EJB Talks Podcast

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth, Ph.D.

EJB Talks New Faculty Spotlight: Administration Matters – How Bureaucracies Can Help Solve Water Issues in the Global South

March 7, 2023

On this episode of EJBTalks, Stuart Shapiro welcomes one of our new professors in our nationally-ranked Urban Planning ProgramAndrea Restrepo-Mieth. Her time in Colombia as a child to her graduate studies and her time in Southeast Asia led to her path working on water issues in the global South. She also describes her current focus on the impacts of climate change on water and water systems. They discuss good bureaucrats, and how planners and policymakers with the right technical, social, political, and economic tools — like our students at Bloustein — can make a difference by addressing and working towards solving issues like those Andrea studies. They conclude by talking about her current research, including an upcoming trip to the Galapagos Islands this summer.

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Interim Dean of the Bloustein School, and the purpose of this podcast is to highlight the work of colleagues and our alumni in the fields of policy planning and health are doing.

We are spending this, our eighth season speaking with our new faculty here at Bloustein. We hired 10 people last year in a wide array of fields as the episodes in this season will show. Today we’re speaking with one of our new professors in our world-ranked Urban Planning Program, Professor Andrea Restrepo-Mieth. Welcome, Andrea.

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
Thank you, Dean. I’m delighted to be here.

Stuart Shapiro
So I usually start with, you know, a very sort of particular, how’d you get interested in x, but I was reading your work. I was like, oh, I want to ask about that. And I want to ask about that. And so we might have a couple of those questions to start out. But let me start with, how did you get started thinking about and working on water issues in the Global south?

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
Yeah, so I guess there’s a, it’s um, it’s not an easy answer. And that there are a few different moments, it’s kind of like a play where you have different acts. The first act would be when I moved to Colombia as a child. And there was a drought going on. Colombia is a country that relies heavily on hydropower. And so it was a combination of, you know, electricity shortages and water shortages. And, and also just realizing the fact that not everyone had access to water the same way. And so I guess that was what kind of put the seed in my head.

And then I would say, like, the second act for this was when I was doing my master’s. I was interested, I was looking for some kind of policy issue that really interested me. And I found that water was one of them. And in taking a water policy course, and an infrastructure policy course, I realized water was just fascinating.

Stuart Shapiro
Uh-huh.

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
You know, it has a microeconomics of how you set up tariffs. It has a lot of politics. And so how do you go about deciding who gets access to what. Obviously has a very important, you know, social implication, social justice implications, incredibly important environmental questions behind it. And so I would say that was kind of like the second act.

And I guess now it’s this third act, where I’m focusing a little bit more on climate change and water. And, yeah, I love it, there’s a little bit of everything when you think about water and water issues.

Stuart Shapiro
And if you know, and my knowledge of it mostly comes from reading the papers, but it seems to me that this is an issue that, is always important, as you’ve noted from your childhood, but it’s just going to grow and grow in importance, as climate change becomes more of a reality. You know, I read about the American West, and that fascinates me, and the water challenges that are going to come there, but I am sure that that’s the case around the world. This is just going to grow in importance and, and the magnitude of thinking about what we have to do about it.

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
Absolutely. And there are so many elements, right? I mean, we tend to think about water as surface water, right? But groundwater is increasingly becoming polluted or also running out… not running out, per se. But, you know, we start we’re starting to have issues with our water table throughout the world. And so, yeah, it’s increasingly becoming something that we have to pay more and more attention to.

And you know, planners and policymakers are in a good position, we have the right technical and social and political and economic tools to actually be at the forefront of trying to devise strategies to address it.

Stuart Shapiro
Right, if we can get it done. And if we can implement it, of course. And that brings me to my next question, which is, you’ve, you’ve thought a lot about sort of the role institutions play, and that’s something that has always interested me in policy generally. But you know, in your world, how did that sort of spring from your research and this focus on institutions?

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
So it was precisely from looking at these issues with water, and I mentioned before in Colombia, but the second part, that second act that I said, when I was doing my masters that was in Southeast Asia. And so I was looking at water in Singapore which has a very interesting water story. I was working in Laos and Cambodia. And so, you know, it’s a lot of different regimes. And so I started trying to look at okay, “what, what explains some places like Singapore, or Medellín in Colombia, having different outcomes and different water stories than places like Laos?

And I realized that you know… I could have taken a lot of different routes, right, I could have done history and looked at the colonial history of these places or… But I realized that given the kind of questions that I was interested in asking, institutions were better avenues for trying to understand that. So, what kind of codified rules do we have? How are they being enforced? And when you look at the global South, you realize that those matter. But it’s the informal institutions, or how the informal institutions come into play with those formal institutions, that tell you and give you a little bit more richness and a little bit more of an ability to analyze and understand what’s going on.

So it was basically just from looking at the environment, and by environments and like the social environments.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
And what was happening and realizing, you know, understanding how institutions come to be and change is something that might give me better leverage in order to see what I’m ultimately interested in, which is having these better outcomes, these more socially progressive and environmentally sustainable outcomes.

Stuart Shapiro
So what works? You know, what characteristics of institutions are more likely to position themselves to successfully address these issues?

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
That’s, that’s a good question. That’s a really good question.

Stuart Shapiro
And you are probably gonna spend the next 10 years thinking about it…

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
Exactly. But I have already done some thinking about it. You know, it’s going to sound what I’m going to say first is going to sound like a cop-out. But it is true. One element is that it’s very context-dependent. The second one is that even when we think about institutions and changing institutions, who are in leadership matters.

Putting that aside, I do find that there are some elements within institutions or in trying to change institutions that are more conducive to having these more positive outcomes, right? So for example, civil society, how involved is civil society? What kind of relations do bureaucrats and those that work in the state have with citizenry, right? Are there abilities to exchange, and are there channels to exchange information to get information from the ground that might help you make better decisions? What kind of national local dynamic is there, right? Because you can have a lot of interesting work happening at the local level, but national governments still mandate a lot of actions. Either through legal frameworks or through funding, for example, right?

But I find that at the local level networks matter. You know, what kind of bureaucrats do you have? And that’s why places like the Bloustein School where we are training people with the… having the right mix of technical skills of theoretical skills of ability to go and think about the world, and you know, methods. All of that matters, because your bureaucrats and your people working for government truly matter when it comes to enforcing institutions in a way that’s more progressive, or changing them from the inside.

You know, how we go about setting them up all the administrative structure of an institution matters? How do we communicate it, you know, that the ability to create these narratives and to, you know, what economists call nudging, But creating these narratives and being able to communicate to people, what the objective is, or why we’re doing what we’re doing, all of that matters when it comes to changing institutions and, and replicating them in a way that leads to a more progressive outcome.

Stuart Shapiro
It’s fascinating to me to hear you talk about that, because, I live in the regulatory world when I’m not “Deaning” and such here in the United States and the regulatory world here in the US. And I mean, all of those things you mentioned are relevant. I mean, political, you know, leaders do matter. People do matter.

And also… the Biden Administration right now is thinking a lot about how does it… how does it democratize participation? Because participation tends to be by the elites, it tends to be by industry tends to dominate and, and those with resources. And how do you do that? And that’s not an easy question to answer and to set up a system where participation is truly democratic. But that bureaucrats, as you said, still get the information they need, is not an easy balance to strike.

And how do you avoid burnout also, from communities? As someone who has worked with communities and who has studied bureaucrats working with communities… And I say bureaucrat, by the way, in the best way of the word.

I am with you on that, one hundred percent.

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
Right. I am mentioning that because sometimes people think of bureaucrats like, you know, our worst image of the person who has….

Stuart Shapiro
That’s right, the person at the DMV. Yeah.

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
Exactly!! And it’s so unfortunate, because, you know, these are people who are very talented. Most of them are very talented, are truly… I mean, they’re in these jobs, because they do truly believe in the power of the state to do better and they want to actually through the state make positive change. But it’s difficult, right? It’s difficult both for the bureaucrat who was going there and who was trying to keep communities engaged, who might not be getting all the resources that he or she needs in order to deliver. And so communities start getting upset because you know, “we, we keep giving you information telling you what’s happening, but you’re not implementing anything we don’t see, we don’t see progress and years go by and things don’t change.” And so it’s difficult for both parties.

And I think that again, it’s a, you said it yourself, but it’s not to cop out. But, champions do matter. Leadership does matter. And so it’s, it’s really… It’s interesting though when you have leadership changes and bureaucrats that are ready to seize the moment.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
And so that’s one area that I’m always interested in studying in these transitions, what happens during transitions. Because that’s when bureaucrats can say, “you know, this is a window of opportunity, or this is a small, you know, I have a chance to maybe do a little change here or try to bring this to the attention of the new leadership and see if we can make progress and what I’ve been working on for years.”

Stuart Shapiro
They’re very Kingdon. They’re the window opens in the policy entrepreneur, within the bureaucracy seizes the chance there. I don’t want to get too wonky, though. So let me dial it… although the temptation is there. ((laughing))

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
I know!! (((laughing)))

Stuart Shapiro
So you did mention, you know, our students, and you did talk about how, bureaucrats matter, the people in these positions matter. So how do you find that your findings in this research and your general perspective on this effect, you know, you in the classroom, and what you want our students to learn and to come out of their masters or doctoral or undergraduate training with as they possibly go into those kinds of careers?

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
So for me, and I think the answer will definitely change as years go on…. At this moment, for me, what it really means is emphasizing to my students, the importance of reflection. And so you know, using different types of pedagogical tools, for example, to have students roleplay, or do simulations, or give them case studies, different scenarios where they can try to put themselves in a position and think, “What would I do in this case?” “Or how would I go about approaching this?”

And then really bringing home the fact that when you are in your professional life, you really need to start really to be thinking about what happened. Why did it happen, right? What organizational theory has been called, double-loop learning or triple-loop learning? And again, also not to get too deep in the weeds here, but the idea of reflecting and using that reflection, to ask not just how I do things differently, but why did things happen the way they did, and how can I change them to make, change, not just in the procedure, but broader change? And so that’s one element.

The other element is really emphasizing for students the importance of thinking about our institutional setups but thinking about the economic dynamics, the political dynamics, and how do you as a planner, or as a policymaker, insert yourself in there. How do you position yourself in order to try to find opportunities to change things?

Stuart Shapiro
Right. And, you know, as I talked to recent alums, and we’ve had some on here that are enormously successful and navigating these dynamics. But, I’ve also talked to some that get frustrated, and, you know, it’s, “Oh, it doesn’t work the way I had hoped it worked. I feel like it’s part of our job, to also prepare them for frustration, and to let them know that, that’s part of the job. It’s true if you get your MBA and go into a corporation, but it’s particularly true, if you’re in the fields that we’re in, you have to learn to deal with frustration as well.

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
Absolutely. And, you know, governments and states are slow-moving animals. And I think that I think the trick there is trying to remember that there is… I mean, if we think about our government, the way they look today, and how they looked maybe 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, we do see that we have been moving in the direction, I would think of mostly positive change, right? And so, you know, that doesn’t happen without people putting in the work. Right. And so, trying to remember that there are opportunities. But again, it is frustrating. I mean, you can’t just deny that.

Stuart Shapiro
It’s hard to tell someone well, you know, over the 100 years, it’s gonna move forward. Most of us don’t have that kind of time. ((Laughing)) So that…

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
((Laughing)) Exactly. It’s a two-step forward, one-step back.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
And that’s the other part that’s very frustrating. Like, you may see a lot of really interesting changes happen. And then, you know, governments change, as people in power change or the economic conditions around you change. And then it’s one step back. And, and then, of course, it’s frustrating. Yeah, it’s a challenge.

Stuart Shapiro
And your career has to be timed such that if you get in and you start with that one step back, you aren’t deterred. If you get in at that time, when the one step back occurs, then, know to stick it out, because the two steps forward, hopefully, are coming down the line.

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
Exactly. Better days will come.

Stuart Shapiro
That’s right. So where do you see your work going from here?

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
I think it’s just a natural progression of what I’ve been doing and a little bit more of the same, slightly different. So right now I’m working on two projects. One of them is looking…. I have an interest … within water affordability is one of the areas I’m interested in. So I have a project that I’ve been working on looking at why do customer assistance programs emerge at the sub-national level? And so it makes sense, like in a place like the states, you know, we have a federal system. And so we do see that happen, right? But why does it happen in the Global South? And so I’m studying the case of Colombia, where the national government did not pass a customer assistance program. But the municipal government, many municipal governments did. And so I’m trying to understand why do some, have it on the books and implemented. Why do some just have it on the books? And why do some that have the money and could be implementing them don’t even get started? So that’s one research project.

And the other one, and I’m really excited about this, not that I am not excited about the Columbia one. But this is just something that I’ve been working on for a year and a half now, and I’m really excited to give it that extra push this summer, is looking at climate change adaptation and Galapagos. And so the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador is a place that looms large in our environmental imagination, right? We think about Darwin, and we think about the theory of evolution and conservation.

But we don’t think so much about that 3% of the land in the Galapagos that is devoted to human settlements, and the people living there. And so I have been working in one of those islands in San Cristóbal with the local government and with local communities, looking at service provision, water sanitation, and waste management in particular. And how do we think about the provision of those services now, but also, how do we think about them in light of climate change? Right? Of droughts or periods of extreme rain? And so I’m really excited to help them move that project forward.

Stuart Shapiro
Are you going out there this summer?

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
I am. Yes.

Stuart Shapiro
All right. Well, color me jealous there. I’m going to be at the Delaware shore. So I will be very jealous of you. ((laughing))

Thank you so much for coming on. It’s been a great discussion.

Andrea Restrepo-Mieth
Oh, Dean Shapiro, thank you for having me.

Stuart Shapiro
Also, a big thank you to Amy Cobb and Karyn Olsen, and the rest of our production team here. We will see you next week with another talk from another expert at the Bloustein School. Until then, stay safe.

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