By Elizabeth Foy Larsen
In 2011, Nayera Adly Husseiny (MDP ’19) was a student at Cairo University studying economics and political science when demonstrators took to Tahrir Square in the city’s downtown.
They were calling for the overthrow of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (who would resign the next month) and demanding an end to police brutality, corruption, and similar problems. More than 800 protesters died during the uprising and several thousand were injured.
Husseiny says witnessing firsthand the differences before and after the successful Egyptian revolt was galvanizing.
“I wanted to give back somehow,” she remembers of the days after the revolution. “My way of doing this was to get into the community and just help, to see whichever institution needed volunteers.”
She volunteered for two years with Educate Me, a nonprofit that promotes education research and best practices and operates a community school in a run-down section of Giza. After she graduated, they hired her for a staff position.
“I felt very privileged to leave my home in a middle-class neighborhood and take multiple forms of transportation until I reached a very deep part of that [impoverished] neighborhood,” she remembers. “I saw how different it was and how everything changed, from the form of transportation you were taking to what people were wearing, to how they were speaking to the basic services that were available to that community. I knew then that I wanted to work on equalizing [those differences]. I wanted to make sure that the services that are available for people [with] resources are available to the poorest of communities.”
Humphrey School's community-based approach a good fit
After her time at Educate Me, Husseiny joined the Egyptian charity Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, which provides economic and social aid in the country. A scholarship from Sawiris allowed Husseiny to continue her education at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Husseiny’s long-term goal was to work in education policy for the Middle East and North Africa office of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). She was drawn to J-PAL because she wanted to use rigorous data to support nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and policymakers.
The group, a global research center that uses scientific, evidence-based interventions to reduce poverty, is based at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has regional offices in Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.
The Humphrey School’s program let Husseiny tailor her curriculum with that goal in mind and earn a master’s degree in development practice.
“It’s unique to find the kind of philosophy for a social development program [that exists at the Humphrey School],” she says. “It was very community based. We asked questions about how to decolonize social development, and make sure it’s driven by people’s voices and gives them agency to make choices about what they need.”
'Dream job' is a reality
Today, Husseiny is in her “dream job” as an education policy manager at J-PAL’s office at the American University in Cairo, supporting government, donors, and practitioners in evidence-based educational reforms.
“All of the research commissioned by J-PAL is trying to see if social programs increase the participation of students,” she says. “What affects learning outcomes? How do you utilize teachers, curricula, and information technology to inform more learning?”
It’s work that touches everything from proper nutrition to support for new mothers.
At a presentation with the Egyptian Food Bank, the largest NGO in the country, Husseiny facilitated a workshop in which she presented J-PAL’s research.
“I’ll never forget the look on people’s faces. They wanted to know more,” she says of the moment the audience understood the relevance of J-PAL’s efforts to their work. “I think people sometimes perceive that research is too academic, too irrelevant to what’s happening on the ground. To see these people be so passionate about the information we were bringing and excited to start research projects with us was very memorable for me.”
This story was originally published in Minnesota Alumni magazine