State of the Planet

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Student research contributes to Earth Institute’s work in Haiti

On April 2, 2012, H.E. Prime Minister Garry Conille of Haiti joined students and staff of the Columbia University community at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) for a day of events around the theme of Aid Effectiveness and Coordination in Haiti. The Prime Minister’s presence on campus, four months after his first visit as Prime Minister, continues the ongoing policy advising and technical coordination between the Government of Haiti and Columbia University.

MPA-DP student Monica Hitomi Mekaru presents her group's research on post-earthquake aid disbursement patterns to Prime Minister Garry Conille, Professors Glenn Denning and Marc Levy, Earth Institute staff, and fellow SIPA students.

The Earth Institute (EI) continues to provide high-quality research, technical advice and policy support to the Haitian government through its local, regional, and national-scale initiatives. Following the Prime Minister’s visit in December of 2011, the engagement of students across the Columbia campus has expanded both in terms of direct research in Haiti and in topics that are applicable to the Haitian context.

Co-sponsored by the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development (CGSD) at the Earth Institute and the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the Prime Minister spoke at his second Development Practitioner’s Seminar, a cornerstone of the MPA-Development Practice (MPA-DP) program at SIPA. Additionally, three groups of students who have undertaken relevant research on Haiti were invited to present their work to the Prime Minister and EI staff involved in Haiti.

CGSD guided the work of one group of five MPA-DP students in addressing a specific request from the Office of the Prime Minister to analyze the top multilateral and bilateral donors’ development activities in the country post-earthquake. Using the recently updated donor data, the team mapped out donor activities and aid disbursement levels both geographically and across priority sectors. The students also provided the Prime Minister with specific recommendations for donor coordination, highlighting specifically the need for transparent and effective donor reporting mechanisms, some of which are already under development with technical support from the Earth Institute.

Monica Hitomi Mekaru, one of five MPA-DP students who presented on recommendations for aid coordination, reflected on the experience: “This opportunity to present to the Prime Minister reassured my belief in our value as young professionals to contribute to high-level decisions that may affect the effectiveness of development interventions, and therefore the impact for the final beneficiaries of such interventions.”

SIPA students Fabiano de Silva and Pau S. Sunyer conducted field interviews with notaries, surveyors, judges and community groups in southwest Haiti as part of their capstone workshop on land tenure and conflict.

A second student group, who spent their spring break in Haiti conducting field research for Professor Marc Levy’s SIPA capstone seminar on land tenure and conflict, discussed their findings with the Prime Minister. Professor Levy is the Deputy Director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) and the principal investigator of EI’s research projects in Haiti. His students conducted research on the legal framework for land management and the formal and informal mechanisms for land dispute resolution. The students presented preliminary recommendations for improving conflict resolution and land insecurity, based on their ongoing research and on international best practices.

The collaborative community of global experience and expertise at the Earth Institute and the multitude of lessons being learned from its projects around the world foster innovative approaches to development that drive new research and initiatives. Visiting Professor Amina Az-Zubair, former senior special assistant to the President of Nigeria on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), has extensive experience on scaling up MDG work to the national scale—a priority for the Haitian government. Under Ms. Az-Zubair’s guidance as a professor and a politician, a group of four of her students presented their preliminary work exploring the feasibility of adapting the Nigerian model of conditional grants for local and regionally-driven, MDG-centered development to the Haitian context.

Visiting professor Amina Az-Zubair and her students discussed Nigeria's model of conditional grants to empower state and local governments to make progress towards the Millennium Development Goals.

Prime Minister Conille and others have cited a lack of decision support tools and under capacity for data-driven analysis in the public sector in Haiti as a hurdle to enacting effective policy. Providing critical analysis of relevant topics to appropriate ministries enables the Government of Haiti to operate with a broadened, relevant and innovative set of tools despite limited financial resources.

In the same way, the Millennium Village model for integrated development in the southwestern watershed of Port-à-Piment serves to demonstrate innovative and tested tools for progress in critical sectors such as health, agriculture, and infrastructure. Columbia students’ contributions to these projects further the goal of increasing the governing capacity of Haitian institutions through successful approaches to development.

Student projects, guided by professors and researchers at centers across the Earth Institute, play a vital role in supporting and driving the research that plays directly to the success of the Port-à-Piment Millennium Village, the regional Côte Sud Initiative, and increasingly EI’s national-scale policy support. Projects range from hydrology research to analysis of mobile banking potential, from analysis of Haiti’s continued private school challenge to insight on best business practices and clean energy. Through class research projects, SIPA capstone seminars, summer internship placements, and school-year research assistantships, students contribute to the overall technical support mission of the Earth Institute and its researchers in Haiti.

Ben Moore, an MPA student at SIPA who presented for the land tenure capstone, sees the opportunity to share his group’s research with the Prime Minister as a hopeful indicator on a complex issue. “Land tenure conflict is not only present, but nation-wide—an issue which, though potentially improved locally, requires political will if it is to be addressed on the national level.” Speaking to the Prime Minister assured his group of the importance of their research and inspired them “to deliver a bold and constructive final product.” Moore said that the knowledge that “Prime Minister Conille will be reading it has added both pressure and excitement; it’s empowering to realize that change-makers are in positions of power, and that they’re listening.”

For more information on the Earth Institute’s projects in Haiti, visit


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