When Katherine Marshall Kissoon left her native Guyana at age 18 to study business finance in England, international development was the furthest thing from her mind.
“I was heading to Wall Street,” she said. “I didn’t have any interest at that point in development type work.”
That soon changed. During her three years at the University of East Anglia, she determined that the curriculum’s finance focus was too narrow and had little bearing on issues Guyana was facing.
“It just wasn’t that relevant to the needs that were all around me at home,” she said.
As part of her scholarship from the British Commonwealth, she headed back home after graduation to begin work at Guyana’s Ministry of Finance in 1996. While working with the ministry, she also began to conduct research for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1999. In two years, she developed the first assessment of Guyana’s poverty reduction programs, determining their cost structure and measuring the capacity to track spending.
“I put systems in place to ensure we knew where resources were going,” she said.
As a result of her strong performance, her initial one-year contract with the IMF was extended twice. However, she knew she wanted to return to school to earn her master’s degree.
“A lot of the work I had been doing had solidified my interest in development policy,” Katherine said. “It helped me begin to see international development beyond Guyana and shifted me from a pure economics mindset into a public policy mindset.”
Katherine found out about the Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) program from a colleague who had attended a summer executive education program offered by faculty from Duke University.
Through a scholarship jointly funded by the World Bank and the Government of Japan, Katherine enrolled in the program in 2002.
“[The program] confirmed for me that I was heading in the right direction professionally,” she said. “It also helped me see how I could bring my interest in using analytical tools into development work.”
Armed with this knowledge, she returned home following her graduation in 2004 to work as an economist for the Office of the President of Guyana. After only a year, she was promoted to head of the office’s Monitoring and Evaluation Unit, where she led efforts to assess the country’s progress in implementing its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper and achieving its 2015 Millennium Development Goals.
She served in this role until 2008, when she became Deputy Chief of Party for the Guyana Threshold Country Plan, a Millennium Challenge Account/USAID project led by Nathan Associates. Her responsibilities included developing a results framework for projects, providing technical supervision and ensuring compliance with USAID requirements.
After the plan’s conclusion, Marshall began working as an independent consultant on projects with the government as the main client. Most recently, she coordinated the development of an entire national health strategy for Guyana.
“The government is planning some ambitious things to achieve universal health coverage by 2020,” Katherine said. “This strategy has huge implications for increased access to better quality services for underserved populations.”
She expects the government to start acting on some of the plan’s recommendations within the next few months. During that time, she will embark on another project for Guyana – this one focused on poverty reduction.
“This action plan has the potential to significantly improve the effectiveness of the use of our resources in targeting extreme poverty,” she said. “There is an immediate opportunity here to embed principles of community-driven development, gender equality and environmental sustainability into real action.”
In addition to her development work, Katherine returns to Duke periodically to help teach participants in executive education programs offered by the Duke Center for International Development. These programs are designed to help mid-career practitioners improve their effectiveness and performance.
Katherine said she feels happiest “behind the scenes,” providing information to help policymakers make the best decisions.
“To make reform happen, you have to get to a place where you have a critical mass of knowledge,” she said. “I think part of what I do is help bring together knowledge and evidence to inform people about what the problem is, tell them what we think we can do about it, and encourage them that we can succeed.”
Though this task is often challenging, Katherine is able to draw inspiration from another important role: mother to a 2-year-old daughter, Jada.
“It just motivates me to work for a better world for her, so that her generation can go further than we did.”