Mpp '02, PhD '11
Economics Officer, Office of Evaluation and Oversight at the Inter-American Development Bank
BA in economics from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM)
At Harris Public Policy, Oliver Azuara Herrera, MPP ‘02, PhD ‘11, learned how to tackle the social problems that mattered most to him, found lifelong mentors, and fell in love with what he deems, “the greatest city in America.”
As an international student from Mexico City, Azuara Herrera entered Harris as an MPP student with a vague idea of what he wanted to do: combine his economics background with his public policy interests to make a difference in his country and its neighbors. Harris faculty, his courses, and his subsequent work experience helped him figure out the rest.
As part of the MPP program, Azuara Herrera says, he experienced “some of the most challenging, but ultimately, the most interesting years of [his] life.” He also connected with mentors with whom he still talks and emails, including Interim Dean Kerwin Charles, Deputy Dean Dan Black, and Professor James Heckman, and describes the faculty as “some of the most generous people who always respond and give excellent advice.” One of those mentors, Professor Robert LaLonde, has been a particularly important role model and supported him “more than anyone else in [his] life besides family.”
After earning his master’s degree in public policy, Azuara Herrera returned to his home country to work for the Mexican Federal Ministry of Social Development where he was intimately involved in designing strategies to expand the conditional cash transfer program to help alleviate poverty. Though Azuara Herrera enjoyed his work and was helping to move his country forward, he continued to be encouraged to further pursue his studies by his mentor and the director of the PhD program at the time, Robert LaLonde.
He says, “I kept hearing Robert’s words in my head about how important is to have really well prepared policy analysts in the governments of Latin America, so he convinced me to go back to get my PhD.”
With an MPP and PhD in his toolbox, today, Azuara Herrera is making his mark as a “good guardian of how things should be done” in governmental policy to reduce poverty and inequality, particularly in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. As an economics officer for the Office of Evaluation and Oversight at the Inter-American Development Bank, he evaluates the public policy initiatives of governments and sectors across Latin America in order to improve the lives of everyday people in areas like health, education, transportation, and infrastructure. He says, “the taxpayers are really the beneficiaries of our work and everything we do is public. “
Every aspect of Azuara Herrera’s work is infused with the lessons learned at Harris, particularly the crucial foundational step to good data analysis: asking the right question. “It’s incredibly difficult to tackle a social problem in reality,” he says. “Often, people don’t realize how easy is it to make causal claims. Every task that I undertake in my work requires being precise about the questions that guide those efforts. The training I received at Harris Public Policy trained me to do that and to know what instruments I need to answer those questions correctly with sound evidence.”
Though Azuara Herrera’s undergraduate background was in economics, he is grateful that he chose the public policy path over a PhD in economics.
“I think the biggest difference between an economics degree and one in public policy is that those of us with public policy backgrounds better understand the political aspect, the incentives of various stakeholders, and how that impacts policy design and implementation. A lot of policies fail because of competing interests. The advantage that Harris school graduates have is that we understand those incentives and interests. We know that it’s about more than just the economic and financial pieces. That informs our work and ultimately matters a lot.“
In addition to the rigorous preparation he received at Harris, Azuara Herrera says he is grateful to have been immersed in the City of Chicago. Though he has lived in major cities across the country including, New York City, DC, and Boston, he believes that Chicago is the “best and most exciting place to live in America.” Asked why, he replies, “Because you name it, Chicago has it. The coolest, smartest, nicest people. Great food. A cosmopolitan vibe. It’s a great place to raise a family. And, it’s not that expensive.”