Why I got an MPA: Because organizations matter

My previous post gave a little background on what a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree is. Since I just finished my MPA a few weeks ago, this post will describe why I got one.

So, why the MPA?

Because organizations matter. Forget the stories of heroic individuals written in your middle school civics textbook. Nothing of great importance is ever accomplished by a single person. Thomas Edison had lab assistants, George Washington’s army had thousands of troops, and Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had over a million staff and volunteers when she passed away. Even Jesus had a 12-man posse. In different ways and in vastly different contexts, these were all organizations. Pick your favorite historical figure or contemporary hero, and I can almost guarantee that their greatest successes occurred as part of an organization. Even the most charismatic, visionary and inspiring leaders have to be able to manage people, or find someone who can do it for them.

International development work is no different. Regardless of your issue of interest — whether private sector investment, rural development, basic health care, government capacity, girls’ education, or democracy promotion — your work will almost always involve operating within an organization. How well or poorly that organization functions will have dramatic implications for the results of your work. A well-run organization makes better decisions about staffing and operations; learns more from its mistakes; generates resources and commitment from external stakeholders; and structures itself to better promote its goals.

None of this is easy or straightforward. We screw it up fairly often.

Complaints about NGO management and government bureaucracy are not new. We all recognize the need for improvement. In my mind, the greatest challenges and constraints facing international development are managerial and organizational, rather than technical. Put another way: the greatest opportunities and leverage points lie in how we run our organizations.

Yet our discourse about the international development industry focuses largely on how much money donors should commit to development and what technical solutions (e.g. deworming, elections, roads, whatever) deserve the funds. We give short shrift to the questions around how organizations can actually turn those funds into the technical solutions. The closest we come is to discuss the incentives facing organizations due to donor or political requirements. I think we can go deeper in addressing the management and organizational issues mentioned above.

This thinking led me to an MPA degree because it straddles that space between organizations and issues. A degree in economics or international affairs could teach you all about the problems in the world, and you may even learn how to address them. But if you don’t learn how to operate in an organization, you may not be able to channel the resources needed to implement solutions. On the flip side, a typical degree in management offers relevant skills, but without the content knowledge necessary to understand the context and the issues. I think the MPA, if you choose the right program for you and use your time well, can do both.

But is it the right degree for you?

I should repeat the caveat from the beginning of the previous post: There are many sensible career paths. Furthermore, the coursework in your degree is not the only important thing. Your work experience, internships and outside reading are also critical to your education, which certainly shouldn’t stop when you finish graduate school. I offer the above as an explanation of my own choice. If it resonates with you, great. If not, I’m sure you’ll be fine on another path.

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