Professor’s fellowship with USAID makes lasting impact on global agricultural policy, practices
Dec 20, 2023
After 18 years at the School of Science at IUPUI, Pierre-André Jacinthe decided to take his first sabbatical year in 2022. But the professor of earth sciences made it a priority not to spend his time away in a lab, where he’d spent much of his career.
Instead, Jacinthe wanted to pursue some action that made a more immediate impact on people’s lives, a dream he’d had since his years as an undergraduate at the State University of Haiti in 1985.
Pierre-André Jacinthe in Zambia during his fellowship with USAID. Photo courtesy of the School of Science
That’s when he discovered the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science and Technology Policy Fellowships, a highly competitive program that connects individuals with opportunities to inform actionable, science-based policies throughout the U.S. government.
An expert in soils and agriculture, Jacinthe was selected and assigned to a yearlong appointment with the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security.
“Quite often, people who apply don’t get selected the first time and have to apply again,” Jacinthe said. “Luckily, I was accepted the first time, but it’s a rigorous selection process.”
The rigors didn’t end there. After a brief time learning the ins and outs of working in U.S. government, fellows are expected to hit the ground running. When Jacinthe entered the program, USAID had increased its focus on addressing food shortages in Africa and Southeast Asia caused by the Russia-Ukraine war, which began eight months before his arrival.
“All of the countries that rely on wheat from Ukraine faced shortages because of the war,” Jacinthe said. “So, USAID brought in a number of partners to develop a strategy whereby the countries that were to receive wheat and other grains from Ukraine, as well as Belarus and Russia, would be able to beef up their agricultural output.”
Pierre-André Jacinthe with traditional dancers in Zambia during his fellowship with USAID. Photo courtesy of the School of Science
For his first mission, Jacinthe was sent with a team to Sri Lanka, an island country that was facing a fertilizer shortage crisis. In 2021, the government of Sri Lanka stopped subsidizing the fertilizer that farmers used to grow rice. It also placed a ban on imported fertilizer, instead asking farmers to use compost or mulch.
The production of rice, a nutrient-demanding crop, dropped substantially as a result. With less rice to export, plus the start of the war in Ukraine and the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka found itself cash-strapped and lacking the resources to buy fertilizer off the international market.
Jacinthe and his team of fellow experts were sent to assess the fertilizer need and make suggestions on how to organize the market.
“Our view was when it comes to purchasing, selling and distributing fertilizer, the government shouldn’t be involved because with distributors who already have an established network, it’s going to be more efficient,” he said. “Instead, we suggested the government should create an agency to focus on quality control, because there can be some bad fertilizer on the international market.”
While in Sri Lanka, Jacinthe met with officials from numerous United Nations agencies, the U.S. Embassy, the World Bank Organization, the Sri Lankan Ministry of Agriculture, various universities and others.
Jacinthe also made two trips to Africa, mostly organizing a large research project to develop fertilizer recommendations within different countries and ecological regions on the continent. During his time at USAID, he was also tasked with helping develop a policy and funding package to support small-scale irrigation and mechanization in USAID partner countries.
While it was challenging executing important agricultural policies, so was the learning curve that came with working in a complex governmental agency like USAID, he said.
“It’s a different beast,” Jacinthe said. “It’s not like becoming a faculty member, where you come in with some form of prior training. It took me quite a bit of time to get the hang of what was going on. In the first few months, when meeting with colleagues to discuss programs that had been in place for many years, it was like arriving at the theater in the middle of the story.”
Pierre-André Jacinthe at a legume systems conference in Zambia. Photo courtesy of the School of Science
Overall, Jacinthe said he greatly appreciated the opportunity to influence policy and make a real-time impact at USAID. The experience, one that forced him to think outside his expertise, has had a lasting influence.
“One of the things I learned is that, at a government agency, you’re not going to be effective being an expert in one area,” he said. “I was fortunate enough in my undergraduate education and professional life to touch on so many different topics, and I really loved my time at USAID because the agency touched on so many different domains — things I never thought they would be involved in.”
Moreover, Jacinthe has spent time thinking about how his experience can translate to students’ training and educational path. He hopes to influence them to take more of a multidisciplinary approach.
“My time with USAID opened my eyes to the importance of how we train our students,” he said. “We need to give them the opportunity, during their undergraduate and formative years, to not just be an expert in a given field, but to develop a broader base and get adequate exposure to economics, policy, communication and other social sciences. In government, from what I saw, that multidisciplinary education will really make you successful.”