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Global Development Institute

Fortunate Machingura

PhD in International Development and Policy Management

Fortunate Machingura completed her PhD in Development Policy and Management in 2016 at the Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value at GDI (then IDPM). She came back to GDI as a postdoctoral ESRC Global Challenges Research Fund Fellow earlier this year, and we talked to her about how and why she chose to do her PhD at GDI and what impact the funding from Leverhulme Trust had on her studies.

How did you end up studying your PhD at GDI?

I am a black African woman who grew up in a very resource-scarce context. I was born in Harare, and in the first few years of my life, I went to live with my grandparents in a rural area. So when we talk about rural poverty, it's something I've experienced myself - I've seen it, I've lived it. Upon the death of my grandparents, I moved to Victoria Falls to join my parents. It was very different - the huge contrast between the city and the rural context was very startling for me in those early years of my life. I had so many questions: how come my life with my grandparents was so different to this life? When you see something for the first time, you're excited but you also ask a lot of questions, about how you couldn't access it before and why. 

I did my high school in a very interesting girls school. I had this thing in me, that as a woman, coming from a very humble background, I should be able to make it, and education was the only way I could change my own life. But there was much more: not just my life, I wanted to change the lives of many others like me. And I knew that to do it, I needed to have a much more sharper mind to understand issues and narratives. 

My first degree was on nutrition - I had this inclination towards public health, and I wanted to understand the causes of mortality. I started working on HIV, and growing up in the 90s, I saw lots and lots of deaths. And again, it was: why them, and not them? Not everyone at that time who had HIV would die: those who were wealthy were able to extend their lives because they could purchase better care, better services. But those without, they died in their dozens, like flies. So losing family and friends, and without knowing what to do to change that, was not an easy thing growing up. 

So wanting to change that narrative, I wanted to be trained at one of the best institutions in the world. GDI was a natural option, and thanks to the Leverhulme Trust, I managed to get here. I did my PhD on allowable deaths and valuing human lives, because that has always been central to what I wanted to understand. So I got the opportunity to do exactly what I wanted to do: something that would not just help me study and gain a PhD, but something that would help me change lives, ultimately - my life and others. 

What did you do after graduating?

After defending my thesis, I started working with the Overseas Development Institute as a Research Fellow. It's such an amazing dynamic space for development. I was in the growth, poverty and inequality cluster, really engaging on poverty issues. My focus was mainly on SDGs, looking at the policy trade-offs in decision making, especially in the context of the 17 goals and 100+ indicators - how policymakers need to start thinking about making decisions that won’t cause negative impacts on the lives of the most marginalised populations. I've also looked at women's economic empowerment and the rising on-demand economy, such as online platforms for accessing work. I've also looked at migration and health, which I wrote a paper on, among other things like blogging. ODI has given me that space to start talking about this whole narrative from a research angle, but also packaging this information to a different kind of audience, mainly policymakers and development practitioners. At the same time, I’m still engaging with the Research Triangle Institute International, a big American research entity working with the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health and Childcare.

What are you doing now?

I am a postdoctoral fellow here at GDI, with funding support from the ESRC's Global Challenges Research Fund. I am mainly working on sharing the findings of my PhD with the world, and developing a new methodology for understanding what matters most to the most vulnerable populations in some of world's poorest countries. 

How has your PhD helped you in your professional life?

It's amazing what a PhD can do, you know. On a personal level, first it helps you to drop everything you know! So you learn to unlearn. And then you start building the pieces - piece by piece, it's like a broken glass and you've got to let that glass become a glass again that you can use to drink water with. And it's not an easy process. It opens up your mind, you become very critical in how you engage with everyday discourse - something I think that has changed me in so many ways, not just in how I engage professionally in my work and ask questions about why things are and how we get to know what we know, but also just how I see things now. I'm a very independent researcher, I'm able to go and do my own research and write a new narrative, something that contributes to knowledge.

Also, a PhD gives you opportunities to engage on different platforms: with a PhD you're recognised as knowledgeable in your area. People enjoy listening to people who have done good research, especially at reputable institutions. Given that GDI continues to be in the top most respected institutions in global development, my PhD is quite something. I'm really proud of being a product of this institution.

Would you have been able to complete your PhD without a scholarship?

Definitely not! I wasn't going to be able to fund myself - maybe for a year, that's it. Then I would have dropped out. The scholarship definitely made a huge impact in my life. Frankly, if it wasn't for the Leverhulme Trust, I don't think I would have been able to not just fund my own tuition but also, basic survival.

Why is it important to provide scholarships?

There's a very thin line between access to funding and knowing how to target that funding to those who need it the most. It's very unfortunate that in our context those who have access to the internet, who can buy data bundles, have access to information on where funding is - so if you're poor, you will remain in your little corner, not because you don't deserve it but because you don't have the means. I'm saying this because I am an African who found myself in this context (and there are so many other aspects to access to funding) but what I've found so unique about Leverhulme was that it targeted those very marginalised social groups. I'm one example who managed to get this.

What did you love best about GDI?

Two things: the first is my environment here. When I got to the UK - it was a very different culture, very different context, and the school environment is also very different so I didn't know what to expect - but coming to GDI... It's so diverse and very international! So it was very easy for me to feel at home, immediately. I just fit in. It's such a place that you just feel at home because you can identify. That was amazing for me.

The second aspect: my team of supervisors were unbelievably awesome. My primary supervisor, Prof Phil Woodhouse, was just fantastic. Dr Admos Chimhowu is absolutely phenomenal. Prof Sarah Bracking too - just an incredible team! And not just that team - you get to engage with other folks in the department. Everybody has an open door policy so you know that so-and-so is an expert on this, you just knock, get in and say, "Look, this is my issue, can you help me?" and they will set aside time for you - to engage with you on that, give you materials, and say, "Can you come back again?" That's amazing. 

Any advice for female students thinking about a PhD in development studies?

There are three things I always say to my friends: you're a woman; you want to get into development, influence decisions; or you want to get into academia - what's stopping you? Go for it. Be certain what you want to do, don't zig zag. Identify the right school – the best schools, and go for it. Apply! Do it! Don't question, don't wait for somebody to and say, "Do you think I should do it?" If you feel it, go for it.

You want to get into development? I think it's amazing, with development you actually deal with almost everything, you focus if you want, but you get the opportunity to explore so many areas from environment, disaster mitigation, health, politics, geography, architecture... It's all development. It's amazing, there's so much you can do. So go for it.

And you're female - you've got power, you can do it.