From Paraguay to the Netherlands: growth & international cooperation

Mario Villalba Ferreira defended his master thesis on Inter-Municipal Cooperation this past November at the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies. Weeks after his defence, he started on his PhD research at IHS and the Erasmus Graduate School of Social Sciences and Humanities. Although he is just at the beginning of his doctoral trajectory, he has recently been invited to give lectures both at Harvard University in the USA and at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. We interviewed him to understand how he manages to get his research in the global spotlight.

Could you please tell us a bit about your background and how you decided to move from Paraguay to The Netherlands to study and research at IHS?

I was born in Asuncion, Paraguay and grew up there until 2004 when I received a full scholarship to finish my last two years of high school in Norway. Later, I received another full scholarship to study political science at the University of Richmond in Virginia, USA. After 6 years abroad in Europe and the USA, I moved back to Paraguay to start an urban movement which later became the Paraguayan Network for Sustainable Cities, a nonprofit organization working to inspire urban leaders and make cities more inclusive and sustainable. I also created a consulting business and became an advisor for local businesses and governments on sustainable development and urban management. However, after 7 years of work experience, I realized I needed to upgrade my academic training and transform my professional insights into scientific knowledge.

In 2014, I represented the Ministry of Planning as part of the official Paraguayan delegation to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Urban Development - Habitat III. There I participated in activities organized by the Dutch Delegation because the Netherlands has always been in my mind as a place of constant urban innovation. For me, the ideal place to study urban topics had to be somewhere I would learn not only in the academic setting but through my daily life. In the conference, I met IHS representatives who motivated me to apply to a Masters and PhD Programme in Rotterdam.  The IHS slogan “Making Cities Work” resonated with my passion and purpose in life. I felt it was the place to go next.

You are the first person who got accepted in a combined 1+3 program at IHS. How was that process for you?

I knew that I wanted to go beyond the Masters. However, at the time I only had my bachelor’s degree and for the PhD, it was a requirement to have a Masters. I contacted the administration and asked for an exception because I trusted in my abilities. I knew it was a long shot but I insisted. IHS came with a counter proposal and they opened a special application process to a combined 1+3 Masters and PhD program. IHS accepted my application to the PhD under the condition of successfully completing and achieving high grades in the Urban Management and Development Masters. After I defended my thesis in November 2018, I was offered full admission to the PhD.

How was your experience of the Masters and the transition to the PhD programme?

The Master exceeded my expectations. I not only received excellent academic content but also was able to be involved in professional projects. I was among some of the students that received extra funding to do our thesis fieldwork in different parts of the world. I went to Ecuador to study inter-municipal cooperation in the solid waste management sector in June and July. This extra funding, which included airfares and accommodation costs, was possible because IHS collaborates with the Ecuadorian Government and the German Society for International Cooperation, GIZ. This is an added value I don’t think other Master programmes offer.

Mario, you just completed your Masters, started your PhD and now you're already are giving lectures in world-renowned institutions such as Harvard University and The Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. How did you manage to do all that in such a short amount of time?

Yes (smiling). It was definitely an intense experience. Also, I had to balance it all with spending quality time with my wife and my daughter, who constantly provide me with emotional support. However, I am passionate about making cities work so for me it is a pleasure to constantly be challenged academically as long as I know what I am learning is relevant for transforming cities on a global scale.

I was honoured to receive an invitation from Harvard University to participate in a panel on Unleashing Urban Innovations in Paraguay and Latin America. They organized the first Paraguay Conference in the history of the university and I am glad, as they mentioned, that they valued the combination of my previous professional experiences and my current academic training at Erasmus University Rotterdam, which is ranked number 1 in Public Administration worldwide. I gave a lecture on Inter-Municipal Cooperation as a Smart Governance strategy which is part of my PhD research project. The Conference had high coverage both at Harvard and in Paraguay, where over 15 institutions live-streamed the event. I even got live interviews at prime time with news channels in Paraguay.

Later, I received another invitation to give a lecture at an Executive Training Program on Smart City and Politics at The Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. I got contacted through LinkedIn because they were looking for experts on urban governance and inter-municipal cooperation who could give the lecture in Spanish to a group of Latin American city leaders and urban professionals. Being part of IHS, which is one of the few institutes specialized in Urban Management and Governance, definitely played a role in receiving these professional opportunities at an early stage in my PhD trajectory.

How do you plan to combine your PhD career and these other professional opportunities in the future?

I know it is going to be challenging. However, what I noticed is that having the opportunity to present some of my findings and discuss topics related to my research with different audiences helps me clarify and focus my ideas. Sometimes there is a disconnection between the urban academic world and the urban reality. Through these experiences, I make sure that what I am learning from books, papers and empirical data, remains relevant and communicable to non-academic audiences.

I am planning to develop more of these projects and connect Latin America with Europe. I think both Europeans and Latin Americans could benefit from these exchanges. Latin America is the most urbanized region in the Global South where there are opportunities for so many urban innovations. Europe has developed solid institutions and vibrant cities such as Rotterdam, Amsterdam or Copenhagen that besides transferring knowledge could partner with Latin American cities and develop innovative global projects. My next exchange project is going to happen in Rotterdam in October and I think we can develop a strong partnership with IHS.

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