MPA-DP: Fighting poverty as a generalist

Throughout the weeks you’ve read a lot about the experiences of our students in the MIA and MPA programs. For some students, however, that’s not enough, as there’s a small group who are interested in learning more about the MPA in Development Practice. So this week is dedicated to all of the potential MPA-DP (aka MDP) applicants out there. As told by a current student, Amanda Grossi, MPA-DP 2016, we’ll look back at what her first year at SIPA looked like and why the program may be the right fit for some of you. 

Here’s what Amanda had to share to share about the program.

“I don’t look at a man who’s an expert in one area as a specialist. I look at him as a rookie in ten other areas.” 

These words were uttered by martial arts fighter Conor McGregor, but they are also relevant to those with their fists up fighting global poverty every day. The MPA in Development Practice program, which highlights multisectoral, interdisciplinary approaches to development, has been criticized by some critics as too “generalist” and not producing enough “specialists.” But who is to say these two are mutually exclusive, or that to be a specialist is better? The implication seems to be that the MDP program provides too much breadth with not enough depth, but it can be argued that program provides opportunities for both, and even within the same person.

The first year of the program emphasizes expanding the mental landscapes of students in appreciation of a more holistic view of development. The foundations of the multifarious sectors comprising the development contexts in which students have and will continue to work are laid, reinforced, and woven together throughout two semesters of classes on topics like mirco- and macroeconomics, global health practice, food systems, and quantitative analysis.

Thinking about the MDP package as a box, this first year emphasizes laying down points across the development landscape or territory—in economics, health, agriculture, education, and more—then broadening the perspectives of students from their specific backgrounds, and seeing the interconnections between those points. That is the point (or points, to be literal) of the MDP program—to encourage a cooperative dynamic and interdisciplinary solutions in a development world that has been traditionally silo’ed yet operating in a world that is not.  Attempting to solve development challenges while ignoring the broader contexts in which they operate is like trying to fix a car without knowing where the parts come from or if there is a road when it is finished.

[Photo courtesy of Dave Gray,]
[Image courtesy of Dave Gray]

The second year is where there is considerably more freedom with elective courses, and students get the chance to climb down the ladder of that metaphorical box into the depths of more specific concentrations, whether it be anything from agriculture, food security, and nutrition to business, finance, and social enterprise to disaster, emergencies, and crisis management, and beyond. Some choose not to climb down, but keep exploring outward. You might rightfully call them generalists. But there are those that do continue down the ladder.

Do these students cease to be generalists and become specialists? Or do they become specialists with an eye toward the bigger picture, connecting dots, and inclusive planning? No matter how far down they climb and how specialized they become in this MDP package, those dots laid on the surface that map them in the broader development and sectoral contexts do not disappear.  In a way, those students become “specialized generalists.”

So does the MDP program at SIPA produce generalists? In my opinion absolutely, but a certain type: specialized generalists, which are professionals who, despite their particular passions and specialized interest areas, have competencies to navigate multiple fields and incorporate ideas and people from multiple backgrounds into the foregrounds of their sustainable solutions to knock out poverty.

 [Photo courtesy of | Conor McGregor fights Diego Brandao during a fight in Dublin.]