[This post was updated on Sept. 4, 2013.]
“Change is not something that you should be afraid of, and even when people would say it’s very difficult, I would throw myself back to that situation [in Cambodia] and say, hey, it was very difficult then, too, but somehow we made it work.” – Glenn Denning
Glenn Denning grew up in Brisbane, Australia, loved the outdoors and hated the idea of working in an office. And, he really didn’t have any urge to go to other countries. While studying at the University of Queensland, he thought a career in agriculture might suit him well.
Then he happened to overhear a conversation in a hallway between two students. That bit of serendipity sent him on a road to a life overseas; to key roles in “green revolutions” in Asia and Africa; and eventually to an office at Columbia University, and the Earth Institute.
After nearly 40 years of working in challenging environments around the world, Denning, 59, seems as clear-eyed and enthusiastic about his work as ever. Since May 2011, he has directed the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development. The center’s mission is to use the expertise of the Earth Institute to support governments and development organizations in such areas as poverty, agriculture, public health and nutrition, infrastructure development, adaptation to climate change, and related scientific research – “anything that needed a multi-sector approach, which is the hallmark of the Earth Institute,” Denning said.
To that end, the center merged with another Earth Institute program, the Center for Global Health and Economic Development. That center has been working with the Millennium Villages Project and national governments to broaden and improve health care, and to combat malnutrition and diseases often associated with extreme poverty, from malaria and HIV-AIDS to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
“Seeing the interface of health with agriculture, health with education, health with economic development, health with climate change, bringing this under one umbrella and having that group of people that we could interact with on a regular basis just really made a lot of sense,” Denning said.
Denning also directs the Master of Public Administration in Development Practice program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. He is a professor of professional practice in international and public affairs, and teaches a graduate course in global food systems. He holds agricultural science degrees from the University of Queensland, a Ph.D. from the University of Reading, and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School.
He was an undergraduate at Queensland when he overheard that fateful hallway conversation. One of the students had turned down an offer to do graduate research in Bali. Denning was intrigued, and spoke to the student, then to the student’s professor. He refocused his coursework to fit the project, on tropical agriculture, and after graduating in 1975, at the age of 22, he was off.
“Basically I left, and I’ve never been back,” he said.
He stayed in Bali a year, finished his dissertation, and then was offered a position with a large integrated development project in Mindanao, the Philippines.
He said they told him, “It’s a difficult situation, there’s a bit of a civil war going on — but you’ll love it.” After three years, he moved to the International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines, and stayed another 18 years. The institute was instrumental in the “Green Revolution” that vastly improved agricultural productivity in the Philippines, India and throughout Asia. He earned growing responsibilities for projects outside the Philippines; and that led him to Cambodia.
In the mid-1980s, Seven years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia was still in ruins, the country’s infrastructure bombed and neglected after years of war and civil strife. Two million people had been slaughtered, starved and worked to death by the Pol Pot regime. Few of those left had any training in agricultural development. Farmers had no seed, Denning said.
“Something sparked in me,” Denning said. “I got very excited about what we could do with a country like that, that had very little capacity.” They started planting rice varieties that had proven successful in areas suitable for irrigation, immediately boosting production. But for areas where farmers had relied on the rains, they needed home-grown varieties. Years before, the rice institute had put those Cambodian varieties into a gene bank; they brought these out of storage, trained researchers and agricultural extension workers, and slowly rebuilt the country’s agricultural sector.
“It was one of the most successful programs that had ever been,” Denning recalled. “It turned Cambodia around completely from being totally dependent or very dependent on food aid to achieving self-sufficiency, and right now [it] is an exporter of rice.”
In 2000, the Cambodian government honored him with a medal of the Royal Order of Sahametrei for his work.
The Cambodia experience “created for me an inspiration for what you can do,” Denning said.
“I had the confidence that change is possible.”
He took that confidence to Africa in 1998, to the World Agroforestry Center and eventually the Millennium Villages Project. He helped set up the MDG (Millennium Development Goals) Centre, East and Southern Africa, in Nairobi and was its director for five years. They set up a Millennium Villages Project in Malawi and backed the government’s plan to subsidize fertilizer and seed. The program transformed the country from a perennial food aid recipient to a producer of food surpluses year after year. Those subsidies came under fire from some in the donor community who felt they were not sustainable. Denning disagreed.
“Did it prove that it can be sustainable in the long term? Frankly we didn’t care, because we didn’t have widespread hunger and malnutrition across the country anymore,” he said.
“You just have to accept the fact that for significantly large proportions of the population, we need to consider agriculture as partially a sort of a social benefit; that we have to provide support to agriculture. Every country does that, Europe does it, the U.S. does it, virtually every country supports its agriculture. So some kind of subsidy or support is going to be needed for a long time until the country is able to diversify its economy sufficiently.”
At Columbia, Denning occupies an office with a view from the 14th floor of the School of International and Public Affairs. He joined the faculty three years ago to run the Master of Public Administration in Development Practice program. He has been involved with a number of UN efforts on food security and the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program. His wife, Pamela, is a kindergarten teacher at Harlem Village Academies, a progressive charter school in East Harlem. Their three children, all in their 20s, study and work in Australia.
The Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development currently is working on an anti-poverty project in Jordan and just starting work on a nutrition program in Timor Leste. Timor Leste is the third most malnourished country in the world, Denning said; 58 percent of its children under 5 years of age are stunted, which has huge implications for the children’s development.
“This is going to have long-term impacts in the ability of the country to emerge at some point as a successful middle-income country,” Denning said.
“Malnutrition in the first 1,000 days … is irreversible,” he said. “It’s extremely difficult to get on in life if you’ve been malnourished during that period. So it means working with children, working with pregnant women, working with pregnant women nursing, getting ahead of that.”
Denning said nutrition is likely to be one of the major areas of engagement for the center in coming years. Such projects seem a good fit for the two newly combined Earth Institute centers.
“There’s just this great awareness that nutrition is not just a health problem, it’s not just an agriculture problem, it’s not just an educational problem; it requires all of those sectors to work together. … We’ve developed experience, tools and expertise from the Millennium Villages Project in Africa that we now will be able to apply in Timor Leste [and other countries].”
“The benefit of the merger is the opportunity to really have this more integrated approach,” said Joanna Rubinstein, the former director of the Center on Global Health and Economic Development. Rubinstein is now assistant director of the Earth Institute for international programs.
“Because [the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development] has grown and become this home for policy advising … it makes sense that the health policy advising is also there,” she said. “Because there are many different locations where the teams work, it is an opportunity for cross-fertilization – what is learned in Latin American can be applied to India, what is learned in India can be applied in Africa [and] can even be applied to the Bronx.”
Denning said the master’s program in development practice fits into the equation nicely.
“The whole Idea was [that] we need to train a new generation of development practitioners who understand this whole multi-sector approach, the kind of thing we’ve been promoting through the Millennium Villages Project, through the Millennium Development Goals,” he said. “We need more people who understand that framework, who are able to operate comfortably across different sectors.”
As of September 2013, the two-year program has 105 students from 30 countries. Each spends the summer between the academic years in the field. Last summer, 51 of Denning’s students were assigned to 22 countries across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.
A team of four students carried out research in Myanmar supporting the country’s economic reforms. Five students interned with the UN’s Ending Child Hunger and Under-nutrition Partnership in Asia and Africa. Another helped develop GIS capabilities in Sierra Leone’s Environmental Protection Agency.
“What’s happening now is some of them are coming back after the summer, and they’re staying connected with those projects and … connected with some of our researchers here at the Earth Institute, and continuing to do that work.” For some, he said, that leads to a road of their own, to jobs around the world in both the public and private sectors.