Agatha Siwale (Public Policy track, 2018)

Agatha Siwale is currently a lecturer in the Public Administration and Policy Group at Wageningen University and Research (WUR). Her research interests are in natural resource governance, development policy and institutional dynamics. She specifically analyses how formal and informal institutions interact to shape outcomes for small-scale miners and has published papers on the limits of formalisation in small-scale mining and the dynamics of collective action in these contexts.

DSPS alumnus Miklós Zala (Political Theory track, 2017) caught up with Agatha at the beginning of 2021 to talk about her experience at CEU and her career after graduating.

Thank you very much, Agatha, for having us. The first questions are how you got to CEU and why you chose the Public Policy track.

Thank you for the question, and thank you for the opportunity to do this interview. I was introduced to CEU by one of my former supervisors. I did my master's in the UK at The University of Reading. One of my supervisors from that university sent me a link to CEU as an excellent university where I could potentially pursue a PhD.

And so when I took a look at their public Policy Track, I thought it was most suited to my interests. That's how I applied to that track. I was interested in mining policy and particularly small-scale mining. So, I was interested in strengthening my foundations in the theory of public policy.

So it simply suited me. I had done an MSc in development studies, and I thought I could broaden this out to wider policy studies. So that's how I chose CEU and was applying to it based on this recommendation. When I got to look into the university and the lecturers there and the program's content, I thought it was best aligned to my interests.

I see. Small scale mining is a fascinating policy interest. Can you elaborate a bit on why you were interested in the mining industry?

Well, to be honest, I was drawn into this interest by my former supervisor; he is passionate about small-scale mining. Before interacting with him, I hadn't known as much about it. However, when I came back to Zambia, I realized that there's actually quite a small-scale mining space in Zambia. Our present economy rests heavily on copper mining, which large-scale multinationals have done. But what is less known is the fact that in the rural communities, there are a lot of people engaging in alluvial extraction of semi-precious minerals like amethyst and other gemstones. Poor communities are relying on just picks and shovels to extract minerals and sell them. So it was something that became of interest to me. And then I realized that even within Zambia itself, it started to gain the attention of policymakers. A few years ago, the government put artisanal small-scale mining as one of the key development pillars, which they will try and target for job creation and poverty reduction.

Initially, I was quite skeptical. I was like, "what is small-scale mining?" But then, as I got to find out one more about it, I became more interested. I always wanted to work on policy issues that matter for social impact and where the findings can help specific people and improve their developmental state and help them have more sustainable livelihoods.

Moreover, the topic turned out to be an interesting subject area and a niche area, which not many people had focused on hitherto. And particularly in terms of Zambia, even though small-scale mining does take place here, we found that it hasn't been much researched.

All those factors came together to build up this interest and see how our research can contribute to that.

This research focus sounds very exciting. I haven't known about any social scientist who had mining as a topic. But as you mentioned, it can be vital in countries where mining is a high priority for the economy. So this is how you knew about CEU, and then you applied and were accepted to the Public Policy track. What was your first reaction about CEU as a university and particularly the Public Policy track in DSPS?

Well, my first impressions of CEU as a university were that it was an exceptionally diverse university environment. I remember sitting in one of the introductory sessions next to someone from Kyrgyzstan, and then I turned to someone else, and they were from another country I hadn't heard of before.

And I found that very exciting. It appeared to me that CEU was a kind of bubble of diversity. But also the country itself was a new experience. When I first thought of going to Hungary, I was like, OK, this will be very different, distinct from any other experience I've had.

When I came to CEU, I found that CEU brought together this assortment of people from different countries. So you were exposed to different cultures through these different individuals. It also created a space where you could be free to explore and enjoy the other cultures, where everyone could speak English, and we didn't have to learn in Hungarian, which was a relief because it's quite a complicated language and would have made it quite impossible for me. I otherwise welcomed the opportunity to learn the language and made a few efforts but was thankful I did not have to attempt to undertake an advanced post-graduate degree in a difficult language.

CEU's diverse milieu is indeed extraordinary. How did you find the program? You had to have in the first year relatively intense coursework. How was that going for you?

Indeed, the first year of the doctoral program was intense. It had quite many demands in terms of the study load, but I also enjoyed the coursework. It was essential for me to find my feet because although I had initially submitted a proposal for what I wanted to study, it still needed refining and contextualizing in terms of theoretical debates in public policy.

Those first-year courses reacquainted me with some theories I had come across before but also introduced me to some of the latest research on public administration and policy. So I found that even though it was quite an intense period, it was nevertheless useful. I found the lecturers very helpful because the public policy track had only five of us initially. The student-teacher ratio was very conducive. You could approach your lecturers, get details and qualifications and get to know them better. And so that was helpful for me. So, the program itself and the materials, and the caliber of the lecturers were excellent.

Those were some of my impressions of the program, but it presented a challenge in keeping up with everything in terms of the literature and material assigned. But it was a worthwhile challenge.

The courses taken later helped me to refine my focus in terms of the thesis proposal. As I had discussions with the lecturers from the different classes I took, I crystallized my ideas and progressed with the PhD. So, I really enjoyed that. In later years as I did my postdoc and later on began to lecture in public policy, those materials have continued to be useful.

Aside from the supportive faculty at CEU, I also valued the helpful administrators at the doctoral school and in various student support units. I found the administrators quite efficient throughout the program and was quite thankful for their support in handling a variety of issues, from finding grants to dealing with residency issues or health insurance…

So then you finished coursework in the first and second years and defended your prospectus as well. Then it came the period when you had to work on your dissertation. How did that go?

The first year provided a skeleton in knowing which courses to go for and how to tick the necessary boxes. Then after the prospectus defense came the research part. Because of some changes that I made to the proposal, I had to switch supervisors, which brought some changes, but then I was happy about the support I received later on. Of course, my choice of artisanal small-scale mining as a study area slightly complicated things because that is not a topic that CEU is known for.

So in terms of getting content-related direction and getting links to conferences related to my study area, I had to rely on my MSc university connection and my supervisors there. But I think it's part of the game with the PhD; you have to show some initiative yourself. But the subject area did provide a bit of a challenge. Nevertheless, with research work, my supervisors gave substantive comments on the quality of my work.

Could you tell us who your old supervisor was from your master's program and who your CEU supervisor was?

My master's supervisor was Prof. Gavin Hilson, who has done a lot of work on artisanal and small-scale mining. My thesis supervisor at CEU was Thilo Bodenstein. My supervisory panel had Daniel Large and Achim Kemmerling, Roy Maconachie from the University of Bath being the external member.

I think it worked out well. There's a time during the PhD where there's a bit of soul searching and trying to find one's own feet. So, it was helpful to have those periodic supervisory panel meetings. Later on, I got a lot of involvement from my panel members as in the final year, we were pushing towards the end and doing the write-up grant. During that period, I got a lot more support and valuable comments and feedback.

So you were in very close contact with not only your primary supervisor but also with your secondary supervisors.

I was, especially with Daniel Large. Maybe it's because I'm not good with hierarchy and rules. I didn't realize that I was supposed to stick to my primary supervisor. But I thought if my secondary supervisor is available at the moment, I'll take that and be like, "Hey, do you have a moment to take a look at this?" And then he never did come out and say, "Hey, I'm your secondary, so I'm not looking at this." And my primary supervisor also was not opposed to us working as a team – along with the secondary supervisors, so I was thankful for their collective support.

Did you have any publications before your defense?

Yes, I did. I had two publications. The first publication was in 2017, then the next one in 2018. These were quite helpful for the process in that they were peer-reviewed.

Did you submit a paper-based dissertation or a monograph?

I submitted a paper-based dissertation.

I am sure that to publish those pieces before the defense reassured your committee that your work is excellent.

It definitely helped. I might add that for the success of my dissertation, I found it very helpful that CEU provided small grants, which allowed me to travel and do my fieldwork. That was very helpful during my doctoral studies. And then there was also the fact that I even had an opportunity to do Erasmus exchanges. I thought the Erasmus program was beneficial in my development when I was a visiting researcher at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands back in 2017. I think that it also helped build networks, and the experience also broadened my views. So there was support from supervisors and also the support from the university itself to establish networks.

Where did you go for fieldwork?

I came to Zambia. It was a significant intersection of factors that the topic was under-researched in Zambia and the fact that the government laid more emphasis on small-scale mining.

These gave me this excellent opportunity to come out here and do research. Moreover, I didn't need to learn a new language to do that. That is, I did not need to learn a new language to interview people in the Southern province because I speak another language that my interviewees spoke as well.

How many languages are spoken in Zambia?

Zambia has about seventy-two different dialects and eight major languages. The good thing about Bantu languages is that they share similarities, and in Zambia, the two main languages overlap to some degree. However, despite similarities with some words, it is difficult to understand the various languages if you do not know them.

Is there a language that occupies the role of a lingua franca?

The official language is English, but the main languages people speak are Bemba and Nyanja, especially in urban areas. In some rural parts of Zambia, while people speak Bemba, they are too proud to use it. As with the proverbial case with some English-speaking French people in France.

Thank you, that's very interesting. Did you get some financial support also from the Zambian government for your research?

No, I didn't get any support from the Zambian government. But I worked alongside my supervisor from the UK, Gavin, who received support through the International Growth Center that he is affiliated with—the Center collaborates with LSE and Oxford. We got a grant that allowed us to do this work, as they give grants for studies in developing countries. So, it was a combination of the CEU and International Growth Center, which was also helpful.

How did your doctoral defense go?

The defense went well. The last six months were an intense period until the submission. Plus, after the submission, there was a lot of preparation with the mock defenses. They helped a lot, so when the day had come, I was very relieved when the examination panel said, "Oh, that was clear, concise, and managed to bring things in together". I found them very fair in terms of the questions and critiques of different areas of the work, but I was also thankful for the appreciation of my contribution to the literature.

As I said, artisanal and small-scale mining mainly involves rural communities going out there with picks and shovels to extract whatever gemstones they may find. And it's an activity that's hard to regulate because it exists outside of the formal space. In terms of taxation, in terms of environmental and health regulations, there has been a lot of negative reporting on it because it's usually associated with child labor and accidents because there are no regulatory controls.

So I was looking at formalization. And this link between formalization and the outcomes for miners. So in terms of contributing to that space and especially bringing in the Zambian perspective, because unlike other countries, Zambia's small-scale mining sector has generally been formalized. So, taking the discussion further was something that was appreciated by the panel.

And there was also an external examiner from the UK, as I mentioned, Roy Maconachie, who appreciated the work. So the defense went quite OK. I found the defense quite enjoyable, and it was a bit of a safe space. It wasn't overly intimidating.

So, you successfully finished your program in 2018, in a relatively short time.

That was the plan. When we first got to CEU, Professor Gábor Tóka told us that it is very unlikely to finish the program in three years, but together with a set of friends, we tried to do this nevertheless. We happened to finish within months of each other. So I was grateful to finish quickly. Spending around four and a half years in the program is more or less the period you get guaranteed funding from CEU. I believe it's really good to be able to finish within that time.

So, you became a doctor and entered the job market.

I entered the job market, and CEU was instrumental in the job market through its Global Teaching Fellowship (GTF). Before defending, I applied for one of the GTF positions, and another huge benefit that helped me with that was the training of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at CEU. I had been interested in learning how to teach well in terms of higher education. The CTL was really instrumental in getting me up to date in research around education and teaching, and I earned a certificate in teaching from there.

That already gave me a good foundation in terms of my field and how to teach in higher education. Before that, I had already taught that, but entering into that program helped me reflect on my teaching, teaching philosophy, teaching methodology and refine it to better align with maximizing student learning.

Having gotten the teaching certificate from CEU laid the pathway for applying for GTF, which I applied for at Bard College Berlin. So I was in Berlin for about nine months, and I enjoyed the experience there.

I think Bard College Berlin is one of the best places to go with GTF because they offer not one but two semesters for candidates to stay, which I think still hasn't changed.

Indeed, they give you the opportunity to teach for two semesters, and there's also a lot of autonomy in terms of your teaching. You can freely apply a lot of what you already learned at the CTL. Moreover, I had mentorship from CEU such that periodically I had phone calls with Helga Dorner at the CTL, sharing a bit of my experience with and getting reflections from her. That was very helpful.

I had the freedom to develop my syllabus based on useful comparisons with the best practice of the best universities in the US and elsewhere and to learn the kind of approach they were using. Then run it through the CTL with my mentor and get comments from her. Then the students themselves were quite a unique experience. We had small classes; thus, the student-teacher interaction was excellent. I'm still in touch with one or two of my Bard students.

So, Bard was an excellent experience. Of course, it was not without its hurdles here and there, but I think that's the case with every organization. On the whole, I enjoyed the colleagues I met there. It was a different academic space since Bard's primary focus is on the liberal arts, but this was also a fascinating element to be exposed to new fields.

It sounds like you really enjoyed Bard as a place, but you also immensely enjoyed teaching as an activity.

I love teaching; even though I have an interesting relationship with teaching, I find preparation intense because when I'm going for a class, I want to read as much as possible. And that's always quite intense and exhausting. But once I have a good connection with my students, once I'm in the classroom, I just love being able to interact with them, which I find very enriching. They have wonderful insights that help me rethink and refine my own ideas.

Same here. Actually, quite often, I enjoy teaching much more than doing research.

Yes, the thing with teaching is that it is quite involving and can take up a large chunk of your time such that research takes the back burner. I still have to refine that balance. But yes, I think what I'm most passionate about is teaching.

You had this amazing year at Bard. What was the next step?  

After Bard, I was fortunate enough to come across a job opportunity to work at the Wageningen University and Research (WUR) in the Netherlands, which is where I currently teach. So I looked at the post, and I was like, "Wow, this is perfect!" It was one of those job opportunities you just feel excited about. You're like, "This is exactly what I'd love to do!" So, of course, I applied for that job.

Was the position specifically about mining? 

No, it was about public policy in general; the thing is that the Wageningen position allows me to draw on my experiences, including mining policy. But it is mainly about public policy and administration, which is enough to make me happy because, in terms of other programs, I know that the public policy programs in the United States are very math-focused. You have to have this strong anchoring in economics and econometrics and all these other mathematical angles. But it's quite a delight, a special privilege when you can just do public administration and have a small group devoted to it. And for you to be legitimate, you just do public administration and policy as a subject area without having it become overly mathematical.

Of course, if I were strong in maths, that'd be great. But I love discussing administration itself and public administration theory and policy as well. So, when I looked at the offered courses at WUR that I could teach, I felt entirely comfortable with that. It was consistent with my prior studies at CEU, which also embraces public administration as a discipline. I found that so refreshing. And when I went for the interviews there, it was again, a small team, which was also refreshing! I like close connections; otherwise, it becomes impersonal to me. When we did the interviews, it was very interesting because I went in and was asked to do a lecture. Thus, I lectured, and there was the interview panel there, and they had invited those who wanted to come to as a public invitation. And I did the discussion of my lecture, and it was fun, and people were engaging. And by the time we're doing the interview, they were already speaking in terms as if I had already got the job.

I was contacted shortly afterward and told the good news that I was being offered the job.

What a quick decision!

Indeed, a swift one, and I was thankful for the good connection I made with the team and their work culture of not prolonging decision-making for the sake of it—once the due process was undertaken, they quickly decided. My colleagues looked like a nice circle of people from the outset, and I have since thoroughly enjoyed working with them. My boss prioritizes not only doing work effectively but also interpersonal relationships. She thinks the best research ideas come from some of the connections we make just over a cup of coffee. As you're talking to colleagues, you might find that you are brainstorming on some ideas, which is part of your creativity, unlike just as much as locking yourself up in an office all day, every day. So, I have immensely enjoyed my time in the Netherlands.

It's a pity that Covid came and disrupted opportunities to physically meet and interact with others, but that can't be helped.

You started your position in the Netherlands in August 2019. What was your impression, how did the skills you obtained at CEU helped you with your job?

My skills from CEU were very relevant. I was going to be teaching introductory courses in public administration and policy, and I already had this excellent foundation in public policy. There was a direct correlation between what I studied and what I got to teach.

That's a nice privilege to study one thing and not recreate yourself into something else. That was a big plus from CEU. And CEU has also been helpful to me because the Netherlands also prioritizes lecturers knowing not only their field but also how to teach and keep up to date with their teaching methodology.

So when I got to the Netherlands, I was interested in their university teaching qualification, which strengthens your teaching methodology. And this qualification is also quite an important prerequisite for promotion at my university. When they saw that I had CEU's teaching qualification, I was told that I could get exemptions from some of the coursework. The teaching course at CEU had already prepared me for this qualification and helped me to move through it in a faster way. So I found that really helpful. Those are the two important areas where I've found that CEU has been particularly helpful to me in the new job I've had to do.

What are your future plans, expectations, or dreams?

That is not only a good question but also a difficult one. Right now, I'm in transition. In December, I got married, so my plans are now for heading back home to Zambia. And yes, the field is quite open in terms of what to do after my return home. I will be sad to leave my position at the WUR, but I think it's given me an excellent experience over the past two years, and I'm looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and contributing to development work in Zambia in either government or the civil society space or otherwise. So I've worked in the academic sphere for some time. Before I left for my PhD, I had worked in an NGO, a think tank.

What I would like to focus on right now is if I would get a position in government and contribute towards public administration and policy in practice. So far, I've taught it from the outside, looking in. I would like to have an opportunity to work in government and somehow get to see how the machine works from its inside.

That, of course, is an ambitious challenge. Once you have gotten used to a given work culture, it becomes difficult to adapt to a different one. Nevertheless, if I get an opportunity to work in government, I'd love to do that. I would also be open to multilateral organizations, maybe the UN, the World Bank, and others.

Teaching is something that I really enjoy. I know it's something that I'm bound to get back to one way or the other. I'm already in touch with people at different universities. And I would love to continue giving guest lectures. But for now, I think it would be great to develop another dimension of me and have some experience in government or a multilateral organization.

So, your current lecturer position in the Netherlands is a fixed-term position?

Yes, it is a fixed-term job. It was originally a two-year contract, but the rules are such that if you get a renewal, then it becomes a long-term contract. The assistant professor positions are more tenure track and long-term jobs here. What I really like about WUR is that there is a recognition that while some faculty enjoy research and would like to pursue the tenure-track with a research focus, others enjoy teaching, and there should be a progression path for teachers too that is not as tightly linked to publications but to excellence in teaching and educational development. I really appreciate these developments.

This is excellent on the part of the University. Final questions: what do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?

Well, yes, there's a sense in which lecturing has a way of swallowing up much of our free time, but a hobby I developed in the Netherlands was bike-riding. I didn't know how to ride a bicycle before I went to the Netherlands. It was a joy for me to learn how to ride a bike, and the Netherlands is the perfect place for that, right?

Wageningen, the city I lived in, is pretty small, and I really enjoyed the summer months exploring neighboring towns using my bike. So yeah, bike riding is something fun, especially with friends when we do bike tours together. I had these lovely Dutch friends, like an older couple I lived with. And it's nice when they take you through different places and give you a little bit of history on the different places. The Netherlands is a beautiful country, and biking through parts of it was a joy.

Swimming is also something I made efforts to learn, but I won't call that a hobby because heaven knows it was a difficult effort to learn how to swim.

My most treasured hobby is… I don't know if spending time with family counts as a hobby? But that's one thing I enjoy very much and prioritize. I just love watching a movie with my family and getting to share insights and getting to hear what they have to say all that stuff—so spending time with family baking together, cooking together, these kinds of things.

I also enjoy reading—reading a good book is something I love. Especially on weekends when I can read a book just for the pleasure of it, not because of preparing a class, but just for pure enjoyment. Last year I went back to the classics and reading Machiavelli on a Sunday morning with my toast and a cup of coffee... that was happiness for me.

I totally understand you because most of the things we read are related to our work and current projects. So it's always a pleasure to have the luxury to get a book in your hands, which is not necessary for your work. You mentioned Machiavelli. Do you like to read philosophy and fiction in general? What types of books do you like to read?

When I went to CEU, I felt that I was always behind the curve because I didn't do a degree in politics in my undergrad. My background was in development studies. Some of the classics Machiavelli's The Prince and even John Rawls, I hadn't had a chance to read these political thinkers before. So it was just a nice thing to line them up and get to hear some of what their thoughts were on different subjects on politics and policy. And that was pretty enjoyable for me. And then I enjoy reading poetry, autobiographies of influential people, and also reading Christian literature. Christian literature is an important staple and is critical for my Christian growth. So it's a mixed bag.

Thank you very much for this interview!

Thank you for having me!


Keep your record updated at the Alumni Relations Office.

Read the other alumni stories.

The 2021/2022 call for Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Bard College Berlin is currently open to CEU doctoral graduates who have earned their PhD in AY 2019/2020 or in 2020/2021.