Andrea Poveda

Professor Broad tell me a bit about how you became interested in international development.

      What happened in my case was either serendipity or fate. When I was in college, I did not plan on specializing in international development or becoming a professor. In fact, my undergraduate studies never focused on international issues, but rather a combination of economics and ecology. When I graduated from college, I decided that what I needed to do was get out of the U.S. and observe it from afar. I was fortunate enough to receive a fellowship from the Henry Luce Foundation, and I spent the year after college in the southern Philippines. Originally, I was supposed to stay there for a year and return to the U.S. to continue what I thought would be a career in energy policy. Instead, my life changed. After living that year with an indigenous family whose ancestral land was being “grabbed” by the Del Monte Corporation and Philippine elites for export agriculture, dealing with the local environmental, social and economic ramifications that resulted from trade, foreign investment, and aid became my passion.  

Tell me about AU’s International Development Program and what it offers to students

      Ironically, the one thing I knew I did not want to be was a professor. After years of graduate school, working, and traveling, I discovered a job at the International Development Program at the School of International Service at American University. As I started to meet colleagues here, I realized this program was different. The faculty who were in the program were both scholars and practitioners, meaning they were high-caliber and serious academics doing excellent research and teaching.  But so too, here was a vibrant set of faculty members who touched the ground and stayed connected with what was happening in the real world of development. Just as important, we have great students from all over the world who bring an array of experiences and interests. The classroom consists of faculty and students sharing expertise and learning from one another -- so we are training development practitioners and scholars who are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Are you currently working on any research or publications?

      In 2009, I met five farmers from El Salvador who came to the U.S. to receive an award for their work. They were rural farmers who were opposing metallic mining, particularly of gold, in northern El Salvador. There had never been mining in that area, but in 2005, as the price of gold went up in the global economy, mining companies began to show interest in northern El Salvador. Although initial reactions in communities were positive due to a promised increase in jobs, these farmers and others quickly discovered the detrimental social, environmental, and economic effects mining had had on its neighbors just to the north in Honduras. The main concern was the contamination of their water sources. These Salvadoran farmers joined with others to form a national movement against metallic mining that successfully convinced high government officials to ban gold mining in El Salvador.

      Although this executive decision was implemented nationally, when I met the farmers in 2009, one global mining firm believed El Salvador’s national government had no right to deny it a concession and especially not based on environmental grounds. This company brought a lawsuit against the government of El Salvador in the World Bank Group’s arbitration venue, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). This was right around the time I met those farmers who knew little if anything about this venue. So, since I had worked on the World Bank for decades (ever since I first lived in the Philippines in 1977-78), I offered to do a few days of pro-bono research for them regarding ICSID. My few days have now turned into seven years of pro-bono research, and nearly half a dozen trips to El Salvador. ICSID’s decision on this case was finally released in mid-October 2016 and, amazingly enough given that venue’s normal pro-corporate bias (something I have written about), ICSID decided against the mining company. So this is a very important case showing that poorer people and poorer governments can and do care about the environment.

What did you learn from your experiences working abroad in Southeast Asia and Central America?

            What I saw when I lived in the Philippines and what I continue to see when I work with people at a community level is that very ordinary people on the ground are doing extraordinary things. So, one of the things that I have learned from my work is to be a transmission belt for their voices -- to the media, to government officials they do not have access to, and to broader audiences in the global North. In addition to this transmission-belt role, I have found I can also be of help as a researcher and as someone with access to D.C.-based development institutions and banks, and as a writer in academic, in the mainstream, and in alternative media outlets. I have also been able to share with them my own knowledge of some of the global development institutions whose decision affect their lives.

Like other academics, I develop theories and write academic articles, but perhaps the most important thing I can do is to channel those voices of people on the ground to try to bring about the better future they are working toward. As I tell my students, we development “experts” need to be humble regarding what we can offer people on the ground as they are really the experts and I feel privileged to be working with such extraordinary but ordinary people. They give me my hope and my passion.

What has been your greatest challenge working in this field?

From the start, from when I first worked in the Philippines, my greatest challenge has been figuring out how I could help without doing something that could be done by someone in that country. We have to be careful to add to the conversation, rather than replicating something that a local voice should be saying or doing.  

What words of advice would you give students, like myself, trying to pursue a career in international development?

      One of the most important things I would recommend to anyone entering the field is that they go humbly into this area. We should never think that because we have more academic training or more access to education, that we are the experts. We need to understand and respect the limits of what we know. But, when we put together our knowledge with that of local people, the results can be phenomenal – as I just witnessed with the El Salvador victory over that transnational mining company at the World Bank Group’s ICSID.

Interview Conducted by Andrea Poveda
Boston University, Class of 2017

Please feel free to contact Andrea at [email protected] if your organization is interested in being featured in a blog post.