Diala Issam Al Masri, CDE ’15, is the first graduate of Williams’ development economics program to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.
By Abe Loomis Illustrations by Janice Kun

Graduate fellows of the Center for Development Economics bring the world to Williams—and return home to have an outsized effect on the world. 

Growing up in the tiny mountain town of Salima, Lebanon, Diala Issam Al Masri experienced a life of uncertainty. A 15-year civil war destroyed the country’s infrastructure. A string of political assassinations followed. And Lebanon’s struggling economy was further strained by civil war in neighboring Syria.

The hope of one day addressing the challenges facing her homeland led Al Masri to Williams’ Center for Development Economics (CDE), an intensive 10-month master’s degree program from which she graduated in 2015.

“Williams and I were a perfect match,” says Al Masri, who as an undergraduate studied political science, international affairs and economics at the Lebanese American University. She received a Fulbright Scholarship to attend the CDE and remained in Williamstown after graduation to work as a teaching assistant for the center’s Class of 2016. She then signed on as a teaching and research assistant with economics professors Peter Pedroni and Peter Montiel.

In November, Al Masri learned she’d been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to continue her studies next fall at the University of Oxford. As the first CDE graduate to receive a Rhodes, she says she’s one step closer to a career as an economist and an academic specializing in low- and middle-income countries and fragile states.

In its 57-year history, the CDE has trained an extraordinary corps of economists from countries wracked by war, suffering from widespread poverty or overcoming oppression. The fellows study, take classes and live together in an incubator-like program housed in the former St. Anthony Hall, on the western edge of campus. They gain a deep understanding of economic theory and public policy as well as a broad perspective on the global community. And they return home poised to make an immediate and profound impact.

In many ways, Al Masri isn’t a typical CDE fellow. Most have established careers in their home countries as economists, financial officers and public- and private-sector analysts. Yet Al Masri’s aspirations and achievements are of a piece with a program that, despite enrolling only 30 fellows per year, has had an outsized effect on the world beyond Williamstown.

Al Masri is joining the ranks of graduates including Eteri Kvintradze, CDE ’99, who’s helping to shape the economy of a young Republic of Georgia; Daniel Jenya, CDE ’12, who’s working to stabilize the economy of Malawi, one of the world’s poorest nations; and Wahid Waissi, CDE ’05, who’s building bridges between the government of Afghanistan and those of neighboring nations in cooperation with NGOs and U.N. agencies.

Says Tom Powers ’81, who worked as an international banker before becoming director of the CDE in 1999, “When we make admission decisions, we’re trying to assess who may really have the wherewithal—both in terms of motivation and intellectual capacity—to return home and be an active contributor in that country’s policy process. Our alumni go home and can earn a lot of responsibility quickly.”

Shaping a Nation

Situated at the heart of the Caucasus, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, the Republic of Georgia is considered a crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Russia sits to the north, and Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan are to the south. A plane headed south from Georgia’s southern border would enter Iranian airspace within about 100 miles.

Georgia’s pivotal geopolitical position is one reason the country’s influence and sovereignty have regularly been contested. Such conflicts have caused terrible hardships, but there have also been moments of opportunity, including in 1991—the end of Soviet rule.

“I’m part of the generation that finished high school in the Soviet Union and went to university in independent Georgia,” Eteri Kvintradze says. “We are a transition generation. … We saw the effects of bad policies on people. And we saw how much freedom and opportunity could increase as a result of good policy decisions.”

At university, Kvintradze studied international economic relations, a new major, at a time when Georgia was just beginning to establish links with the rest of the world.

“All the others before us were learning Marxism and Leninism, which were no longer relevant,” she says. “We had these translated books from Germany, copied on Xerox machines, and that’s how we learned about international trade. During my first job interview, those skills got me hired, because nobody else could answer questions about balance of payment or exchange rate.”

The openness meant that Kvintradze could apply for an Edmund S. Muskie Fellowship, awarded by the U.S. Department of State, which funded her studies at Williams. She calls her CDE experience “transformational.”

Eteri Kvintradze, CDE ’99, is one of 29 alumni helping to shape the economy of the Republic of Georgia.

“Professor Henry Bruton often used the phrase ‘searching and learning,’” she says. “His students,
whenever we meet, say we are in the business of searching and learning in the continuous process of trying to find better solutions and move development forward.”

After Williams, Kvintradze returned to Georgia, where she worked as deputy minister of finance. In 2003, demonstrators bearing roses protested what they believed were fraudulent Parliamentary elections, resulting in the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze. 

The Rose Revolution ushered in a pro-western, pro-market reform movement steered, to a significant degree, by Kvintradze and other CDE-trained economists. In the 14 years since the revolution, 29 Georgian CDE alumni have taken key government positions, served as educators or worked as advisers to other nations.

“We had a minister of finance, a vice president of the central bank, a head of treasury, a deputy head of tax administration and many other positions filled by people who came out of the CDE,” says Kvintradze, who later earned a Ph.D. in economics at Georgetown University. “It helped economic policy coordination in a very unexpected way. We spoke the same language in terms of the way we approached policy issues. In that way, the CDE network was very influential.”

After the revolution, Kvintradze represented Georgia’s interests at the World Bank and wrote chapters for a background paper presented on behalf of the republic to the first donor consultative group meeting in Brussels. She also advised Georgia’s Ministry of Finance during debt restructuring negotiations at the Paris Club.

Now, as resident representative for the International Monetary Fund in Sri Lanka and Maldives, she has facilitated the realignment of budget and tax policies through discussions with Sri Lanka’s economic team. She says the emphasis on applied policy at the CDE has allowed her to communicate effectively with officials.

“The tool set that the CDE gives you is very much policy oriented,” she says. “You are able to analyze issues from a policy and development angle, and it helps you to engage better with your counterparts in the government who deal with those problems on a daily basis.

“You could bring various theoretical models or textbook examples, but the authorities relate to practical experiences, practical solutions to problems at hand,” Kvintradze says. “And that’s where the CDE is very helpful. Because it grounds you in reality.”

Stabilizing an Economy

In his office on Capital Hill in Malawi’s Lilongwe, with a view of the city and the Dowa Highlands beyond, Daniel Jenya often reaches for a textbook that has pride of place on his desk: Macroeconomics in Emerging Markets, written by CDE professor Peter Montiel.

The chapter on public finance, in particular, has been a welcome reference, Jenya says. As chief economist and head of the macroeconomic policy unit of the treasury in the Ministry of Finance, he’s working to stabilize an inherently fragile economy recovering from a 2013 fraud in which millions of dollars in public money disappeared in six months.

“Our budget used to rely on what we call budget support—aid that donors would give without specifying what you spend it on,” Jenya says. “That stopped after the discovery of the fraud. So we have been going through an adjustment process in the budget to match the revenues and the expenditures.”

Jenya grew up in the small village of Kampepuza and attended village schools. He rose early each morning to work in his family’s garden tending corn and, when he was older, tobacco, a staple crop in a landlocked country that has suffered a string of devastating droughts.

Inspired by neighbors who attended university in Lilongwe, he began to envision a way out. “When they came back from the city, driving their cars, I admired them,” he says. “I realized education would change my life and my family.”

He scored well on Malawi’s version of the SAT and was admitted to the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College. Early on he was tracked into the social sciences and, because he was good at math, chose economics as a specialty. After university, Jenya taught at a business college in Malawi, clerked in a bank and then took a job with the Ministry of Finance. It was then that a CDE alumna encouraged him to consider the program.

Daniel Jenya, CDE ’12, is among 31 alumni working to stabilize the economy of Malawi, one of the world’s poorest nations.

After graduation, Jenya stayed on for six months, working as a teaching and research assistant, tutoring CDE fellows and supervising course projects. He also worked with Williams undergraduates in an applied policy course on Computable General Equilibrium modeling, a tool used by government organizations when evaluating policy alternatives.

Such courses, and fellows’ involvement with them, are just two ways the CDE has strongly influenced Williams’ undergraduate program. Because the CDE is staffed by full-time faculty in the Department of Economics, Powers says, Williams offers as many undergraduate courses in international and development economics as many research universities.

That’s a draw for faculty, many of whom focus their research on or act as economic advisers to developing countries. Their experiences filter into the undergraduate and graduate courses they teach.

Montiel has worked around the world for the IMF and the World Bank and was an economic adviser to the central banks of Azerbaijan, Ecuador and other governments. Jerry Caprio ’72, the college’s William Brough Professor of Economics and chair of the CDE’s executive committee, spent 18 years working at the World Bank and teaching graduate courses at George Washington University before coming to Williams in 2006. Since then, he’s advised the central bank of South Korea and the government of Rwanda on economic issues. Were it not for the CDE and opportunities like these, he says, it would have been more difficult for him to leave the Washington, D.C., area.

“You can be part of the solution, national as well as global.”—Daniel Jenya, CDE ’12

CDE’s ties to Malawi—home to two current fellows and 31 alumni—were a major factor in Susan Godlonton’s decision to join the Williams faculty in 2014. An associate research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in D.C., she studies labor, demography and health in developing countries. Starting this June, during a sabbatical from Williams, she’ll be working with a number of CDE alumni while in residence at Malawi’s Ministry of Economic Planning and Development.

Getting to know CDE fellows “is a great opportunity,” she says. “You’re learning from them and at the same time able to invest in individuals who are then going to help their governments … redesign programs to utilize what we currently know is the best evidence of what works and what doesn’t.”

Jenya continues to use what he learned at the CDE in his new role leading the macroeconomic policy unit at Malawi’s Treasury. There he’s developing recommendations for alleviating poverty and leading his country toward a more sustainable future.

“Malawi has been massacred by climate change,” he says. “Last year was one of the worst droughts in decades. So that raises the question of … making the country resilient at the macro level. The CDE imparts confidence that you can be part of the solution, national as well as global.”

Building Bridges

Afghanistan’s last quarter-century has been marked by war, displacement and economic ruin. The end of the Soviet Union’s 10-year occupation in 1989 triggered fighting between the Soviet-installed communist government and mujahideen rebels. After the government fell, rival rebel factions battled for possession of Kabul, leaving much of the capital in ruins. In 1996, the Taliban emerged from Kandahar Province, took control of most of the country and imposed a repressive regime. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. invaded, toppling the Taliban.

Wahid Waissi lost friends in mujahideen fighting and saw a neighborhood family killed by a rocket. When the Taliban took over, his parents—both teachers—fled to Pakistan with his four siblings. He stayed behind to finish his schooling, graduating first in his class in 1998 at Kabul University with a bachelor’s degree in general pharmacy.

Wahid Waissi, CDE ’05, is building bridges between the government of Afghanistan and those of neighboring nations.

“We were interested in doing whatever it took for our country,” he says. “That passion came to me and my classmates to do service wherever possible, to help the people.”

For the next four years, Waissi lived in remote villages in Kandahar Province, the seat of the Taliban’s power, coordinating public health projects and working as a regional health administrator. On the advice of friends, he found a job at the Afghanistan Aid Coordination Authority, a government agency managed by Ashraf Ghani, who is now the president of Afghanistan. Waissi worked in the same department as Williams alumnus Lyn Debevoise ’98, a U.S. government employee who encouraged him to apply to the CDE. A year later, after traveling to Islamabad, Pakistan, to obtain a visa, Waissi headed to Williamstown.

Because his visa was delayed, he arrived at the CDE two weeks after classes began. With a late start and no background in economics, he says the first semester was “a nightmare.” But having experienced a post-conflict economy up close, he quickly got into a groove, forging connections with classmates from around the world.

Among them were fellows from countries near Afghanistan—the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan and Georgia. Waissi says he gained from his classmates a thorough understanding of each country’s system of government, education, economy and way of life—just as his classmates learned from him.

“That made understanding and making decisions easier when I was working on regional cooperation and economic ties,” he says.

In 2012 Waissi was named director general for economic cooperation at Afghanistan’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Learning alongside Georgian classmate Lasha Dolidze, CDE ’05, gave him tools to formulate plans for joint programs between their two countries. Among many other international projects, he also helped coordinate negotiations for the TAPI Pipeline—a massive pipeline to move natural gas from the Caspian Sea and Turkmenistan through Afghanistan, Pakistan and into India. And he was the chief negotiator for an agreement signed last May that opens a new transport corridor between Afghanistan and India via the Iranian port Chabahar, bypassing Pakistan.

“The CDE really opened my eyes,” says Waissi, who was recently appointed Afghanistan’s ambassador to Australia. “It [taught me] how to deal with the development process, how to deal with the reconstruction of a country and how to deal on inequality, on gender and on macro and micro processes at the national level.”

“You’re learning from [CDE fellows] and at the same time able to invest in individuals who are then going to help their governments.” –Economics Professor Susan Godlonton

Returning Home

Back in Williamstown, Diala Issam Al Masri learned she was selected for the Rhodes Scholarship while celebrating Thanksgiving with history professor Magnus Bernhardsson and his family. “There were a few moments of disbelief, then pure, overwhelming joy,” she says. “I feel deeply grateful to everyone who got me here and, at the same time, a responsibility to the trust placed in me.”

The career she now envisions after Oxford involves research to help middle- and low-income countries in the Middle East build wealth and expand opportunity for all their citizens. She also hopes to someday have a hand in policy decisions.

Al Masri says she found a welcoming community at the CDE—and at Williams, in general. She and her classmates engaged with undergraduates in classes, at lectures and in activities such as intramural soccer competitions. (Al Masri’s CDE team included players from seven countries.) Williams faculty and staff welcomed her and her classmates into their homes and took them on excursions into the surrounding area.

“The general friendly and tolerant attitude in Williamstown was also present in the CDE program, with the staff and the professors really trying to make us closer and highlighting that differences make us stronger,” Al Masri says. “I love this environment.”

In coming years, the CDE will undergo changes to strengthen its program. Since 1966, fellows have lived and learned together in the same building, even as class cohorts have expanded from 20 people to 30 and courses have welcomed an increasing number of undergraduates. An average of 65 Williams students take graduate-level courses alongside CDE fellows each year.

To make the best use of the program’s physical space, construction will begin this summer on a new 30-bed residence hall directly behind the current headquarters. The new building, which will use only the energy it produces on site, is expected to open for the start of the fall semester in 2018.

Then the current headquarters at the former St. Anthony Hall will undergo renovations to provide additional classroom and study space as well as offices for faculty and staff. The renovations also will address energy efficiency. The building is expected to reopen in the summer of 2019.

Meanwhile, CDE faculty will continue their periodic review of the program’s curriculum with feedback from alumni. Over time, courses have shifted their focus from the comprehensive planning of economic growth to making the market an effective instrument of development. And new courses have been developed on financial-sector issues, program and project evaluation, political economy and tax policy.

Some things, however, are not up for discussion, including the meeting of a diverse set of minds and experiences that is the program’s hallmark.

“They’re a group of students who can’t wait for class to start,” Caprio says of CDE fellows. “They don’t want class to end, and they’re continually raising questions about how a policy would work in their country.”

Class discussions frequently delve into why a particular economic policy worked in one country but failed in another. When the people engaged in conversation are responsible for implementing these policies in their homelands, Caprio says, it “leads to a much finer understanding of the role of institutions in countries that it’s easy to take for granted if you don’t have those differences represented.”

Graduates of the program agree.

“CDE gives you the diversity of the classroom,” Kvintradze says. “You deal with people coming from all parts of the world, and just by interacting with them you gain a different type of knowledge, and it humbles you. But it also gives you grounding in terms of respecting the problems that people are dealing with and appreciating how difficult finding solutions may be.”

Abe Loomis is a writer living in Western Massachusetts.