May 02, 2023

Around the Table with Sarath Ganji

Three Questions with the Make Room Email Newsletter

Around the Table is a three-question interview series from the Make Room email newsletter. Each edition features a conversation with a peer in the national security community to learn about their expertise and experience in the sector.

Sarath Ganji leads the Autocracy and Global Sports Initiative. Ganji was recently selected as a 2023 CNAS Next Gen Fellow. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the Autocracy and Global Sports Initiative or CNAS.

How did you first get interested in sportswashing?

I stumbled into the wide world of sportswashing in 2014 after booking a flight to the United Arab Emirates to study—weirdly—medical tourism. I took up residence at a small think tank to examine the country’s neoliberal model for transforming its healthcare system. Coincidentally, I shared an office with a PhD candidate who was investigating the country’s higher education system. The more we chatted, the more we noticed similarities across our studies—namely, the role of internationalization in stitching Western brands to the UAE’s development goals. I wrote up my findings, then dropped the subject.

But the subject never really dropped me. While working in Afghanistan, I saw how internationalization was shaping the country’s agriculture sector—and, with it, the U.S. counternarcotics strategy. While at the State Department, I saw how internationalization was complicating the global response to COVID-19—and U.S. engagement with China. And then, as Qatar’s World Cup approached, I saw how internationalization was upending the fault lines of fandom—from country versus country to democracies versus autocracies.

So, I don’t really think of my subject as sportswashing—I think of it as reputation-laundering via the global sports sector. And, it turns out, in sectors as varied as media and academia, healthcare and higher ed, Western brands are helping many an authoritarian regime launder its reputation in service of "development" goals. My work explores where that help is sowing disruption and division, and what obligations Western governments and businesses have to act differently.

What advice do you have for someone who is early in their career?

I’ll crib some lines from a mentor of mine: “Before the age of 35, if you have a choice between convention or adventure, choose adventure. Because after 35—when the choice is made for you—that’s what makes you an interesting person.” The number, of course, is a bit arbitrary, but the intuition behind it is telling: the older we get, the more commitments we take on. Beginning families, buying houses, building careers—personal and professional milestones, welcome as they are, come with responsibilities that make claims on our schedule. So, if there’s a time to roll the dice on professional gambles, it’s earlier in your career.

As I was wrapping up college, I was fortunate to have a few post-grad options. One was at a management consultancy, where I’d get a security clearance. The second was at a think tank, where I’d be positioned for grad school. The last was a fellowship in Israel—and honestly, I wasn’t too sure what I’d get from it. Most of my network counseled the first two options; after all, a security clearance and grad school are top of mind for so many young professionals. I happened to choose the fellowship. Not long after touching down in Jerusalem, the Arab Spring took off—and I was able to follow it from the frontlines.

Now, I’m not saying any of that has made me an interesting person. But I’m thankful to have lived and worked in interesting places as history swept through them. Gambles, at that stage of my career, proved to be pure upside.

What lessons have you learned from your time in government and think tanks?

I view policy ecosystems like a river: upstream is where ideas are generated, midstream is where they’re implemented, and downstream is where they’re evaluated. So, think tanks tend to camp furthest up the river; Congress, federal agencies, and implementing partners gather somewhere around its middle; and inspectors-general reside near its end. Obviously, that’s a little simplistic, but from my time on the Hill, at think tanks, and in industry, I’ve found that thinking in those terms has its benefits.

The first has to do with comity. Over the years, I’ve been on teams whose leads—seasoned veterans of their organizations—have tended to believe their shops boasted the soundest methods and surest judgements on policy. At times, that conviction cultivated blindspots, resulting in clunky conclusions in reports and even heated confrontations with counterparts. Leaders have to recognize that their organizations sit at one bend of the river—and then work toward understanding which bends their counterparts are bringing with them.

That leads me to the second benefit: empathy. Staying with one organization over the long-term often seems like the safest way to advance a career; in fact, I’ve had lots of colleagues counsel me to do exactly that. While I appreciate that advice, I’ve appreciated more the lens I’ve developed by traversing other parts of the river—the many methods and judgments that mediate how an ecosystem bears down on a policy.


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