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A Revolutionary Degree to Train Better Development Professionals

Photo credit: "David Wentworth"
Launching an effort to change the nature of development training; Photo: David Wentworth

Typically, development professionals do not have the background in the natural and health sciences they need to properly understand the complex forces affecting issues such as hunger and extreme poverty. The innovative M.P.A. in Development Practice, which started this fall, is meant to help change that.

This degree is the first of a network of Master’s in Development programs that will be established around the world, with generous support from the MacArthur Foundation. Earth Institute research associate John McArthur (CEO and executive director of Millennium Promise) and Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, gathered an international commission of experts and practitioners to lay the groundwork for an education program that will revolutionize the way development practitioners are trained.

The 24 students who started the program this fall are both eager and anxious at the same time, says Glenn Denning, the program’s new director. Being the first class is not easy—there are no graduates of the program whose example they can follow—but the students are rising to the challenge.

“Everyone I’ve met in this program so far has a certain spark,” says Denning. “They really want to make a difference out there in the developing world, wherever they come from. They are excited about making a contribution once they graduate.”

The goal of the program is to give its students more than background knowledge and interesting theories. “The way we’re going to do it is to bring students into direct contact with very experienced people who’ve done development work in the field and at policy levels for many years,” says Denning.

“So students are going to get firsthand observations and practical lessons from people who have really been in the field,” says Denning. “These are not just academics. These are people who have, over many years, learned what works and what doesn’t work and what are some of the challenges and approaches to designing and implementing programs in difficult areas.” Denning himself is a veteran practitioner of development work. Before becoming director of the degree program, he managed the Earth Institute’s Millennium Development Goals center in Kenya, which supports the work of the Millennium Villages project.

One of the main features of the program is the Global Classroom, an interactive series of lectures that allows classes to participate from around the world in real time. Students enrolled in the M.P.A. are also taking courses this semester in economics, food systems, public health and management. During the summer between their first and second years, they will be offered opportunities to work in the Millennium Villages in Africa to experience firsthand how to effectively practice sustainable development.

“Most of the students come with some kind of development experience,” says Denning. “But none of them have really had this opportunity to pursue this multidisciplinary, cross-sectoral approach that is unique to the Millennium Villages project. And out of that, they’ll understand the importance of a holistic practical approach to sustainable development.”

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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14 years ago

Just reading the blog got me excited. My major Problem is finding and making th time to participate in this wonderful experience. Not because I’ve been out of school for a very long time, but it’s how I can get involve so as to help the many people that would benefit from my experience after completing the course.

Advice anyone?


14 years ago

Dear BJ,

Based on your response above it seems that you have a lot of experience that you would like to share with those in the Master’s in Development Practice program. Please do contact Dr. Glenn Denning, Columbia University’s MDP Director. Perhaps he may be able to find a way to share your experiences with the students in his program. Best, Lucia