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Perspective: A Q&A with Development Practitioner Sarah Curran

By Sarayu Adeni

Sarah Curran, Master of Public Administration in Development Practice (MDP), Class of 2011
Sarah Curran (left), Master of Public Administration in Development Practice (MDP), Class of 2011

Sarah Curran, Master of Public Administration in Development Practice (MDP), Class of 2011, believes that addressing complex global issues starts with a meal. As a Program Manager for the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute, she brings a full plate of organizational and information experience, from back home in the UK in Parliament and with the European Union’s Delegation to the United Nations. With us, she discusses her scholarly, professional and personal interests in food security and nutrition.

Where did your interest in food security and nutrition come from?

The issue of hunger has always been an area that has captured my attention, from a very young age. But I think, more recently it was when I was working at the UN for the EU, it was around 2008 and during the time of the “food prices crisis”.  At that point you really started to see the huge impact that spikes in food prices were having on the poorest of the poor, all over the world, and the dangerous link that food insecurity can have on wider peace and security in so many places. I was really fascinated by the dynamics at play there and in how to find solutions to address these kinds of problems. That was actually one of the main reasons that I applied to MDP program. I was working in communications at the time but I really wanted to get more into the “nitty gritty” of some of these complex development issues and to understand them better.

During my studies at Columbia I started to learn more about nutrition specifically and how it has traditionally been an area that has been underfunded or neglected in development.  That piqued my interest even more because it just seemed so crazy to me that something so important and fundamental to development could have been so neglected. Malnutrition can have such a devastating impact on a child’s potential which, when you think of the scale of the nutrition problem in some countries, has huge ramifications for a country’s wider development prospects. Once I learnt more about the extent of the problem and the solutions that exist to fix it, I knew that nutrition was an area that I really wanted work in.

And to get back to your original question…of course I also love food, which is important to mention [laughs].

What’s the one cuisine you can’t resist?

Ooooh, good question! My favorite cuisine…I guess I would say Greek food. I love Greek food! Queens has got amazing Greek food. That or Indian food. London has fantastic Indian restaurants so that’s always one of my first stops when I go back home.

I’ve read about the nutritional strengths of the Mediterranean diet. Is that why you like it?

Maybe that’s part of it. You can have a very balanced and fulfilling diet and I love the mix of foods and flavors. And people in some Greek islands have been known to live the longest in the world, so they must be doing something right!

But why do you say nutrition isn’t getting the attention that it should?

Well, it’s certainly starting to get attention now, mainly thanks to efforts like the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement and the 1000 Days Initiative.  I think part of the problem has been that nutrition is one of those tricky areas that doesn’t “fit” neatly within one sector.  It’s often assumed that it will be tackled by the health sector but there are so many elements to nutrition. It’s not just a public health issue- it’s an agriculture and food production issue, it’s also linked to clean water, sanitation and hygiene as well as proper care practices and education… so it’s one of those issues that really does require a multi-sector response. The good news is there is now much wider recognition on the need for multi-sector approaches to tackling the issue which is a really positive development.

Tell me about your work now. How are you addressing these kinds of problems?

I’m the program manager for our nutrition policy programs at CGSD. CGSD is the policy advising arm of the Earth Institute, and we try to bring cross-sectoral solutions to complex policy problems. We’ve got a couple of quite interesting projects in the area of nutrition. We have been working in Timor-Leste (or East Timor) where I worked with Dr. Jessica Fanzo (my nutrition mentor!) in helping to develop a nutrition-sensitive agriculture strategy for the largest food security program in the country there, called Seeds of Life. Seeds of Life, is a really well established program that’s focused on increasing the productivity of the major food crops  in the country. They asked us to see how they could make their programming more “nutrition-sensitive”, to look at how elements of their work that could be tweaked or adapted to have a better impact on nutrition there. Timor-Leste has some of the highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world, with an estimated 58% of their children under 5 being stunted of chronically malnourished.

We’re also hoping to develop a capacity building program focused on nutrition in Myanmar. And we are working on a project with the SUN movement to help develop a decision-making tool for policy planners on multi-sector approaches to improve nutrition.

How often do you travel?

It depends really, but it tends to be once every couple of months which is a real highlight of my job. I’ve been lucky enough to go to Timor-Leste a few times now…and also to Myanmar and Haiti. I was also in West Africa where I was actually helping to set up some of the MDP summer field placements there.

Where was your twelve-week field placement for MDP?

I was in Tanzania, which I loved! I worked for the Millennium Villages Project in a site called Mbola, in the mid-west of the country. It was actually my first time working in Africa and the Millennium Villages was a fascinating place to start. It was my first time having exposure to a rural community development project, so just being out in the field with the field staff and working with the communities was such a huge learning experience. For my project work, I worked with a couple of my MDP classmates to do an assessment of the Project’s school meals program – looking at  which elements of it were working well and which areas were problematic. We also worked with the site team on a sanitation and hygiene campaign. They’d seen high diarrheal rates at the site that year and they suspected it had to do with poor hygienic practices, so we helped with some wider research, including focus groups and survey work, to help inform a behavior change tools that they were planning there.

Why would someone want to do the MDP program?

So many reasons! It’s the most practical graduate level degree in development that you can do. You’re exposed to so many experts and practitioners who are at the top of their field so it’s an incredible opportunity to learn from them. And it’s not a theoretical program, which was important for me as I didn’t have prior field experience coming into the program. If you’re interested in development, but you don’t quite know where you “fit” within the development scene, I think it’s a great program because you can get exposure to so many different areas and components of development. It really allows you to figure out the areas that you are most passionate about and where your strengths lie.

I think another important thing about the MDP program’s holistic approach to development, is that whether or not you want to specialize in a certain sector, you at least understand the broad concepts  and key issues so that you can “talk across sectors” in your next job, which I think is an increasingly important skill. For example, the course that Glenn [Denning] taught on food systems was quite focused on agriculture. That was all new to me but it has proved to be really essential in my current work and projects. I am not an agronomist by any means but in my current work I still need to understand the basics about different cropping seasons, about agricultural inputs and the major crops that can be grown in different regions.

I also took classes up at the Institute for Human Nutrition, which were really great. It’s worth noting that in the MDP program you can take classes at other schools and departments, so it enables you to get a technical grounding in some areas that you may want to specialize further in.

And most importantly of all, with the MDP program you will have phenomenal classmates from all over the world.

Why this program at Columbia in New York City?

I loved living and studying in such diverse, multicultural and cosmopolitan city. I think there’s a lot going on in New York that’s particularly relevant to development students, outside of the “Columbia bubble”. Of course there’s the UN, and there’s tons of really interesting organizations and groups that you can connect with and work with during your time here. And, beyond that, it’s an incredibly fun place to live!

What are some of the lessons you learned in the field?

I don’t think this is unique to the field of development but I would say never underestimating the importance of good personal connections with your colleagues and teammates.  It might sound really obvious but I think it’s so important to be collaborative…to try to understand how different people work… and then to be mindful and respectful of that. I think this is especially relevant in circumstances where you have multi-country projects and team members operating under very different conditions and pressures.  Never forget the power of a Skype call to talk things through instead of always relying on email. When you get on well with the people you work it makes the work so much easier…not to mention so much more enjoyable.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Where I am now has been the perfect place to start after graduating from the MDP program. The Earth Institute has the same ethos as the program, focusing on cross-sectoral approaches and evidence-based solutions, so it’s been a brilliant opportunity to work here. In the long term, my interests are in influencing, and shaping policy, making sure that nutrition is prioritized and reflected in donors’ agendas and in country-level planning. I’m also really interested in public-private partnerships and in market based solutions to nutritional problems. I think that is a really interesting and important area for nutrition. So who knows…watch this space!

Sarayu Adeni is a Master of Public Administration in Development Practice student at Columbia University

To learn more about the MPA-Development Practice program at Columbia SIPA, please visit:

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