Critical Reflections on the Career of a Development Practitioner

Perspectives in Global Development: Spring 2024 Seminar Series


Following 25 years living and working across the African continent, Peter Matlon, Ph.D. ’77 looks back at career challenges he encountered working as an educator, researcher, research manager, and ultimately as a donor and public goods investor, with the United Nation Development Program and The Rockefeller Foundation. He began his career with idealistic goals, naïve about the realpolitik of the development industry. Despite realizing deeply satisfying achievements in each career chapter, he describes his growing disillusionment with the mindsets and methods that characterize large parts of the economic and social development ecosystem. His talk examines the ambiguous historical context out of which modern development programs emerged, and presents some of the moral obstacles that he encountered at the geopolitical, institutional and inter-personal levels. Matlon concludes by suggesting soft skills and approaches that can help development practitioners retain at least some of their idealism and achieve meaningful impact, despite working in a far from perfect development context.

About the speaker

Dr. Peter Matlon has pursued a career in international development with a particular focus on African agriculture. He lived and worked in five African countries for more than 25 years. Among his positions were Principal Economist for ICRISAT in Burkina Faso; Director of Research for the West Africa Rice Development Association (now AfricaRice) in Cote d’Ivoire; Chief of Global Food Security for the United Nations Development Program in New York; and Managing Director for Africa Programs of The Rockefeller Foundation based in Kenya. Matlon also served on a number of global advisory panels including the United Nations Millennium Program Hunger Task Force and the InterAcademy Council Panel on African Agriculture. He chaired the United Nations Inter-Agency Working Group on Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems, and was Executive Secretary of the Impact Assessment and Evaluation Group of the CGIAR. After retiring from Rockefeller in 2007 he served as a member and chair of numerous boards for both US and African-based agricultural research organizations, and is currently an adjunct professor in Cornell University’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Matlon earned a PhD in agricultural economics from Cornell University in 1977, a Masters in Public Affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University in 1971, and a BSFS degree from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in 1967.

Perspectives in Global Development

The Perspectives in Global Development seminars are held Wednesdays from 12:20-1:20 p.m. eastern time during the semester. The series is presented in a hybrid format. All seminars are shown in 175 Warren Hall. Students, faculty and the general public are welcome to attend. The series is co-sponsored by the Department of Global Development, the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, and the School of Integrative Plant Science as part of courses GDEV 4961, AEM 4961, NTRES 4961, GDEV 6960, AEM 6960, and NTRES 6960.

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