Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, June 13, 2014

Nischan applies skills to expand global food security

Ulrike Nischan Ulrike Nischan

To help specialists in Nigeria better advise the Ministry of Agriculture about food security, Ulrike Nischan applied what she learned at the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

Nischan spent 2013 and part of 2014 in Nigeria as country program coordinator for the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Nigeria Strategy Support Program. “The NSSP enhances policymaking capacity in Nigeria in food security and agriculture by building local analytic capacity, increasing knowledge of Nigerian agriculture through original research, and providing high quality economic analysis of policy questions for the Ministry of Agriculture and relevant stakeholders in the food security policy community,” the 2010 La Follette School alum says.

Based in Abuja, Nischan oversaw the operations of the IFPRI Nigeria office, supervised operational staff, indirectly supervised researchers, assisted with fund-raising, managed a $1.8 million budget, led communications and outreach efforts, organized a seminar series, and coordinated and sometimes led the internal and external research capacity building efforts.

Nischan also took steps to help the local staff be better able to process and interpret their own data. “I was surprised that many of the senior researchers sent their data to our headquarters in D.C. to be analyzed because a skills gap existed between our local staff and the HQ staff,” she says. “To fulfill this need locally, I held several trainings for IFPRI Abuja staff, alternating each week between technical and non-technical software. Since then, the research staff has become more proficient with Stata and CSPro software, adding value to our office and their skills.”

That increased local capacity in Abuja is due in part, Nischan notes, to La Follette School professor Geoffrey Wallace forcing her to learn Stata.

Those technical skills, plus the courses in economics, econometrics and cost-benefit analysis, helped open doors for Nischan after she graduated in 2010 from the La Follette School with a Master of International Public Affairs. She joined the IRIS Center at the University of Maryland as a program specialist. In that capacity, she provided research support for an assessment of a microfinance organization for a major donor agency. She also researched computer-assisted personal interviewing software for the World Bank. “That informed the World Bank’s decision to invest in developing its own software that it made available to researchers at no cost in 2013,” Nischan says.

“I was also a member of a team that focused on creating poverty analysis tools,” Nischan adds. “After analyzing household data from country-specific living standards surveys, we were able to create shortened surveys that can be used to assess the poverty rate of a program’s target group.”

Nischan started at IFPRI in 2012 as a senior research assistant, based in Washington, D.C. “I collaborated on applied research projects, evaluating data for randomized control trials in Ethiopia and Ghana,” she says. “Routine responsibilities included cleaning and analyzing survey data, summarizing survey results, and data visualization in charts and tables.”

Before she left Nigeria to become a research analyst in IFPRI’s Development Strategy and Governance Division, Nischan shared her knowledge about how to program the interviewing software she assessed for IRIS and the World Bank. In northern city of Zaria, she coordinated and co-led a capacity-building training in computer-assisted personal interviewing software programming for an academic institution and provided guidance on data collection with such software.

Nischan traces her emphasis on helping people build their technical skills to her La Follette School training. “The quantitative skills courses at La Follette really opened my eyes to a way of looking at the world that I largely missed in my undergraduate studies,” says Nischan, who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2005 in political science and philosophy. “The courses served as a good introduction to quantitative analysis and policy research methods, and they inspired me to take a few courses through the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, and further math courses post-graduation.”

In addition to the breadth of courses available across the university, Nischan appreciated the program’s small size. “La Follette is a well-rounded and rigorous program,” says Nischan, who had a fellowship her first year, an assistantship her second year, and a summer Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship. “The class sizes are small, so you feel like you are part of a community and are able to interact closely with professors. The professors are well respected and were always willing to give me advice. I am truly thankful to the entire La Follette faculty. Melanie Manion, David Weimer and Marc Ratkovic helped me the most along the way both intellectually and professionally. In addition, I would like to thank Karen Faster for always going out of her way and for putting in a good word for me when needed.”

When Nischan started at La Follette in 2008, she wanted to work in foreign policy at the national level. “I was particularly interested in globalization and its effects on developing countries and vulnerable populations and how the U.S. could help mitigate those effects,” she says. “While at La Follette, I developed an appreciation for policy that is informed by evidence — one of the biggest issues facing policy is the lack of evidence.”

“Having discovered this novel way of approaching policy decisions, I reoriented myself toward research and chose international development as my general focus,” she adds. “My time at La Follette opened my eyes to a more holistic way of formulating and evaluating policy.”


Above: Ulrike Nischan (on right), IFPRI researchers and Ahmadu Bello University faculty at a seminar in Zaria. Below: Nischan and IFPRI Nigeria staff at her sendforth (going away party).