State of the Planet

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ESP Alum Focuses on International Development and Conservation

IDP Health
Ashley Toombs (center) poses in a women’s health class in Bangladesh’s Sylhet region.

Ashley Toombs, a 2015 graduate of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program, recently joined BRAC USA, serving as a senior program associate. BRAC is a poverty alleviation and international development organization that was founded in the 1970s in Bangladesh and has since expanded operations to 12 countries in Asia and Africa, with affiliate offices in the U.S., UK, and Netherlands. Globally, BRAC has over 140,000 employees and touches the lives of more than 135 million people through a variety of interventions. BRAC USA was founded in 2006 to support the larger organization with technical assistance, fundraising and public education.

What is your current job?
As a senior program associate at BRAC, I manage over $30 million in grants and maintain a pipeline for ongoing organizational support. In addition to grant reporting and stewardship, I work hand-in-hand with colleagues in the field to maintain programmatic integrity and to identify potential projects and innovations. For example, when initiating a community sanitation project, we might begin by considering effects on natural resources, existing cultural expectations, costs and timeline of a baseline assessment, and the current organizational and community capacity to absorb funding and implement a complex, multidimensional project, amongst many other areas.

Do your current job responsibilities align with the professional goals that you originally had when you began the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program?
My job might not be explicitly environmental, but it’s the perfect mix of international development and conservation work that I was seeking. In addition to the other areas of my portfolio, I work closely with the Disaster, Environment and Climate Change team, the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program, and the Center for Climate Change and Environmental Research at BRAC University.

What skills has the MPA-ESP program taught you that you think have proven useful to your current position?
I think the most prevalent is the simultaneous ability to “zoom in” and consider minute, yet important, details, and then quickly “zoom out” and think strategically about how a particular project or initiative fits into the bigger picture. In addition, the desire to always work hard with diverse colleagues and ideas, along with the capacity to understand the interconnected systems that contribute to the challenges BRAC faces. For example, poor sanitation and contaminated environments contribute to unhealthy people, and unhealthy people cannot attend school. This leads to uneducated people who may not be able to contribute to public policy, leading to weak policy initiatives that can cause corruption, and the cycle goes on.

International development is full of holistic challenges—my personal passion might be the environment, but the environment is just one piece of the larger puzzle and is not a stand-alone silo. Understanding how the environment fits into larger systems was critical to much of the work in the ESP program and has proven integral in my current role.

What skills and tools do you hope to acquire through this job?
The majority of my international development and environmental work has been in Latin America, but in this role, I’m working in new parts of the world. I am experiencing both small and big differences that allow me to understand the subtle and complex details that contribute to the success or failure of projects, including cultural norms, religious diversity and holidays, other languages, different styles of cuisines and eating, modes of transportation, and political systems. It’s a multifaceted world—the ability to use an environmental lens to contribute, grow and learn is my biggest challenge and greatest desire for helping the organization achieve its mission of poverty alleviation.

What kinds of environmental initiatives do you hope to start in your new position?
BRAC is completing a 2016-2020 strategic vision, and climate change has been identified as an integral area. Because BRAC is such a huge organization that is already working with millions of people who are and will be disproportionately affected by climate change, this is a tremendous opportunity. I hope to use my experience and Columbia degree to contribute to the larger environmental and climatic conversation at the organization—and the decisions made by an organization as huge as BRAC have global impacts.

Informal Recycling
Ashley hopes to work on formalizing recycling collection in Bangladesh as a possible new initiative at BRAC.

On a much smaller scale, I spent three weeks in Bangladesh in August and I immediately noticed a potential economic development and sanitation project—working with the people who collect and sell recycling. All over the country, they are already operating within a complex system and there is potential to formalize their jobs. This would allow access to social services, increased incomes and improved health care, amongst other areas to improve general human, economic and environmental health.


Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Earth Institute.

Since it began in 2002, the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program has given students the hands-on experience, and the analytical and decision-making tools to implement effective environmental and sustainable management policies. The program’s 741 graduates have advanced to jobs in domestic and international environmental policy, working in government, private and non-profit sectors. Their work involves issues of sustainability, resource use and global change, in fields focused on air, water, climate, energy efficiency, food, agriculture, transportation and waste management. They work as consultants, advisers, project managers, program directors, policy analysts, teachers, researchers and environmental scientists and engineers.

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