Some Important Lessons for Global Academic Innovation

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Earlier this month the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced more than $5 million in grants to help ten universities establish cross-disciplinary Master's in Development Practice (MDP) degree programs in eight countries around the world. These add to the $10 million in grants that the foundation allocated last year to seed MDP programs in a dozen universities around the world. This new global academic network now includes more than 20 schools across 15 countries and five continents.

There are several noteworthy lessons and trends to glean from this initiative. One is that private foundations still have an extraordinary capacity to support innovation around the world, and to create significant new public goods in the process. The idea of an MDP degree was recommended in late 2008 by a foundation-supported international commission composed of eminent practitioners and academics across a range of development fields. The commission included former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo; global health leaders Helene Gayle, Jim Kim, and Jeffrey Koplan; former UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman; Nobel laureate RK Pachauri; path-breaking ecologist Virgilio Viana; prominent agronomists Freddie Kwesiga and Alice Pell; and African academic leaders Goolam Mohamedbhai and Livingstone Luboobi.

It is remarkable that, less than two years later, more than 20 schools have committed to launching programs that will train students with core MDP skills spanning health science, natural science, social science, and management. The first program started this past year at Columbia University, where the initial cohort of students is extremely impressive and motivated. Within another two years, and less than four years after the commission published its recommendations, the network of programs will be training at least several hundred students annually around the world. Highly skilled MDP graduates will be newly empowered to work with specialists from a variety of disciplines and to identify ways to draw insights from those specialists for both policy and practice.

Importantly, the programs are set to take shape through a highly collaborative academic network, one in which member universities share curricular resources with one another and pursue joint classes to ensure each institution in the network has access to the best elements throughout the network. I do not know of any other case where either a significant new type of degree program, or a collaborative global network of degree programs, has been launched with such speed by so many academic institutions around the world.

Another interesting dynamic is the significant curricular diversity that will be taking shape as the basic MDP frameworks are applied across the network. The universities will inherently approach sustainable development challenges through a range of academic, geographic, and practical perspectives, as can only be the case across campuses ranging from Bangladesh to Brazil and Senegal to Sri Lanka. But they will also approach the MDP topics through a highly diverse set of curricular emphases. The University of Winnipeg, for example, will focus on the special challenges of indigenous populations. Meanwhile the University of California at Davis will draw from its longstanding leadership in agriculture and environmental science.

Perhaps the most noteworthy trend around this initiative is its depth of global interest and support. The cross-section of 20 institutions supported by the MacArthur Foundation represents only a sliver of the universities that want to participate. When the foundation issued a request for MDP proposals, well over 100 universities around the world submitted formal letters of interest. This suggests that the initiative was tapping into a vast latent demand for a less siloed approach to professional training for sustainable development − one that draws much more systematically on scientific insights as key inputs to policy and practice. Hopefully the dozens of other institutions keen to launch MDP programs will also be able to do so soon.

MDP programs around the world are poised to make important contributions to the training of future practitioner leaders in sustainable development. The MacArthur Foundation deserves great credit for its vision in supporting this effort and for the speed with which it has carried it through. More broadly, we can all take inspiration from the important lessons the initiative provides on how strategic philanthropy and a collaborative approach to global institutional innovation can form new trends in the years to come.

John McArthur is CEO of Millennium Promise ( and teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He co-chaired the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice, which was supported by the MacArthur Foundation and hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University.