International Studies & Programs

2022 International Awards: David L. Tschirley

Ralph H. Smuckler Award for Advancing International Studies and Programs at MSU

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Published: Wednesday, 23 Mar 2022 Author: Veronica Gracia-Wing

David L. Tschirley • Professor and Co-director, Food Security Group, Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics, College of Agriculture & Natural Resources 

Headshot of David L. Tschirley
David L. Tschirley

David L. Tschirley’s 33-year career at Michigan State University has been characterized by a commitment to long-term engagement in applied food security research, mentoring of developing country researchers and active policy outreach. He is dedicated to programmatic excellence through network building in Africa and beyond, and to scholarly excellence through peer-review and project-based publishing that influences development thinking and practice. Through this work and more, Tschirley is a deserving recipient of the Ralph H. Smuckler Award for Advancing International Studies and Programs at MSU.

Tschirley is a professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural, and Resource Economics, co-directs the department’s internationally renowned Food Security Group and directs the USAID-funded Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy Research, Capacity, and Influence (PRCI). He has generated over $30 million in external grant funding to collaboratively implement international research, policy analysis, and capacity building projects.

He has devoted three decades to building policy analysis capacity primarily in Africa. In Mozambique, Tschirley helped initiate a longstanding MSU project that involved creation of agricultural policy analysis centers at the Ministry of Agriculture and at Eduardo Mondlane University. In Zambia, he worked with the World Bank and Zambian institutions on cotton policy reform and brought this work and similar work in Mozambique to bear in a groundbreaking continent-wide assessment of cotton sector reform experience.  In Kenya, he has spent years supporting the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development at Egerton University, most recently helping them do cutting-edge research on food systems and nutrition.

Tschirley earned both a master’s and Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from Michigan State University. 

—An interview with David Tschirley—

What motivates your development economics and international food systems work?

I think my interest likely dates to spending kindergarten through third grade in Puerto Rico, attending a local school, and becoming fluent in Spanish. My father did some international travel for work and that always interested me. Then as an undergraduate I had an opportunity to volunteer summers in Latin America, and it was “off to the races.” I loved being in another culture, speaking another language, seeing completely different ways of living. Agriculture was in my family background, and development research in “Ag Econ” consistently caught my attention as I browsed the stacks in the library between classes. 

A group of Mozambique residents sit in chairs outside in a circle engaged in discussion.
A focus group in a village of Manica province, Mozambique, striving to understand changes in rural markets over the past decade.

Ultimately of course the motivation is to do something that matters in the world—something that improves people’s lives by helping improve the systems they live and work in. More directly, working with young colleagues and seeing them grow and then make a difference themselves in the world is a fundamental motivator. But in the end, it's also fun and interesting!

How has your approach to or understanding of international development evolved throughout the last 33 years?

My approach or understanding has changed in a couple ways. For one, you realize over time that problems are very complex, prescriptions rarely work out of the box. What does work is getting in the trenches and working with people to figure out how to make a difference. You need humility and a willingness to compromise creatively in search of solutions. 

Second, the setting in which we work has changed so dramatically. Many more people are well-trained and understandably want to be able to lead their own processes of change. So, increasingly we have to step into the background and facilitate, not lead from the front. 

“It has been satisfying to see our local colleagues lead in defining their priorities and building their own capacity and institutions—to see how people have come together to do great and meaningful work in a really collaborative way. In the end, that is what will last.”
What primary lesson would you share with your students as you reflect on your career?

One lesson I always share with students is that you are likely to spend your career finding new, creative and up-to-date ways of saying the same thing. While this is an exaggeration—the world absolutely does change and we have to change with it—it highlights the fact that many of the basics really don’t change. Many of the misunderstandings I saw 30 years ago continue to guide poor policy and program design. 

Why is international engagement important to you, and what do you hope your legacy is in this space? 

The scholarly mission of course is important, and I’m proud that I’ve been able to make some contributions in that area. But in the end, the most meaningful and lasting impact is in people. So I think back to my first engagement in Africa and how what I’m doing now toward the end of my career is coming full circle. 

My first experience in Africa was in Mozambique. I spent countless hours working with our local colleagues, just coming out of a war and everything that implied, to help build their skills in a way that contributed to their setting. We saw many people move up in their careers and make important contributions and we helped build systems that also made important contributions.  That was satisfying.

And now directing the Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy Research, Capacity, and Influence (PRCI), we had a chance to rethink how we designed our programs so that we could put real substance behind the claim of putting our local colleagues in the lead in defining priorities and building their own capacity. It has been fun and satisfying to see how people have come together to build their institutions and do great and meaningful work in a really collaborative way.  In the end, that is what will last and it's what I hope my legacy will be. 

Three smiling people stand in a concrete building in front bags of grain.
Conducting a focus group interview in a Ugandan village during a study for the World Food Program, circa 2010.
How has MSU shaped your career and your role as a Global Spartan?

MSU gave me a platform to do what I decided 40 years ago I wanted to do—to “do development” in a highly informed and constantly learning way.  In other words, to bridge the gap between academics and development. I didn’t necessarily see myself as a professor or traditional academic as I was doing my Ph.D. I just wanted to be in a position to do good and interesting work and to follow my gut and my training on how to do it.  I don’t think there is another university in the country where I could have done this the way I have at MSU, thanks to the legacy left by people like John Hannah and then the giants in agricultural economics who established the commitment and the way of working. 

I’m thankful to people like Harold Riley, John Staatz and Mike Weber who helped and mentored me early in my time as a student and young professional. Later, people like Eric Crawford and Tom Reardon have had big positive impacts on me, in very different ways. There are a lot of people you can learn from at MSU!

How would you encourage students and colleagues to engage in or promote international activities?

If you’re an undergrad, look for volunteer opportunities overseas. There are plenty, and you can learn a huge amount just by being in a real world setting overseas, working with and for regular people. And for everyone interested who has little experience, whether undergrad or grad student or faculty, find ways to get into the field so you can see first-hand how farms, markets and agricultural enterprises work.  If you don’t speak the language, go with someone who does and talk to everyone you can. Interview them about their life and their work—you’ll learn a ton. MSU has a huge number of faculty with lots of on-the-ground experience continuing to do research–hook up with them and offer your skills, but also be in learning mode.  I think it all starts with that real-world exposure. 

Nominated by: Eric W. Crawford, Professor, Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics, College of Agriculture & Natural Resources (on behalf of the AFRE Awards Committee)

“Dr. Tschirley has developed an international reputation for high-quality scholarship. His leadership contributions have steadily grown from directing in-country projects to serving as director and co-director of initiatives that support building of institutional capacity for policy research in Africa and Asia.” - Eric W. Crawford

The Ralph H. Smuckler Award for Advancing International Studies and Programs at MSU recognizes long-term distinguished achievement in the promotion of international activities (research, teaching, and outreach) by faculty and staff members at Michigan State University. The award is made to individuals who are recognized widely for having made major international contributions which enhance MSU’s education and public service functions both nationally and internationally.