Natalia Lalin and her thesis advisor, Martin Flaherty ’81. Lalin researched a storied example of so-called "debt-trap diplomacy" and found what Flahtery calls "

Senior Thesis Spotlight: Her affinity for service took an unexpected turn toward public policy

Natalia Lalin and her thesis adviser, Martin Flaherty ’81. Lalin's thesis revisits an early example of so-called "debt trap diplomacy." Flaherty says her scholarship offers "a deeper account that gives a much better understanding."

The daughter and granddaughter of physicians, Natalia Lalin entered Princeton with a strong affinity for service and an intention to major in neuroscience.

But after taking a wide swath of courses during her first year — including mathematics, computer science, and, especially, the Freshman Seminar “Sentencing and Punishment” — she began to reimagine her academic path with an eye toward public policy coursework at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA).

The summer following her sophomore year, she interned in U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill’s office on Capitol Hill, where she networked with Princeton alumni in Washington, including Chris Lu ’88, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for U.N. Management and Reform, and Lisa Brown ’82, general counsel of the U.S. Department of Education. The experience taught her that giving back comes in many forms — not just medicine — and she returned to the University as a SPIA major.

“Service is so broad, and there are so many other opportunities that you can engage in, especially in policy and law,” Lalin says. “I wanted to do that in an area that I was most passionate about, and I found that that was in SPIA."

As a junior, Lalin deepened her exploration of public service. She served as a research assistant with SPIA’s Bridging Divides Initiative, where she investigated political violence and election monitoring, and participated in a Policy Task Force, “Multilateralism in crisis? How international institutions can better manage global challenges,” about the challenges that international institutions face and how they might become more effective.

"That launched me more into the human- and civil-rights sphere,” Lalin says. For her junior year research seminar, Lalin explored law and policy in India, and the structural barriers women face with respect to High Court and Supreme Court appointments in the country’s public law sphere.

The summer following her junior year was, to say the least, busy. Lalin began by interning in the civil society division of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women — U.N. Women — where she worked to connect youth activists from the world to the U.N. Network. From there, she went to the Division on Civil Rights at the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, where she investigated cases of housing discrimination. That fall, she studied abroad at the University of Cambridge, in England.

For her senior thesis, she chose to research the effects of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on Sri Lanka, the homeland of her father and her maternal grandparents. Through BRI, China has been loaning large sums of money to Sri Lanka and other countries. When Sri Lanka failed to repay its loan, China took control of one of its ports, Hambantota, stirring American fears that it could be used as a military foothold in the Indian Ocean.

“That was criticized in the very early days of BRI as an example of its dark side,” says Lalin’s thesis adviser, Martin Flaherty ’81, a visiting professor of public and international affairs. “And then the scholarship moved on to other countries. But what Natalia is doing is returning to this original story, and in a very interesting way.”

Natalia Lalin smiling

Post-graduation, Lalin plans to work for two years as a legal analyst at a law firm. Law school will follow, likely with a focus on international law. "My long, long, long-term goal would be to be an ambassador,” she says.

Lalin traveled to Sri Lanka at the end of last summer to conduct interviews with key stakeholders. She spoke with some 20 corporate leaders, government officials, ambassadors, policy experts, community advocates, journalists, and academics, and also gleaned insights from ordinary Sri Lankans she encountered between the formal interviews. “When you talk to people in Sri Lanka, they say, 'It's actually not [just] the People’s Republic of China,’” Lalin said. “‘We need to hold our own [Sri Lankan] politicians accountable.’”

“My thesis puts forth that the primary onus is on the People’s Republic of China,” she said, given concerns about rule of law, economics and other aspects of sovereignty. These include facilitating foreign interference in domestic affairs, increased corruption, environmental degradation disproportionately affecting poorer communities, censorship and an erosion of labor rights.

Flaherty said that supports the conventional wisdom about BRI, which holds that the policy exploits developing countries by offering loans for infrastructure projects that they cannot pay — so-called "debt trap diplomacy."  Sri Lanka is often cited as a prime example of this narrative, because it ostensibly lost control of an entire port as collateral for unpaid loans. He praised Lalin for adding nuance to that narrative. 

"Among other things, Natalia's in-country interviews reveal a far more complex story," he said. "On one hand, conventional accounts of the Hambantota story are not entirely accurate.  At the same time, Natalia nonetheless demonstrates other ways that the influence of BRI has negative effects in Sri Lanka, including promotion of corruption, labor problems and human rights issues.

Lalin’s thesis notes that despite warnings from the International Monetary Fund, the Sri Lankan government instituted tax cuts that hurt the country’s overall GDP at a time when its economy was already in decline. It also issued an import ban on non-organic fertilizers, hoping to enhance domestic production; when that didn’t happen, crops failed and a food shortage followed. 

“These policies, which were supposed to restore the country after its war, had the opposite effect, as they plummeted Sri Lanka into financial ruin,” she writes. “As a result, Sri Lanka was ill-prepared to face the polycrisis that came with the 2020s. The country was hit from every angle, from a global pandemic and huge drop-off in tourism, which the country’s economy relied on, to an increase in oil and gas prices as a result of the Russia-Ukraine War.”

"A lot of students would’ve gone in there just trying to undermine the conventional story and then come out 180 degrees opposite," Flaherty said. "What Natalia did was undermine the conventional story, but also come up with a deeper account that gives a much better understanding."

As a Princeton graduate, Flaherty brought his own experience to bear on the critical role of senior thesis adviser. He said his own adviser, John Murrin, a professor of history who specialized in American colonial and revolutionary history and the early republic and taught at Princeton for 30 years, was "phenomenal." His thesis, "A Region Converted: A History of Early Princeton, 1683-1813," garnered three awards presented at Commencement.

As he worked with Lalin over the course of this academic year, he said that having written a thesis of his own made him "appreciate how substantial and important" the thesis experience is at Princeton.

After she graduates, Lalin plans to work for two years as a legal analyst at a law firm. Law school will follow, likely with a focus on international law.

“I want to continue working in the human rights space,” Lalin says. “My long, long, long-term goal would be to be an ambassador,” possibly to Sri Lanka, “and really bring my life full circle.”