Friday, January 11, 2013

Student Spotlight: Ranga Mlambo

For this post, we’ve interviewed Ranga Mlambo, who recently completed his last semester at SAIS.  While concentrating in International Development at SAIS, he also pursuing a dual degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Ranga hails from Zimbabwe, graduated from Harvard University in 2007 with a B.A. in Mathematics, and spent three years working in consulting prior to enrolling at SAIS.
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What specifically attracted you to SAIS, and to International Development (IDEV)?
I had a few criteria for selecting among graduate schools. First, I was looking for a program with a primarily global outlook, not just a few “global” courses here and there. I was also looking for a program with a strong Economics focus, that would help me learn to apply economic thinking to a range of policy, political and development issues. These are concepts that I think will be extremely useful as I think about a career back home in Zimbabwe. I also wanted to live in DC to be a bit closer to the center of government and the vibrant think-tank community here. SAIS and IDEV were almost tailor-made for my interests, and I have found everything from the academic to the social environment to be very engaging.
You’re doing the MA/MBA dual degree program with Wharton.  Why did you choose to do a dual degree, and how does that differ from just doing the SAIS MA?
The MA/MBA program provides two complementary sets of skills. I strongly believe in “private sector” solutions to a number of problems, and the MBA is well-suited to thinking about organizations, teams and how to manage them effectively. On the other hand, what I gained from the SAIS MA is the opportunity to think deeply about how to solve some hard socio-economic problems, because tough political and policy-making environments are something that we explicitly take into account in virtually every course at SAIS. Had I done just the SAIS MA I would be missing some tactical managerial and functional skills that are necessary in the private sector. This is just on the academic side: there are numerous other benefits in terms of having access to both Career Services offices (i.e., a wider pool of potential internships) and also in terms of building up a very diverse network of contacts from among the students, alumni and professors of both programs.
What are some of the courses you’ve taken and specific skills you’ve learned that will help you in your career?
This is a slightly unfair question because I have learned a lot from all the courses I have taken at SAIS! Let me mention three of them here.
“Microeconomics of Development” is a course which teaches econometric techniques by using some of the most influential studies in development economics. In a lecture on educational programs, for example, we might discuss two or three educational intervention programs to understand their structure, results, and why they worked. Then we carefully analyze what techniques were used to find and validate the results. Finally, we pick one of the studies and attempt to reproduce the results of the paper using the original dataset and the technique just learned. So, this course teaches some research design, hands-on practice with econometric techniques and (most importantly for me) some ideas about what types of development programs work and why – it is conceptual but grounded in real-world issues.
I also took courses on the energy sector “Energy and Environment in Developing Countries” and “Innovations in the Electric Power Sector”, which provided a very comprehensive overview of the major issues and trends on these topics. Both courses ask students to write a significant research and policy paper on a chosen developing country, outlining a possible strategy to develop the energy sector. I wrote both my papers on Zimbabwe, and I found the research process itself valuable in expanding my knowledge base of the sector beyond just casual observation. In addition, being asked to formulate a ten- or twenty-year strategy really forces one to grapple with the multiple issues facing a policy-maker in this space. This mix of historical/factual, conceptual and real-world application is exactly what I was searching for when I decided to come to SAIS.
Tell us about some of the extracurricular activities you’re involved with at SAIS.
One of the first clubs that I joined at SAIS was the Tangential Economics Society – I will forgive those of you who chuckle at the really poor (nerdy) joke in the title! Each week, one member of the club leads an informal discussion of an economic, political or other current topic of interest as a way to increase our understanding, application and discussion of economic concepts as they pertain to the real world. Recent topics included Inequality and Optimal Taxation, Privacy and Cyber-security, Crime and Punishment, and 3D printing, to name a few. These are all issues in the popular press that we can analyze from an economic perspective, which helps us understand and explain them and their (policy) implications (which is what we ultimately care about here at SAIS).
Another club that I spent a significant about of time on at SAIS is The Vision Incubator (TVI). The main goal of the club is to provide a peer discussion forum for members to discuss their long-term goals with explicit attention to how those goals interact with one’s personal values and desired impact in the world. This club encourages members to step away from the big picture thinking of their coursework, and the tactical thinking of internship and job searches, to focus instead is on what they believe to be important and why. The end goal is develop a long range personal development plan for five to ten years that provides a guideline for getting to one’s vision.
You’re involved with planning this year’s IDEV trip.  Where will this trip take the IDEV students, and how does this sort of activity contribute to the SAIS experience?
This year IDEV is travelling to South Africa, spending 2 weeks between Johannesburg, Cape Town and the surrounding areas. We structured the trip around the 3 main tracks within the SAIS international development curriculum: finance and development, governance and democratic institutions, and social policy. One of the main lessons from our preparation for this trip is that although South Africa is a nominally prosperous country, there is a set of complex underlying issues which make sustained and equitable development tough to achieve in the country. During the trip we will meet a wide range of people – government officials, community members and leaders, small business entrepreneurs and heads of multinationals, think tanks and more – to better understand the “real” South Africa. I was particularly keen for the trip this year to be to southern Africa; this will be the first visit to Africa for many of the participants. Apart from that, however, our department requires each participating student to write a policy paper in line with the themes of the trip, thereby providing a different type of learning experience. The trip also presents numerous networking opportunities with SAIS alumni and other professionals in fields in which students may be interested in working in the future.
Thanks for reading!
– Erin Skelly Cameron, Associate Director of Admissions
To read previous entries in our Student Spotlight series, please click here.