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SIPA Students Receive First Hand Experience in International Development Workshops and Projects

By Jo Kadlecek

Thirty-five years after her father served in Peru with the Peace Corps, Tara McAuliff, SIPA '02, retraced his steps and visited the village where he had lived. Though her goal was the same as her father's -- to help reduce poverty -- McAuliff was traveling with a different program, a unique concentration in Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) known as the Program in Economic and Political Development (EPD).

With a team of five other students, McAuliff went to Peru to help assess the impact of enterprise development projects with a partnering organization known as TechnoServe. TechnoServe -- a Connecticut-based organization which helps generate economic growth in developing countries to increase the incomes of the poor -- asked EPD students to create a tool that evaluated the effectiveness of their business project with Alpaca farmers. Their goal was to find out if the fiber the farmers produced could be getting a better price on the world market. For two weeks, McAuliff and her classmates talked with farmers, business leaders and community representatives in the rural area to come up with the tool that linked the success of the business with the income of the producers. What they found was that income alone was an insufficient measure of project impact.

"I'd never done field work before," said McAuliff, 28, who plans to continue working in development after graduation. "I found this extremely valuable. I've always done urban work, not rural work, so I was a little nervous and wasn't sure I could make it. But going to Peru gave me a boost of confidence."

This year, 140 students like McAuliff were a part of the EPD program and 65 second year students participated in similar projects around the world, allowing them to merge academic analysis with practical international experience. They looked, for example, at how rural communities in Honduras could promote education and build elementary schools, at whether oil in Senegal and Guinea Bissau was a pipeline to prosperity or poverty, and at how community development in East Timor could bridge the ethnic gap. Through intense workshops, practical internships, academic research and international travel for projects in public health, environmental policy, urban planning, education, or conflict resolution, each team gained a better understanding of the EPD definition of development: "increasing peoples' capacities to influence their futures in an interdependent world."

According to Coralie Bryant, director of the EPD and professor in the Practice of Economic and Political Development for SIPA, the EPD program is distinct in its approach to poverty reduction and participatory development. "The workshop is an amazing clinical component within our program," Byrant says. "Students work as young professionals in teams on real projects for clients, doing some on-site research in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, or Latin America."

Only second year students can apply for the project workshop, and they must recognize the various challenges that arise in development work. They also must demonstrate "a commitment to and concern about promoting and protecting the welfare of the poor." Because the goal of the program is to develop projects that reduce poverty through local leadership and interdependent partnerships, students learn about development from a broader approach.

Once accepted into the program, students are placed in teams of 6-8 and assigned a project with a partnering agency and country that fits their interests. In recent years, EPD teams have partnered with such international organizations as TechnoServe, the International Rescue Committee, Catholic Relief Service, the Trickle Up Program, the World Bank and UNIFEM along with domestic agencies, such as the New York Association for New Americans.

Students then begin the academic year researching specific literature on their project, discussing problems and challenges with team-members and advisors, and exploring solution strategies that could further assist their partnering agency. The teams travel in January and March to visit with their clients, and gain first hand experience in international development. They continue their consultations through the spring semester and conclude with formal presentations to the SIPA community.

"It's a mutually beneficial experience," says Fida J. Adely, EPD workshop coordinator and lecturer. "The students are acting as consultants with these clients/organizations while visiting communities they might otherwise never have seen. But the clients -- who often are so busy in their work -- benefit from the students' work and analysis as well."

Adely, a SIPA '97 graduate whose own EPD project was helping develop an organizational strategy for conflict management in Romania, says students frequently comment to her about the benefits of the program. Many continue to work in development organizations after graduation, helping build a valuable network of ongoing EPD partnerships. And prospective students often call her to inquire specifically about the EPD concentration.

Though EPD is one of several concentrations SIPA students can choose from, the unique hands-on program allows them an interdisciplinary approach to understanding global development issues. As McAuliff says, "This was definitely the best part of my SIPA experience."

Published: May 31, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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