Erwin R. Tiongson is Professor of the Practice and Deputy Director of the Global Human Development (GHD) Program. He previously served as Concentration Chair for International Development in the Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) Program.
Prior to joining Georgetown in 2014, Erwin was a Senior Economist at the World Bank and served in Europe and Central Asia Region and in the Latin America and Caribbean Region. He first joined the World Bank in 2003 through its Young Professionals Program. He also served as staff member of the International Monetary Fund from 1997-2003 and served as Associate Professor at the Asian Institute of Management from 2009-2011. He is a Research Fellow of Das Institut zur Zukunft der Arbeit (IZA) (Institute for the Study of Labor) and External Research Fellow of the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration (CReAM) at the University College London.
Erwin holds a Ph.D. and an M.Phil. in Economics from The George Washington University, an M.P.P. from Georgetown University, an M.A. in Economics from Fordham University, and a B.A. in Philosophy from the Ateneo de Manila University.
What drove you to pursue the field of International Affairs? Was there a pivotal moment in your life that carried you forward on this track?
I know it sounds a bit strange to have three master’s degrees. I didn’t quite plan it that way. They reflect the choices I made over time. I was a philosophy major in college in the Philippines. In junior year, I took an elective on theories of social development. Growing up in a developing country, I never quite saw it as life in a developing country context. It was just life and you did your best, like other people around you. That elective was game-changing, a pivotal moment as you put it, as I saw systematically the promise and the complex challenges of international development. At that time, I was also a member of a student organization that spent a lot of time interacting with residents of a low-income community near our university. I saw first-hand the indignity and violence of poverty. Many of the things I saw have stayed with me since then.
After completing my philosophy degree. I did a one-year master’s degree in economics at Fordham. Although I liked the program a lot, I didn’t feel prepared yet to engage in development policy work after only a year of full-time study. I decided to do a 2nd master’s degree, this time in something I thought more applied – Georgetown’s graduate program in public policy. I also thought that being in DC meant being closer to important centers of development work, such as the World Bank.
After Georgetown, I worked at the IMF and my division chief encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D., with financial support from the organization. I did that while working full-time. I am not sure I would recommend that to anyone now—a Ph.D. program concurrent with full-time employment. It wasn’t easy.
Tell us about your prior experience and how it relates to what you will be doing at GHD.
I joined the World Bank in 2003 as a Young Professional and worked there until the middle of 2014. I was engaged in country operational work in Latin America and the Caribbean and in Europe and Central Asia. Between 2009 and 2011, I went on leave from the World Bank and moved back to the Philippines, where I am from. I taught at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), helped run the AIM-Asian Development Bank (ADB) knowledge hub for trade and investment, and did field work related to microfinance, migration, and international development.
Prior to working at the World Bank, I worked at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for six years. Although the IMF is not primarily a development organization, I worked on issues we care deeply about in international development, including the social impact of structural adjustment programs, the debt relief initiative, and what was then a new global effort to measure multiple dimensions of development that would eventually become the Millennium Development Goals.
All of these experiences helped me build important experiences and networks which I now hope to put to good use helping students. And just before joining GHD, I served for five years as Chair of the International Development Concentration in the MS Foreign Service (MSFS) Program. The last two years, I also served as Director of the new GHD Certificate and taught the core GHD course in impact evaluation. So I am not new to GHD!
Along with a couple of years of direct experience collaborating with wonderful GHD colleagues and interacting with outstanding GHD students, I offer the program about two decades of international development experience, academic expertise, and a global network of resources. I hope to continue drawing from this experience when I teach in the GHD classroom and use the global network I have built over the years to establish new partnerships, bring into the program practitioners who will share their knowledge and experience, and help find research, internship, and employment opportunities for GHD students.
How many years have you been teaching and what elements of teaching do you like the most?
I previously taught an economics of development course at the Asian Institute of Management and I spent the last five years teaching in MSFS. I have been teaching quantitatively-oriented graduate courses, all of them practice-oriented and include the analysis of real policy research data.
What gets me most excited about teaching is giving students technical skills and practical tools that are immediately useful. I want to provide opportunities for students to apply these skills to contribute to the work of a global organization. Because of this, I am passionate about the research partnerships with global organizations I have established to allow my students, on a voluntary basis in the form of a service-learning opportunity, to analyze real data and contribute to the work of international organizations. In spring, for example, the students in my impact evaluation class replicated the emerging results of an ongoing evaluation of a youth employment program in Africa. It is so exciting and rewarding to see my students conducting meaningful and impactful research with the tools we have learned in class.
Here in DC and among members of our global network, we have incredible resources right around us. We can learn more in-depth about international development not only from a distance (and certainly not in the abstract!) but by collaborating with some of the world’s principal organizations and practitioners and maybe, in the process, even contribute to a new understanding of complex development issues.
You’ve been teaching with GHD before becoming our Deputy Director. Are there any moments that stand out to you from your time at GHD?
I taught the core course on impact evaluation previously, most recently in spring. It’s been a privilege to teach GHD students. You sense it immediately on the first day of the semester—the intellectual curiosity, the sense of purpose, the passion for learning. I know you hear phrases like “passion for learning” thrown around a lot, but, among the students here, it’s real. The first cohort of GHD students I taught asked me to organize three more sessions on time series analysis and panel data analysis – after the semester ended – and I was of course happy to do so!
And teaching in a GHD classroom means that every session is an engagement with about 30 young professionals who bring their global development experiences into your presentations and discussions. It is challenging, in the best way. No matter what I teach in the classroom, they would have likely already seen it in some form—overseas, in the field, on the ground. So as a GHD professor, you always have to ask yourself: how am I contributing to their growing understanding of the most complex issues in international development? It is challenging but also deeply rewarding–as when an experience from overseas, thousands of miles away, is seen in a different light one morning in a GHD classroom, at the same time as that experience brings new insights we share in this GHD classroom.
As Deputy Director of GHD, is there anything you would like to say specifically to prospective students?
We would love to work with you! There are enormous challenges all over the world, and it is a very difficult time. It is tempting to be discouraged. But here in the GHD program, there are incredible resources to understand more fully and more deeply these challenges and maybe—together with faculty, your classmates, alumni and the global network of practitioners you will be part of—begin to put together the elements of a solution.
Here’s what life in GHD might look like: On any given day in this program, you will likely be in a classroom together with young professionals like yourself discussing the world’s most pressing problems. You would have been asked, prior to the discussion, to read scholarly works and policy papers on the subject, and maybe write a brief or analyze related data. Chances are, that discussion was initiated by the author of the world’s leading text on the economics of development, or by someone who designed and implemented humanitarian or development interventions overseas, or an authority on agriculture and food security, education policy, enterprise performance, gender equity, refugee and migration policy, or social innovation. Think of any challenge in international development and at Georgetown you are likely just a few feet away from someone who contributed the key framework for understanding it, conducted groundbreaking research to better understand it, or is a senior member of an international organization that is now engaged in an effort to solve it.
And I have no doubt that one day, drawing from resources that will be made available to you, you will be one of these people.