Michael Spolum, a 2012 graduate of the Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) program, is one of 18 Duke University students and recently graduated alumni to receive a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2013-14 academic year.
Spolum received the Fulbright-Clinton Fellowship (formerly the Fulbright Public Policy Fellowship), which places post-graduate fellows in foreign government ministries to serve as “special assistants”. He will spend the next 10 months in the Office of the President of the Union of Myanmar (Burma) working on pro-poor economic development strategies.
Spolum said he was excited to receive the Fulbright, especially since competition for fellowships in Myanmar was fierce. In addition, he will be in the country at a critical juncture in its development, as it emerges from more than 20 years of economic isolation.
During his fellowship, Spolum plans to investigate “green growth” policy options that will support the efficient use of natural resources and benefit people of all economic levels. He said that Myanmar has an unprecedented opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other resource-rich developing countries that failed to harness their natural wealth in a way that facilitated sustained economic growth and social development.
“The long-term costs of irresponsible and rushed resource development policies more often than not far outweigh the short-term economic benefits,” he said. “If you don’t have policies and safeguards in place that are sensitive to environmental and social impacts, you run the real risk of exacerbating social and political instability as well as poverty.”
Spolum’s research during his fellowship will focus on the role that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and geospatial analysis can play in evidence-based policymaking and economic planning.
“Rather than relying on laborious and costly on-the-ground surveys, you’re getting very precise, detailed data that allow you to make intelligent, efficiency-driven decisions with respect to economic policy and planning,” he said.
During the MIDP program, Spolum’s research centered around environmentally sustainable hydropower development and corporate social responsibility strategies designed to enhance rural communities’ resilience to socio-economic and climatic shocks.
“The program gave me a cutting edge, cross-sectoral and holistic understanding of the complex development challenges I’m hoping to address in Myanmar,” he said.
He applied to the MIDP program in 2009, drawn by Duke’s strong reputation and the program’s focus on practitioners.
“The curriculum is tuned to mid-career professionals with on-the-ground experience, mature networks, passion and knowledge,” he said. “I wanted actual tools to do my work, not just development theory.”
Spolum has more than seven years of experience in Southeast Asia. Prior to attending Duke, he served as assistant director of a Bangkok-based business and risk consultancy. He also worked as an independent development consultant, partnering with multinational energy companies, grassroots communities, international NGOs, the World Bank as well as the Thai and Tanzanian government on issues such as rural electrification, renewable energy policy, climate change adaptation and forestry management.
A native of Colorado, Spolum earned a bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies from St. Olaf College in Minnesota in 2004.
The Fulbright Program, one of the most prestigious international educational exchange programs worldwide, was created in 1946 to promote mutual understanding between the U.S. and other countries. The program has provided almost 310,000 participants with the opportunity to study, teach and conduct research abroad.