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05.26.2016

Alumna tackles disaster risk management in Latin America

Spanning the mountains to the rain forest, Peru has long been plagued by natural disasters such as landslides, flooding and earthquakes. In 2009, the Peruvian government led a major effort to lower the staggering economic impact of disasters.

“Before, the government only reacted to the events instead of identifying and mitigating them,” said Zoila Navarro MIDP ‘13. “You can’t control natural disasters, but you can take steps that will make you more resilient.”

Navarro was working as advisor to Peru’s vice minister of finance, where she led a public finance think tank and provided advice on fiscal decentralization. The vice minister appointed her to lead the reform on disaster risk management.

Working with an international team of experts, Navarro led the design of a new risk management system for the country, which was approved by the country’s Congress in record time. The system put processes and responsibilities in place for risk identification, prevention, mitigation, preparation and recovery. Navarro also defended the reform to the president, his cabinet and Congress.

“Now we have an entity that works with all ministries and subnational governments to identify risks, and develop prevention and mitigation plans,” she said. “We aren’t just reacting anymore.”

The project kick-started a new direction in Navarro’s career. Last month, she accepted a consulting position with the World Bank, where she will develop financial risk management strategies for countries throughout Central America and the Caribbean.

From dance to decentralization

During her school days, Navarro performed traditional Peruvian folk dances across the country. Surprisingly, it was this hobby that led to her interest in public policy and finance.

“I traveled and performed from the mountains to the jungle to the coast, from north to south. I saw all the poorest areas and I saw all the need,” she said. “Places where there is no light or running water, or they only have these services for one or two hours per day.”

If services and finances were more accessible in rural areas, she thought, more people could climb out of poverty. She enrolled in a public college in Peru, where she studied economics with a focus on decentralization.

Since her area of expertise was so specialized, she immediately set herself apart. Peru’s Ministry of Economy and Finance hired her right out of graduate school as a junior analyst. After only a year, she was put in charge of fiscal decentralization.

She traveled constantly while working on fiscal decentralization, training subnational public officials, and seizing every opportunity to learn the issues people were facing. Her supervisor eventually asked her to cut down on her travel and delegate training to others.

“I responded, ‘I can’t make good policies if I don’t know what people need,’” she said. “If the policies aren’t relevant or can’t be applied locally, they won’t work.”

Always room to learn

Navarro’s work in fiscal decentralization was the beginning of seven years of various roles and promotions in the ministry. Even though Navarro was steadily working her way up in the Peruvian government, she sensed a gap in her knowledge and skills. She understood the hands-on part of policymaking and finance in Peru, but wanted to get the underlying knowledge to find better solutions.

She got two job offers, but turned them down to enroll in Duke University’s Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) program. “I wanted to be exposed to development issues and get a grasp on what other countries were doing to address their problems,” she said.

Although her training helped her strengthen her analytical skills, she said the best part about the program was how it helped her build professional and personal relationships.

“I’ve spent much time in D.C., but I’ve never once stayed in a hotel,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve made so many friends in MIDP who live and work in the U.S. and all over the world. They’re like my family.”

The only woman at the table

Adding to Navarro’s career challenges, she said, is the fact that she is a woman in the world of public finance. Several times, she has walked into a boardroom to defend or argue a policy and has been the only woman at the table. At the beginning, some public officials assumed she was there to take notes.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to walk this path with confidence,” she said. “It’s hard to constantly show people that I’m not there because I’m someone’s assistant or because I have a good smile. I’m here because public financial management is my area of expertise. I’m here because I earned it.”

At the same time, Navarro said, she recognizes that many do not get the chance to work with and learn from the country’s leaders in public policy and finance. Her gratitude for this opportunity – and her commitment to improving the quality of life in her country – motivate her to push harder.

“I am at a table with some of the smartest people in my country,” she said. “How can I not challenge myself to do my best?”