Where Did Your Stuff Come From?

Most American students are challenged to understand the extent to which international trade affects their lives, and the way that the US trades with the world. I can (and have) shown statistics about trade and economics in very graphic and immediate form, but numbers in the scale of trillions are hard to conceptualize.

To combat that, I asked students in an introductory international politics class to go on a scavenger hunt. They were tasked to find one item from each of 5 world regions – Europe, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East & North Africa, and Asia & the Pacific. They had to take a picture of the ‘made in’ indicator (and part of their student ID, to ensure that they didn’t just go grabbing stock photography or Instagram stuff) and post it to the class learning management system’s discussion board. To sweeten the pot, I offered 2 bonus points for unique entries, where no one else posted something from that country. Specialty foods and beverages were excluded (no taking a picture of a bottle of Stella for Belgium).

Students went crazy hunting for stuff. The two bonus points were apparently a huge incentive, with students finding and posting additional items when someone else duplicated “their” country.

Students easily found Asia; a few lucky ones found Pacific island states. Latin America was also relatively easy to find, and enough students were able to find products from Israel and Egypt (mostly textiles). Students were surprised to find that they struggled to find products from Europe that were not specialty food and beverages; I shared a photo of one of my contact lenses, which was made in Ireland. (They were appalled at my prescription.) One student shared a screen shot of an online game that he played that was based in Europe, on the grounds that he was importing services.

Where they really struggled, however, and which really brought home the point, was finding anything from Sub-Saharan Africa. US trade with this region is minuscule. Barely a dozen students found anything. Most students ended up either skipping that one, or lucking out and finding garments from Kenya or Tanzania. Practically nothing else came out of 50 students searching. Having just talked about how trade increases wealth, how most of these states had just joined the WTO, and how poor most of them were, students assumed that US-African trade would be … if not significant, then at least existent. Finding that it was so negligible was a shock for quite a few of them.

The discussion was really enlightening for many students. Why did the US import mostly specialty products from Europe? Why does the US import so little from states that could benefit so much from trade? If consumer goods are so heavily imported, how does trade still make up such a small proportion of the US economy?

The next time I use this assignment, I will probably restrict them to no more than one textile item and also ask them to find something made in the United States or Canada. I would probably also make a map showing where the products we found were from, but that’s a minor thing.