December 6, 2013

Allison Greenberg MPA-DP ’11 is cultivating change far from her Long Island home, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. From university in Washington, D.C., to a presidential campaign office in Colorado, to managing international education exchange programs for the Middle East and Africa, to SIPA and beyond, she’s built up her technical skills and management talents to advance environmental sustainability and agricultural development at a number of levels.

She recently spoke from overseas to Sarayu Adeni MPA-DP ’15 about her experience as a student, fieldwork, and what’s so great about working on food security issues in Ethiopia today.

What do you do for the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency?

I’ve been with the ATA for a little over a year now. For most of that time, I was working in the analytics group with the data management and GIS team and now I work with the CEO's office on partnerships and resource mobilization. With the analytics group, I was building and managing a team of two Ethiopian analysts and a GIS expert, and developing an information system using mobile technology to collect data and GPS points from the districts, or woredas. Now, I’m in the middle of developing new programs for ATA — specifically one on how to make agricultural transformation more sustainable.

Ethiopia is better known for its famines than its farmers. Is the country making progress towards food security?

One of the reasons I love working on food security in Ethiopia is that you can see us changing that image. My colleagues want to show the world that Ethiopia is not starving, not food insecure, and they can feed their children with food grown for and by Ethiopians. ATA is helping the government put their money where their mouth is in terms of making sure that this is the reality today and in the future.

I find myself having to constantly explain to family and friends in the United States that Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and you can see rapid development happening every day. Even more, Ethiopian food is amazing! There’s injera, a flatbread made from a grain called tef which is native to Ethiopia; there’s a coffee culture and ceremony; there is diet diversity; there’s two “fasting” days a week, which basically means delicious vegetarian food. I love living in a country where people are so proud of their culture and food.

What is it like to work in Addis Ababa?

Addis is a great city — a capital of Africa, with the African Union based here, and always a lot going on.  It’s interesting that a lot of New Yorkers think of me as doing field work since I live in Ethiopia, but really I have an office job. Every now and again I actually make it to a farmer’s field or village cooperative and then I can say I am doing field work! My last job at the MDG Center for West and Central Africa had me really doing fieldwork in rural Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, and Mali.

In Addis, I see and hear a lot of construction. Addis is a city with new roads and buildings going up at every intersection. It’s a challenge to navigate through, but it’s fascinating to think about what modern infrastructure and completely different cityscape will be in place in five years.

Is this the kind of work you wanted to do when you were at SIPA?

If you had asked me at Columbia what my dream job would be after graduation, this would have been it. It is development work with a government agency, which allows for impact that only government can bring. ATA’s pilot programs can cover close to half a million people, and scaling up means reaching millions of smallholder farmers. It’s such a great mandate.

Let’s talk about the MPA-DP program. What were some of your favorite classes?

I was the RA for the Global Food Systems course my second year and had a lot of fun leading some of the discussion sessions, setting up interesting guests and field trips and getting more in-depth in the material. I also did a MPA Capstone with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was a great experience. We were researching corporate sustainability and interviewing sustainability officers at different companies while also interfacing with EPA initiatives.

Industrial Ecology [a course in the Engineering School’s environmental engineering department] really built on Professor [Jeffrey] Sachs’s Human Ecology class, but was more focused on quantifying environmental impact of human development. It was great to be in a multi-disciplinary environment and bring my SIPA skills in order to develop analysis that was related and relevant to developing more sustainable policy and programs. 

What were you working on during your summer field placement in Mbola, Tanzania [a Millennium Village Project site]?

When I was going into my field placement, I was trying to go towards agriculture and environment work. I ended up doing a few different projects with the group of students I was there with, but was particularly focused on analyzing the best management systems for the school meals programs in the village primary schools. I was interested in the model of how the farmers were supposed to contribute to the program and how to get the food to the school. We ended up identifying some best practices for managing school meals at the village level and presenting to the Earth Institute student colloquium at the end of the year.

The project that I really focused on independently was around designing a multi-sector forest conservation plan, looking for opportunities across various forestry resources. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Tanzania was that this particular MVP site was in a woodland area, and deforestation was an issue there. I started talking to the MVP agriculture and environment directors, asking questions, bringing together initiatives with beekeeping, non-timber value chains, carbon financing, school environmental clubs, etc. Besides these initiatives, for me the most glaring thing was the tobacco industry. Pretty much every farmer there had a tobacco plot with smokehouses to process the tobacco, which really was burning up the trees. MVP was mostly looking at the maize production and I ended up focusing the plan on how MVP could work with the tobacco industry on conservation through protected areas and sustainable timber harvesting.

What were the most useful skills you developed while in school?

I focused more on communication and management skills at SIPA, which I think have tremendously helped me in my jobs, while content knowledge around sustainability and food systems has also prepared me to be fluent and effective in working with a wide range of technical experts. Tony Barclay’s Development Management class taught very practical and relevant skills to the work I am currently doing, especially around program development and funding. Also, as much as it pains me to say this after suffering through SIPA’s core classes, being able to tell if something is statistically significant, or understand economic analysis is really important. There were students from my group that were stats TAs and to this day, I still email them with questions, both technical and personal!

That certainly speaks to the closeness of the MDP community.

I loved my MDP experience, and I think more so than job skills and interesting classes, the most important thing I got out of the program was amazing friends and a network that spans the world. Both jobs I've held since graduation as well as other job offers all started from MDP connections. And any time I’m looking for answers to questions outside of my organization, I turn to the MDP network.

-- Sarayu Adeni, MPA-DP ’15

Learn more about Columbia SIPA’s MPA in Development Practice.