How I Got Here: Paolo Cernuschi

A conversation with
Paolo Cernuschi

Apr 9, 2020

Apr 9, 2020 • by Paolo Cernuschi

Paolo Cernuschi

  • Aid Program Administrator, Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation
  • Country Director, International Rescue Committee
  • Master in Public Policy candidate, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to follow my mother’s footsteps into business. My dad was a doctor, and the family moved from Italy to Zimbabwe in 1991, when I was six. He was working on a development project funded by the Cooperazione Italiana, the Italian version of USAID, providing technical assistance to local hospitals. After a couple of years, we decided to stay. My dad got into private practice, and my mother opened a business. She started by importing Italian floor tiles, and it just grew bigger, into food products, toys, and leather goods, even some exporting. I was in awe.

What was it like moving from Italy to Zimbabwe?

I loved it. It was a completely different environment. Looking back now, it seems more authentic. The first few years, we were in a small town about an hour and a half outside the capital, and after that, in Harare. I was the third of four brothers. It was less stressful than today. As a six-year-old, race didn’t actually register at all. I was in mixed schools, with mixed groups of friends. It was not until later that I started engaging with the implications of being part of a white minority in a black-majority country.

What languages did you speak?

In school, we spoke English, and I studied French. At home, we were forced to speak Italian. My grandmother, who would spend a few months a year with us, had been a teacher, and we took classes with her to make sure we could read Italian literature properly. I hated it then but was grateful afterward because it kept us truly bilingual.

What happened to your plans for business?

I finished high school in the early 2000s, at the peak of President [Robert] Mugabe’s disastrous policies. I loved Zimbabwe, but it was clear to me that if I was going to study business, it had to be somewhere else. I ended up doing an undergraduate business degree in Dubai. Afterward, a family friend who was expanding his health-care business in South Africa asked me to help with the planning, and it seemed liked fun, so I said yes. I worked there for six months, then looked around for other opportunities. I had interned with a management consulting firm in Dubai, and I arranged to take a job there after a few weeks’ break. That was in mid-December 2004. On December 26, a tsunami hit Southeast Asia. It was all over the news, and I wanted to do something useful during my break, so I reached out to my parents’ humanitarian networks to see if anybody needed help. A small Italian NGO said yes, and so I went off to Sri Lanka to volunteer for a month. Fifteen years later, I’m still doing the same job.

What did you do in Sri Lanka?

I showed up in Negombo and was told to handle finance and administration for the NGO’s field operations. But as with any humanitarian response, there’s what you’re tasked with doing, and then there are the 27 other things that you end up doing. Two things struck me immediately. The first was that the work was more fulfilling than anything I’d ever done. The job had a purpose—it was doing something good—and that appealed to me more than sitting in an office writing reports for a management consulting firm. The second thing was how inefficient the NGO sector was. Having just come out of business school, I knew what good processes should be like, and I was extremely frustrated by what I saw around me. I said to myself, “Your business background could be put to better use and have more of an impact here.” So after a couple of weeks, I wrote to the guys in Dubai and said, “Sorry, this isn’t happening.”

How long were you in Sri Lanka?

I worked for a year with that organization, and then I stayed for another year, working for the Italian embassy to provide finance and administrative support for NGOs getting funding from the Italian government. Then a former supervisor asked me to join him in Lebanon working with NGOs handling the aftermath of the 2006 conflict with Israel, and I ended up spending two years at the Italian mission in Beirut, doing information and communications for the post-conflict rehabilitation program sponsored by the Italian government. 

What did that involve?

Some of it was directed back home, bringing in Italian journalists to tell the story of where their taxes were going. Some of it was local, working with Lebanese newspapers and other media outlets to tell the story of what Italy was doing in their country—both to facilitate our efforts and to make sure Italy got credit for them. We funded irrigation projects, school reconstruction, agricultural activities, water and solid waste management, post-trauma psychosocial support. It was great to see smart projects actually change lives. And it was deeply frustrating to see other projects that were obviously poor uses of scarce resources. I said to myself, “If we can do it well in some cases, why can’t we do it well in all of them?”

What came after Lebanon?

In 2008, I went back to Zimbabwe for a visit. This was at the peak of hyperinflation, and the situation seemed beyond saving. I can’t explain it, but something told me the country was about to hit bottom, and that there would be an upward trend afterward. I realized I wanted to be part of that reconstruction, that rebuilding of my home. I’d been away for almost a decade, and it was time to go back. So I gave my boss in Lebanon six months’ notice. I had nothing lined up, but in a stroke of luck, just before I got home, I landed a position with an NGO offering capacity building to the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health, managing a health-care program funded by the Italian government.

Is capacity building the same thing as training?

I see training as a subset of capacity building. When you say “training” to me, what comes to mind is putting someone in a classroom and telling them how to do something. What we were doing was shadowing officials and pointing out how they could do their work better—budgeting, forecasting, whatever. Sometimes, it was helping nurses from rural health centers get attached to bigger hospitals, so they could learn new skills and take them back to their clinics. It was a good program.

Small things can be critical. The Ministry of Health, for example, wanted to gather the health management teams from the district we were responsible for every six months, to coordinate strategy and make sure everybody was on the same page. But the government was so broke, it couldn’t afford bus fare and lodging to bring 50 people in for a meeting. We paid for that. It wasn’t a technical intervention, but it went a long way toward helping the district move cohesively and effectively to, for example, roll out antiretroviral treatments for HIV/AIDS.

How did you come to the International Rescue Committee?

The Italian government effectively went broke and ceased making payments to NGOs on already approved contracts, so that project ended earlier than expected. I did a series of short-term missions in South Sudan with the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then came back to Zimbabwe. And after a couple of months, a spot opened up at the IRC. I actually misread the position description; I thought it was a project manager job. But during the interview, I realized it was a level up from that, managing the project managers. I debated telling the interviewer but decided to wait and see what happened, and somehow, I landed it.

Did you have impostor syndrome?

I was terrified from day one. I got over it eventually. But walking into the office the first day, almost every person reporting to me had more experience. They had been running programs for a decade and more, and suddenly I come in and take charge. It was tough. I told myself, “I’m going to make it work.” Every position I’d taken had always been a stretch, so I took comfort from that. My advantage, given my previous experiences, was knowing how all the different parts of the operation worked together—finance, logistics, communication, and so forth. I just had to learn how to manage them all in the field. My boss was wonderful. He said, “Go in and be yourself. It’s okay not to be the smartest or most knowledgeable person in the room. That just means you have a good team. And you’ve inherited an amazing team. Let them provide the technical input, and you put the pieces together and make sure everyone works in sync toward a common goal.” So that’s what I did, and it worked well.

What programs did you manage?

The IRC had come to Zimbabwe in 2008 in response to a cholera epidemic. We drilled and rehabilitated wells, supported medical clinics, and promoted hygiene and sanitation to prevent the spread of waterborne diseases. Eventually, we also started looking beyond that, to what you might call the early recovery phase, as communities emerged from crisis and tried to get back on their feet. We built value chains and helped small farmers produce goods for market. We also had some governance programs. One involved bringing together local officials from different parties to develop common community priorities. That worked really well. It taught me that a lot of problems can be resolved at the local level—it was national partisan politics that had put a spanner in the works.

Your next big project was trying to jump-start rural economic development in the absence of a functioning national government or economy. How did that go?

We did a market analysis to see what products and services were needed, what was currently being produced, and where there were gaps that could be filled or barriers that could be removed. Our first effort was with chili peppers. They could grow in our area, and there was a company in Zimbabwe that was willing to export them. So we brought 50 farmers together into a group and arranged to have the company purchase the chilies they grew. The firm set up a grinding mill and provided seedlings and fertilizer on credit, in return for guarantees that the farmers would sell the chilies to them at the prearranged price and repay the loans. It took months of back-and-forth until we could build enough trust between the two sides to get it going. But once we did, the project was so successful, it grew to include 200 households.

It sounds like you were teaching basic capitalism.

You could put it that way. And it worked, very well. So we took that experience and replicated it in different contexts. We decided to bring the elements of all our programs together in a coordinated effort to build local economic capacity. Our goal was to develop functional economic networks that would increase communities’ resilience to climate change. The district of Beitbridge, in rural Zimbabwe, for example, is one of the most arid areas in the world. Some parts will get only two inches of rain per year. Life is very difficult there, and climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of droughts. We tried to generate revenue and increase community resilience under those conditions.

For example, we helped farmers diversify their sources of income so they could survive a bad year. We saw potential in a sweet indigenous fruit called marula, which grows well in the local climate, even during droughts. Elephants love to eat it after it has fermented on the ground a while; they get drunk. People, too: it’s made into a popular liqueur, Amarula. We realized there was a lot of marula fruit just lying around and decided to produce jam. We helped a group of local women start a small cooperative, and now they not only consume the fruit off-season but also sell it in town and beyond. That project has worked remarkably well, even with all the challenges.

What do the locals think about your efforts?

They are very appreciative, but sometimes they have unrealistic expectations that you will swoop in and fix all their problems. On every trip to the field, there will be some point when you’ll get the laundry list: “We need this, and this, and this, and this.” The aid industry has often been complicit in creating dependency, coming in and providing everything that’s needed. At the IRC, we try to fight that. We see development as a joint responsibility, not just a problem for the government or aid agencies but also one for the communities themselves.

Tradition can be a problem. Some of the hardest conversations have to do with cattle. In many parts of southern Africa, your status in the community is directly related to the number of cattle you own, from a few to a few hundred. A cow can sell for several hundred dollars, and so a herd represents a large stock of potential investment capital. But it is incredibly hard to have a conversation, particularly with men, about selling any cattle, even to pay for measures necessary to save the rest of the herd. They’ll often prefer to take their chances and hope to get lucky rather than deliberately sacrificing their social status now in an effort to regain it later. You can acknowledge that it’s ultimately their decision. But it’s your obligation as a development professional to try to help them understand that there are better ways of herd management than hoping for rain, and that if they adopt those better ways, they will be less likely to need food handouts when the next drought comes.

The IRC puts a particular focus on helping women and girls. How does that play out?

In two ways. We have specific programs that target women and girls, such as preventing gender-based violence during humanitarian crises. And then there is arguably the even more important challenge of narrowing the gender gap across all programs that we do. Women start out livelihood programs at a disadvantage, for example, because they have traditionally been relegated to raising kids and looking after the house and garden, not making decisions about money and business. Some of the most challenging conversations we have involve how to empower women without threatening men (which could lead to increased household violence). Specific programs always depend on the local context. In Zimbabwe, one effort that worked was getting groups of women to join village saving schemes. The groups would get together weekly, with each member contributing a small set amount of money and the pooled funds being loaned out to members for collectively sanctioned projects.

Did you manage any humanitarian relief operations?

Yes. The latest was in 2019, when Cyclone Idai hit the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. There were a quarter of a million people affected and over 300 dead. We started with the absolute basic necessities—delivering food, making clean water available to the affected communities as quickly as possible, and protecting women. Whenever people are displaced in the aftermath of a natural disaster, there is inevitably trauma and sexual abuse. So we distributed dignity kits, with female hygiene products, flashlights, and other items, and set up safe spaces for women to talk to qualified medical staff. After that, we started planning for how to deliver cash to people quickly.

Tell me about giving cash.

I could talk for hours about cash transfers, but the basic idea is that you let beneficiaries decide what they need. Assuming that local markets are functioning—a big assumption that you have to validate first—we give money rather than stuff and let the locals make their own purchases. This has huge advantages over traditional forms of aid. First, it preserves people’s dignity. Instead of lining up to get a bag of maize or flour as a handout, they can walk into a shop and buy what they need like regular customers. Second, it allows flexibility and efficiency. Somebody might need two bags of flour, but somebody else might prefer to buy one now and spend the rest of the money on school or medicine. And finally, it keeps markets and local businesses operational after a crisis. Cash transfers should definitely be adopted more widely.

Are you still trying to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the NGO sector?

Yes! Every program the IRC implements is either based on evidence or generates it. We offer cash transfers, for example, not on a whim or a gut feeling but because research and analysis has demonstrated their effectiveness in certain situations. We draw on evidence to design our projects and study them after to learn generalizable lessons. That sounds obvious, but it’s remarkable how rarely it is done, in any policymaking context. I love working for the IRC because they deliberately ask, “Is this the right way to do it?” And sometimes the answer is no. We’ve tried projects, done an evaluation, and learned they didn’t work. Fine. Next time, try something else.

What’s an example of something that didn’t work?

We had a governance project, training community leaders on their roles and responsibilities. It was funded through USAID and designed as a controlled test. We trained some village heads individually and others alongside another community leader. It turned out that training people on their own had no impact on governance practices but training them alongside others led to big improvements. The researchers concluded that it was crucial to have somebody other than the village head understand what the powers and responsibilities of that position were, so the village heads could be held accountable. It was reasonable to assume that giving officials individual training would be useful, but the assumption didn’t stand up to empirical evidence.

I think we’ve learned a lot in the past decade or two about what works and what doesn’t. Development aid is hard, and humanitarian aid is even harder. There will inevitably be failed projects, just like there are lots of failed businesses. But we are getting better at reducing the number of unsuccessful projects and increasing the proportion of successful ones.

What did a typical day visiting the field look like?

Get up at the crack of dawn, to get on the road early. Drive many hours to the project area and check in and schmooze with local official stakeholders, so they know about the program and support it. Then start visiting project sites, such as farms or cooperatives. You ask a few leading questions and then listen to the stories. It’s when people start talking that you realize what their issues are and what problems you need to work through. You might visit an irrigation scheme and check on trenches for new piping or a farm where new crops are being grown. After several of those, it’s back to the office for conversations with the team to discuss what everybody saw, what can be done to support or improve the projects, and what support the team needs to succeed.

The obstacles we talk about are things most people in developed countries can’t imagine. There you take utilities for granted. Flick a switch, a light turns on; open a tap, water comes out. That’s not how it works in the field. You have to plan for having power only six hours a day or emergency supplies of drinking water. Bureaucrats hold up authorizations. Goods don’t get delivered because the supplier’s truck breaks. Each problem has to be painstakingly unpacked and addressed, because it’s your job to make sure that everything works properly. And then there’s everything else: fundraising, communications, designing new programs.

Well, at least you get high status, high pay, and lots of vacation.

[Chuckle] I don’t remember the last time I took more than a week of complete vacation. There’s always just too much going on. People in this line of work don’t do it for the pay or the perks. If we wanted that, we’d be in finance or business. We do it because it’s amazing. It’s incredibly challenging, but it is undoubtedly the most rewarding career that I can think of. You get up every day and ask, “How can I make the most positive impact on people’s lives?” Maybe a doctor might feel as good. But nobody else.

You went from Zimbabwe to the Wilson School at Princeton, to study what you had just been doing. Who knows more about development, the academics or the practitioners?

Academics think in broad, general frameworks, and it has been very helpful to see how all the things I’ve been doing fit into a larger picture. But sometimes they’ll write a 40-page paper to come to a conclusion I could have told them after reading the first sentence of their abstract. 

What are you proudest of in your career?

When I was heading up IRC efforts in Yemen in November 2017, the Saudi-led coalition blockaded the country, cutting off all access to humanitarian and commercial supplies for weeks. The entire humanitarian community protested that, and since we were one of the largest agencies working in Yemen at the time, I felt we had to take the lead. After some difficult conversations, we opted for being vocal and sounding the alarm about the humanitarian disaster the blockade would cause. The noise we and others made was heard, and soon [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump issued a statement calling on the Saudis to allow the resumption of humanitarian supplies, which they did a few days later. It was a huge win for the people of Yemen.

And your greatest regrets?

I don’t think I have any career regrets. Everything has luckily fallen into some sort of logical sequence that has allowed me to get to where I am today, having the chance to spend a year studying at Princeton and then go back to run aid programs in another country in crisis somewhere.

Any advice for those starting out?

To anybody in the aid world, stick with it. It is an amazing career. There will be times when you’re stuck someplace in the field, eating rice and beans for weeks on end, when you'll say, "What the hell am I doing with my life?" But stick with it, the rewards far outweigh the challenges. And for everybody, try to push the boundaries of what you think you can do. The more you feel in your comfort zone, the more you should try to step outside it. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.