Daniel Barjum MPA/ID 2019 bridges economic theory and practice to impact the energy sector in Honduras.
Before landing at Harvard Kennedy School in the fall of 2017, Daniel Barjum MPA/ID 2019 spent six years advising two successive vice presidents of his native Honduras on energy-related issues. In his roles, he examined the sustainability of and investment in the energy sector, fostered renewable energy resources, and analyzed the impact of tariffs. He gained a valuable understanding of how economics work—and how they don’t—in a developing country.
Skilled in numbers and logic from his electrical engineering background, Barjum realized he wanted to pursue more formal training in economics so he could translate theory into practice. We spoke with Barjum as he wrapped up his courses in the Master in Public Administration in International Development (MPA/ID) program to learn more about his trajectory.
Q: How did someone with a degree in electrical engineering end up working for the government and focusing on the energy sector?
After I graduated from Purdue University in 2010 with a degree in electrical engineering, I was unexpectedly offered an opportunity to work for the government of Honduras. The office I worked for oversaw the priorities of the administration, and one of those priorities was energy. For one project, we analyzed the impact of a new electric energy tariff put in place by the national power company. What I had learned in school was theoretical systems, but the reality of what I was doing was economics. I realized I wanted to learn even more about economics and how things like tariffs and subsidies could make an impact in development.
Q: What made you decide to apply to the MPA/ID program at HKS?
Working for the government, I saw value in understanding how development works. I noticed a skill, what I call “economic intuition,” which was a very different mindset from what I had learned in engineering. Often, there’s a mismatch between what theory says will happen and what does happen. I wanted to learn how to identify what the underlying economic reasoning or implications of a policy might be. Bridging theory with practice is at the core of development work, and I knew that understanding how to do this would be important for me. And so, I applied to HKS.
Q: Were there any courses that made a particular impact?
The structure of the MPA/ID program is truly amazing. Each class relates to the others really well. I had several “aha!” moments during my time here. The course “Economic Development: Theory and Evidence” produced one of these “aha!” moments for me. [Former Professor of Practice] Lant Pritchett and [Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy] Dani Rodrik really challenged preconceptions about development. One example is the concept, “Anything Q can do, P can do better.” The message here is that even though economic theory says that Pricing (P) mechanisms can have the same effect as Quantity (Q) setting mechanisms, in practice we observe that setting a price produces better results than setting limits on quantities, hence “anything Q can do, P can do better.” [Edward S. Mason Senior Lecturer in International Development] Matt Andrews was my advisor, and he was the one who taught me to ask: How can we use data to shed light on the sector? His course, “Getting Things Done: Management in a Development Context,” helped me put in perspective how management and projects get accomplished in the development space. Jie Bai [Assistant Professor of Public Policy) is also an amazing professor, and her courses “Advanced Microeconomic Analysis II” and “Firms, Markets, and Economic Development” had a big influence on how I look at development work and policies.
Q: Tell us about how you used data to inform your Second Year Policy Analysis (SYPA), the capstone project in the MPA/ID curriculum.
The SYPA gives us the opportunity to focus deeply on a development issue and formulate technically correct, administratively feasible, and politically supportable policy recommendations. Yalda Amini MPA/ID 2019, my SYPA partner, and I worked with the government of Honduras to mine data as a way to examine challenges in the electricity sector. We found that the state-owned power company deals with electricity loss due to inefficiency in distribution infrastructure and lack of metering; it’s either not measured, or there is outright theft by people connecting to distribution sources directly. We also discovered a problem in the collections process: There is a low level of collecting on bills in the commercial and government sectors, but not in the residential and industrial sectors. These factors contribute to the total debt of the electric company, which at $2.2 billion is 9.9 percent of the GDP of Honduras. For a small country like Honduras, this affects the financial health of the entire country—there are macroeconomic implications. We had enough data to identify issues and recommend a pilot program.
Q: What’s next for you?
The MPA/ID program has been exactly what I needed. The program is rigorous and quantitatively focused, and I also had the opportunity to focus on economic and development theory. I’m leaving HKS with a practical, holistic skillset to tackle development challenges. I hope to work in the United States for a while before going back to Honduras to apply what I’ve learned to make an impact in my home country. I am still searching for the right role after graduation. I like the work of think tanks, or “think and do tanks,” as I like to call them. They can combine research, policy, and implementation to test concepts in economic development. I like the practical, applied aspect of it, and now I feel like I have the right toolkit to be effective.