Jennifer Davidson (MIDP ’06) always wanted to be a pilot. Even after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University, and a master’s degree in international development policy from Duke, she felt drawn back into the world of aviation. Now she’s putting her aviation background to work solving tough challenges facing international development and disaster relief organizations.

Davidson works for the United Nations World Food Program in Rome. As an air transport officer with the supply chain department of the WFP, she is responsible for analyzing new aviation technologies such as unmanned aircraft and cargo airships to determine how they could contribute to WFP’s work delivering food and supplies to respond to emergencies and to alleviate hunger, especially in remote areas around the world. Davidson is also a trainer, and has worked with the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center in Hawaii to create courses for FEMA on the best ways to use unmanned aircraft for disaster management. For instance, she included best practices learned from her colleagues who flew unmanned aircraft for disaster response in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines in 2013.

The growing interest in unmanned aircraft (commonly referred to as “drones”) has created the need to ensure smart project management and training for public officials about the use of this emerging technology in the public domain, training that Davidson has offered. She emphasizes that there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to set up a program using unmanned aircraft; starting a program without robust public engagement and education, she says, is a recipe for failure.

In the context of WFP, the big questions she’s grappling with are logistical. Are there large enough unmanned aircraft to deliver food at the scale required for these kinds of operations? Are there ways to modify existing aircraft to meet these needs? She says one new idea is actually a revival of an old one: cargo airships (also known as “blimps”). Cargo airships pre-date airplanes, though they now use helium instead of hydrogen. Davidson says that these alternative aircraft technologies are intriguing for development and relief agencies because they are more fuel efficient and thus have a lower environmental impact, and because they can land practically anywhere– some of them even land in water. In remote places with unimproved roads and no airport access, this kind of flexibility is a game changer.

“I chose to study international development policy over international relations because to me, international development policy was a way to actually make a tangible impact and put ideas into action.”

Davidson says it is important for students of international development to learn about all the ways development projects can go (and have gone) wrong. But, she says, “you also have to be able to learn about projects that are working, even if they are small scale, so that you can be inspired.” She also suggests that students should keep an open mind and broaden their studies as much as possible while they are here in the MIDP program, and not limit themselves to their niche areas. Because the program is so flexible, she was able to take courses in other departments at Duke, and even at UNC, to create a rich learning experience that prepared her for her multi-faceted current career.  She hopes that faculty continue to create plenty of room for classes on a variety of topics, including development innovation and technology innovation in the curriculum.

She visited the DCID office recently in her capacity as an adviser to Development International (DI), a non-profit organization focused on innovative ways of addressing community- centered development with whom she has worked since 2011. She and the CEO of the organization, Douglas Martin, came to speak to faculty and staff about opportunities for collaboration between DCID and DI, including internships and research projects for current MIDP fellows, as  well as opportunities for MIDP alumni.

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