MPP Speaker Series

Globetrotting Alum Shares International Development Insights

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MSU alum Russ Webster (MPA ’81) has dedicated his life to “doing good” around the world. While based out of Washington, D.C., over the last three decades he’s worked in 45 countries, on issues as varied as national-level regulatory reform to village agriculture. He speaks Bangla, German, some French, and “can even still do a Michigan accent.” Webster, who we profiled on the MPP blog last year, recently spent a day in East Lansing networking with students and sharing insights about working in the exciting field of international development.

During his time on campus, Webster sat down with about fifteen Master of Public Policy (MPP) students and several faculty members and answered their questions about a wide variety of issues, from municipal budgets and urban development to choosing local partners for international development projects. Here are some highlights from that conversation:

An Exciting, Rewarding Career

IMG_6278Recalling his motivations for embarking on a career in international development, Webster said: “I loved the idea of travel and seeing the world, of seeing different cultures and meeting different people. I had a natural curiosity about the world, and I wanted to embark on a career that would help me see the world more as a global community rather than just a collection of separate nation-states.”

To hear Webster tell it, those hopes have been more than fulfilled in the three decades since his first three-year stint running agricultural development programs in rural Bangladesh. “One of the wonderful things about this career is that every project you get is a new opportunity to learn, while at the same time giving back,” Webster said. “I’ve been fortunate because I’ve been able to work across a spectrum of issues related to both the public and the private sector.”

“If this is a career you’re interested in, I strongly encourage you to pursue it,” he told students.

Rising Demand for Evaluation and Communication Skills

IMG_6280-001“The intersection between evaluation and communication is becoming a more and more prominent factor in international development,” Webster said. Taxpayers and donors to charitable foundations want to know if their money was used well, and as international development agencies create more “monitoring and evaluation” positions to “tell the story of whether projects are successful,” the rigorous, quantitative program-evaluation skills MSU MPP students are acquiring are increasingly in demand.

Webster says there is also growth in communications positions at international development agencies. “If you’re expecting to create a positive change, it’s only going to continue if the people you are helping really embrace” the program, he said. Thus, letting people know what the program is doing and why—communicating—has become a key element in achieving local ownership and empowerment.

Dealing with Corruption

Webster acknowledged the challenges that arise when partners in the countries benefited by aid are motivated by greed or politics. “There’s not a line in the sand, but it’s a question of integrity,” Webster said.  “How do you deal with a government that doesn’t want to change? Sometimes, the right thing to do is to just say ‘No, we’re not going to do this project after all.’”

Unintended Consequences

Webster also shared advice about how to ensure that international development projects are appropriate in the local context, and thus more likely to be successful and sustainable: Avoid going down overly technical “rabbit holes.” Make sure to include people with a wide variety of expertise and perspectives—and make sure to talk to people who live and work in the communities where the program will be implemented—to make sure your project design isn’t based on erroneous assumptions.

The Case for Foreign Aid

Given some of the roadblocks the development projects can come across, students asked Webster, how does one make the case for international development aid to Americans who are skeptical? “I would emphasize the importance of creating good economic partners and of building strong, positive political relationships with other countries,” Webster said. He said that many international aid efforts are justified on humanitarian grounds—but promoting stability and prosperity around the world also benefits the U.S. economy and its national security.

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