworth Fellow, she delved further into the topic, using tools from a course on quantitative research methods to structure her project, which asked “how, if at all, have the lasting effects of colonialism impacted both the ability of African countries to respond to climate change and the lived experience of Africans in those countries.”

Focusing on countries that were once French colonies — Central African Republic, Niger, Cote D’Ivoire and Cameroon — Dow compared contemporary monetary programs, currencies and primary exports for a clearer look at the colonial impact on economies within a shared geographical zone. Through this research, she found that “the ways these countries are experiencing climate change are part of the legacy of colonialism, which has impacted the ability to have the governmental structures to respond.”

Dow’s work as a Woodworth Fellow “is the perfect project to describe what I’ve been studying at HWS,” she says. While she enrolled at the Colleges with plans to focus on environmental studies, she took an introductory international relations course during her first year “and absolutely loved it. Since then, I have been obsessed with international politics, specifically in Africa.”

The interdisciplinary nature of international relations has given a framework for her interests, ensuring that her courses in Arabic, French, economics, political science and environmental studies “all started to come together.”

She says that “despite not having a major or minor in environmental studies, it is something that has underscored my academic career and impacted the way I view political science. I really wanted to do this project because it focuses on how those who have contributed to climate change the least will be the most affected by it.”

Dow presented her project virtually in October to an audience that included a number of professors “whose courses really helped me get to this research question.”

On campus, Dow is a member of the Model African Union and works in the Office of Admissions. She has been a tutor at the Boys & Girls Club of Geneva, and in 2019, she interned with Geneva City Court Judge, the Hon. Timothy J. Buckley.