On the Ground

A new program at Emory is training the next generation of development leaders to face our toughest global challenges, from gender inequality to climate change.

By Erin Crews 09C 09G

In the wake of the 1994 genocide, during which as many as 500,000 women and girls were raped, Rwanda has seen transformative change in gender relations. The government created a national Gender Monitoring Office (GMO) and gender-based violence (GBV) desks in police stations and judicial institutions across the country. Women now make up more than half of Rwanda’s parliament, which in 2008 passed a landmark law on the prevention and punishment of GBV that encourages police action against rape and other crimes.

But these initiatives have not trickled down to the grassroots level. It is widely believed that GBV cases are chronically underreported, and victims struggle to gain access to needed services. The 1,572 cases of GBV investigated in a six-month period following the passage of the 2008 law vastly underrepresent the extent of the problem, according to a 2010 human rights report issued by the US state department.

Solid laws are in place. Why aren’t they being implemented?

That’s the question that Alicia Clifton 12G and her colleagues spent last summer tackling. “We were documenting the failures in the process so that we could show the authorities, OK, this is where the process is breaking down,” she said. “The police aren’t taking the case, or the hospital isn’t referring the case to the court, or wherever the breakdown was in the process.”

Because the 2008 law was top-down, Clifton explained, “it’s not necessarily something that is embraced by the population, especially by the traditional leaders”—the abunzi, committees that mediate community disputes—“who would generally be men. The local community isn’t entirely on board—yet.”

Clifton was in Butare, Rwanda, working on CARE’s Great Lakes Advocacy Initiative as part of Emory’s new Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) program. Each summer, Emory sends MDP students on fieldwork assignments around the world to tackle complex development issues—whether it’s implementing GBV laws in Rwanda, combating food insecurity in Ethiopia, or improving literacy in Bolivia.

What sets the MDP program apart from traditional development studies programs is its capacity to link the classroom to the field. “We train our students in the conceptual aspects of development so that they will understand the abstract policy dimensions and then also look at what happens as projects get implemented in the particular contexts where students are working,” says David Nugent, the program director and a professor of anthropology. “What does sitting here talking about this stuff in class or in the comfort of my office mean for doing real work on the ground in poor parts of Rwanda? It means nothing.”

This gap between classroom learning and on-the-ground work was one of the limitations of existing programs that the International Commission on Education in Sustainable Development Practice identified three years ago. The commission also found that traditional development training was “very siloed,” according to Nugent. “You could get really good training in economics, you could get really good training in public health, in human rights or policy. But it was really hard for people to talk and work across those boundaries. There was all this expertise and all these research results out there, but nobody could make sense of them in an integrated way. Working on the ground, it’s immediately clear that this is a crucial issue.”

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation had convened the commission, recruiting 20 of the world’s top development experts. “There was broad recognition that much of what was happening in development wasn’t working,” Nugent said. “Since huge amounts of money were being poured into this, and since a great deal is at stake in terms of human suffering and inequality and malnutrition, there was real concern.” In response to the commission’s findings, the MacArthur Foundation committed $15 million to seed new MDP programs and circulated a request for proposals from universities the world over.

Nearly 150 schools expressed interest, but only 10 universities would be awarded grants. Nugent and Laney Graduate School Dean Lisa Tedesco “went into high gear,” drawing on Emory’s working relationships with Atlanta-based contacts at the Carter Center, CARE, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to put together a proposal. In June 2009, they received word that Emory was one of only two US universities to receive funding.

The first incoming class would arrive in fall 2010. Nugent had one year to get the program up and running.

One of the first things he did was call Carla Roncoli, who was working as a research scientist in the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. Roncoli had been a student of Peter Little, an anthropology professor who directs Emory’s undergraduate minor in development studies. Nugent asked her to serve as associate director for the new MDP program. “I really loved the vision,” she said. “The program sounded so exciting and was something so needed.”

In the summer and fall, Roncoli reached out to her strong network in the agricultural and environmental sectors to bring new partner organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the International Water Management Institute—one of an exclusive set of prominent international research centers known as the Consultation Group for International Agricultural Research—on board. She and Nugent quickly developed a close working relationship as they designed the curriculum and internship opportunities, both in Atlanta and abroad.

“We felt it was important to combine academic courses with training in specific competences, including things that are not necessarily taught on college campuses,” Roncoli said. Housed in Laney Graduate School, the program would bring together faculty from across the university and experienced practitioners from nonprofit organizations to teach skills such as monitoring and evaluation, gender analysis, organizational management, program design, even budgeting. The program directors asked themselves, How do you both train students in practical skills and make them aware of the limitations of those skills in the particular contexts in which they are working? “That’s an interesting challenge to have because we’re at a university, and universities traditionally have many people who think and fewer people who ‘do’—fewer whose work has a direct impact on underserved populations,” Nugent said. “So the program is a combination of thinkers and doers. We are lucky that we have so many doers here at Emory.”

Applications began flooding in for the first incoming class. “We accepted 20 students, thinking we’d get a yield of about 10,” Nugent said. All 20 accepted their offers.

Rwanda’s genocide was carried out with terrifying speed; within 100 days, more than half a million people were killed. The conflict spilled out beyond Rwanda’s borders and is still disrupting the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) today. (The Great Lakes Advocacy Initiative was designed to be implemented in Uganda, Burundi, and the DRC as well, but the DRC office has been unable to implement the project.)

“The whole Great Lakes region has been in conflict for years,” said Clifton, who is one of the 13 students in the inaugural class—a number of candidates eventually deferred, much to Nugent’s relief. “Gender discrimination was a part of the culture there, as it’s been a part of pretty much every culture ever, but I think the conflict made that gender violence more obvious.”

Although ethnic tensions still lurk below the surface, Clifton believes that the genocide has forced Rwandans to take a hard look in the mirror. “I think it makes people say, Wow, look at the violence that human beings are capable of. How can we root this out of our society? People are open to reflecting on their own culture and saying, How can we change? How can we improve? Which not every culture is willing to do.”

She and her colleagues, nearly all of whom were Rwandan, helped CARE implement a two-pronged approach to combating GBV in Butare. First, they partnered with case managers to educate local communities about GBV and the new prevention measures. “It was about getting the laws into a digestible format, into the language of the people,” she said. “We train them [case managers] on gender, on the laws, and then they go out and take it to their communities, speaking in public arenas in their communities.”

The second approach was to train political activists within the government ranks. “In Rwanda, activism can come from outside the government, but the government is more favorable to influence coming from within,” Clifton said with a wry smile. “We chose to partner with local political representatives who were women. We talked to them about the laws and made sure they were armed with the knowledge they needed to put pressure on different governing bodies and the police to implement the law.”

One of these local representatives happened to be the wife of Clifton’s colleague. “We were able to get her insider perspective on how our work actually plays out in the field and whether it really makes sense or not in the countries we’re working in,” she said.

That kind of consideration for context is precisely what Nugent hopes for in students. “Taking a project and doing it in Rwanda is completely different from doing it in Guatemala,” he said. When students return to Atlanta after their field experiences, they compare notes; oftentimes classmates have been working on similar projects halfway around the globe, which can dramatically change their methods of implementation. “We try to create an environment in which each student who’s been in one place is confronted with the challenges of understanding not only what happened there, but what happened everywhere else.”

The program’s emphasis on context and its holistic approach were major selling points for Stephanie Stawicki 12G, who was applying to graduate school after returning from The Gambia, in West Africa, where she worked as a Peace Corps volunteer. “There were a lot of international development programs out there, but none of them seemed to have the hands-on work I was looking for,” she said. “Through Peace Corps I realized that development is not just health; it’s everything wrapped up together. You can’t remove one sector of development and just focus on that.”

One of the things that Emory’s MDP program does uniquely, according to Nugent, is regularly send students to conduct fieldwork for two successive summers with the same organization in the same place. “We want students to become an integral part of the projects these organizations are doing, so we try to set up a long-term relationship between students and partner organizations as early in their graduate training as possible.”

Betsy Root 12G, who recently returned to Cochabamba, Bolivia, for her second summer working for MAP International, is among the first students to benefit from these efforts. “The biggest challenge last summer was striking a balance between learning and actively supporting the organization’s work,” she said. “We spent several weeks in the beginning observing different programs within MAP Bolivia and helping with smaller projects. This year, now that I know the organization’s work and have formed relationships, I was able to hit the ground running from the beginning.”

Of course, in a field in which three- to six-month contracts are common at the junior level, a number of students just began their second summer of fieldwork in a new location. Clifton will soon head to the east coast of Sri Lanka, a conflict-affected area that was impacted by the 2004 tsunami. There she will be working with Oxfam to increase women’s ability to grow food for market. “This is definitely an issue in a conflict-affected area where many of these women’s male relatives—their husbands, their sons—have died in conflict. For widows and other female-headed households, their ability to participate in the market is really crucial in order to sustain their families,” she explained. “That intersection of conflict and how it affects development and people’s ability to have well-being is something I’m really interested in, so this assignment is perfect for me.”

Meanwhile, Roncoli and Nugent are working to broaden the program’s network of partnerships, which has expanded to include UN organizations such as the Food and Agricultural Organization and UNICEF. They are also hoping to grow the resources needed to enroll students from outside the United States. Though the student body is already relatively diverse—the first class included students from across the United States as well as the French West Indies, Kenya, the Ivory Coast, and Togo—“we would like to be able to enroll more applicants from the Global South and from China, which would really enrich the class experience,” Roncoli said.

But the program will remain small. “Our vision is not to have 500 applicants,” Roncoli said, “but to draw from the very best and brightest. We feel very strongly about working with students on a one-on-one basis and mentoring them well beyond their completion of the program.”

For now, MDP faculty are celebrating a major milestone: the graduation of the first class of students. Although they still had another three months of fieldwork ahead of them before completing the program, the 2012 graduates walked across the stage at Emory’s commencement ceremony in May.

“Seeing how far they’ve come in just a couple years—I mean, they were already experienced and competent when they applied,” Roncoli told me on the morning after graduation. “But seeing how much they have grown and matured in the last couple years of the program, it was very gratifying.” 

Erin Crews 09C 09G is editor of Emory in the World.

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