Washington College Magazine

Out Of Africa

July 25, 2013
Bill Burke ’00, a policy analyst at Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, made his first forays in agriculture policy as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Nestled on the west coast of Africa, the Republic of The Gambia snakes a long, thin line along the borders of the Gambia River to the Atlantic Ocean. Its climate is tropical, and when the wet season starts around June, the vegetation turns lush, and the river swells. It’s a far cry from Chestertown. And it’s where Bill Burke ’00 went to experience firsthand the complications between policies and their real-world application.

A double major in drama and economics, Burke points to a freshman seminar called “U.S. and the World Economy” as the impetus for his interest in global economics.

“It occurred to me that all these research reports we were reading and all the data we were studying, somebody had to collect,” says Burke. “That seemed like an interesting job to me.”

A few months later, Burke attended a family function for his then-girlfriend, where he got into a conversation with her brother-in-law about his newfound fascination. He suggested that Burke look into the Peace Corps. 

“Then, my senior year, I was talking to my economics advisor, Lisa Daniels, about what I wanted to do after I graduated. I told her I was thinking about the Peace Corps and a master’s in agricultural economics,” says Burke. “Come to find out, she’d been a Peace Corps volunteer and had a PhD in agricultural economics from Michigan State.

 “My Peace Corps assignment has its roots at WAC,” says Burke. “While taking a class called International Agricultural Development with Lisa Daniels, we attended a model meeting of the Organization for African Unity (OAU). The real OAU was the precursor to the current African Union.”

Model OAU participants were assigned a country to represent. Burke’s was The Gambia. So when the Peace Corps asked him for his top three preferences, he listed that nation first.

Burke spent his first six months in The Gambia working in community gardens and helping with women’s groups, but his primary focus was learning the local language, Mandinka. He sought out the only man within 15 kilometers who spoke English fluently, and studied with him for six hours a day. Four months later, Burke shifted focus to the local agriculture. 

“I took what I knew about what the local farmers were doing and did as much as I could to help people who were interested in improving their agricultural systems,” he says.  

After leaving the Peace Corps, Burke continued to follow in Daniels’ footsteps, enrolling at Michigan State University where he received his master’s and doctoral degrees in agricultural economics. As a doctoral student and faculty member, he moved to Lusaka, Zambia, where he worked as an outreach specialist on long-term assignment at the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute. 

In September 2012, Burke joined the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford University as a research scholar. There, he’s continuing his research on agricultural issues in the Guinea Savannah region of Africa. His primary focus is trying to assess the effectiveness and weaknesses of Zambia’s fertilizer subsidy program. 

“If it turns out it’s not profitable, which my preliminary work has shown, we take that information to agronomists and policymakers who work for the government in Zambia,” says Burke. “At the end of the day, you want to come up with policy recommendations that may be a change in the status quo, but could arguably make a big impact in the lives of the poor people in that country.” 

Last modified on Jul. 29th, 2013 at 1:02pm by Kristen Hammond.