November 13, 2013

With careful planning and a methodical approach, Ignacio Urrutia MPA-DP ’13 aims to solve problems before they happen. Urrutia arrived at SIPA with more than five years of experience at the World Bank and UNDP in Washington, D.C., and his home country of Paraguay. Now he works for the World Bank’s South Asia Region Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Unit. Urrutia recently reached out from Mumbai, India, to discuss his work with current student Sarayu Adeni MPA-DP ’15.

What are you working on over there?

At the moment I’m focusing on DRM [disaster risk management] projects in India, mainly in coastal and mountainous areas, which are particularly prone to natural disasters. The projects I’m working on are a combination of recovery — like infrastructure reconstruction and livelihood support — and putting in place the technical and institutional capacity to manage disaster risks. This is a relatively new area, so innovation is constant. There are a variety of financial instruments, increasingly sophisticated meteorological and early warning technologies, institutional models, resilient infrastructure design and construction. And it’s great when you can see the impacts of the work, as in the case after recent Cyclone Phailin.

What is your work environment like?

I started very recently, so I’m still in the middle of a very steep and fast-paced learning curve. I travel quite a bit. I started about two-and-a-half months ago and I’ve been away for a month. I would say I’ll be outside of D.C. around 35 percent of the time.

The people I work closest to are mostly DRM specialists, most of the time with engineering or environment backgrounds. But each project has specialists on social and environment issues, financial management, procurement, economics and finance, law, and other specialties as required by the project at hand. And most people have additional expertise on specific topics like housing, early warning systems, and emergency response.

In the past, you’ve worked a lot in water management and governance. What would you say are some of the biggest issues in these fields today?

Expanding coverage of basic services, improving nutrition, or even increasing incomes is not very hard to do in the short term. We know how to build schools, hospitals, water supply systems, and even how to hand people money, but how to make those improvements permanent is the challenge. If you expand the concept of sustainability to include the rational use of natural resources, as we should, the problem becomes even more complex.

One aspect that I think is not explored as much is what we can learn from different sectors. It is more common to try and learn from different countries’ experiences dealing with similar issues in the same sectors, but I haven’t seen that much in, for example, adapting health delivery modalities to agriculture, or extension services to public sector infrastructure maintenance. This was one of the great lessons from the MDP program, to try and think beyond sectors.

Was that why you wanted to join the MDP program at SIPA?

When I decided I was going to do an MPA, I did the usual pros and cons list, and the MPA-DP was the clear choice. My priority was that it allowed me to focus my studies on developing countries. Then it was a matter of school recognition, faculty, opportunities for field work, percentage of international students and, of course, the place where I was going to live for two years. There was no contest.

Where did you do your summer field placement during the program?

I worked alongside Shahbano Tirmizi MPA-DP ’13 to assess rural water supply management models in four Millennium Villages in East Africa: Ruhiira in Uganda, Mbola in Tanzania, Mayange in Rwanda, and Sauri in Kenya. Since we spent most of our time in Ruhiira, we also worked with the MV team there to improve the management of the rural scheme, which was run by a board comprised of representatives from the village. We spent a lot of time working with the scheme accountant and plumber, going through every aspect of the system and how it was managed.

Any striking lessons from the field?

It’s difficult for me to identify the lessons because I feel that the experience overall was a lesson in itself. A good thing for our cohort was that there had been two groups of MDPs who had done this before on the same places, so we had a pretty good idea about what to expect. I would say that the most challenging aspect of our internship, especially due to the nature of our project, was logistics.

What about the overall experience as a student, how did that equip you for wherever you’ll be in 10 years?

Most likely I’ll be in Paraguay, either working for the government or in some other capacity, but definitely on development issues…. Since I had been working for a while, I would say that preparing for the world of work wasn’t my priority. It was more about gaining exposure to different things, having time and resources to research and think about the work I had done, what I wanted to do, and have a space to explore different interests I had. I would say that all of those were successfully achieved. Brushing up on economics, statistics, finance, research and writing is always a good thing. I wish I had spent more time learning geographic information systems and general ICTs. They’re incredibly useful skills and a definite differentiator for younger professionals.

— Sarayu Adeni MPA-DP ’15

Learn more: MPA-Development Practice program at Columbia SIPA