The International Life of a Morehead-Cain Alumnus—Justin Loiseau ’12

Blog | March 15, 2019

If there’s one thing Morehead-Cain Alumni have in common, it’s that they each are devoted to living by their values to make a positive impact on the world. There’s no way to summarize what all Morehead-Cain Alumni are up to around the world. But here’s one example of a highly international life being lived out by Justin Loiseau ’12—adapted from an email he recently sent to friends and family. Justin was an environmental studies and economics double major from Charlotte, N.C.

Uganda (2014)
After completing my Master’s in Economics at the University of Auckland, I returned to Uganda after a four-year hiatus. There, I worked on a research project evaluating the effect of increasing government budget transparency on public service provision. Philosophically speaking, it’s a similar conundrum to the tree falling in a forest. If a village’s water pump is broken and no one knows the government allocated funds a year ago to fix it, can anyone complain? Spoiler alert: it depends on their political party. With a trusty team of researchers, I had a varied and exciting task list: overseeing surveying, coding data cleaning, managing partner relationships, and daydreaming of the next opportunity to whitewater kayak the Nile River.

Surveyor training for Innovations for Poverty Action
Kayak Kodak moment (not pictured: my usual MO of schlepping through a rapid underwater, attempting to swallow the entire contents of the river)

Ahmedabad, India (2014)
PSA: Heavy rains at 120° F (49°C) are only fun if you’re a poached egg or a thermophile. But after buzzing my hair and accepting that my shirt would get more wet than my towel ever felt, I found my footing. At work, I was tasked with developing a similar data-gathering system to what I had just developed in Uganda. In Gujarat, one of the most polluted states in India, we wanted to pilot whether an emissions trading scheme (similar to a cap and trade carbon market) could cut pollution among 1,000 textile factories. And yes, I saw the Taj Mahal.

Shrine and Himalayan foothills in Kashmir

Cambridge, Massachusetts (2014—2018)
I lived in the same place for (gasp) four entire years—and it was wonderful! I worked at MIT in an economics research group, either (1) developing or (2) sharing results from research projects like those I worked on in Uganda and India with policymakers around the world to help inform their decisions (where applicable). A day at the office was, well, a day at the office: calls, meetings, reading, and writing. But I worked on fascinating projects with wonderful colleagues and professors. Plus, who can argue with free Dunkin Donuts on Wednesdays?

A “normal travel day” is oxymoronic, but examples include heading to Sierra Leone to understand whether small incentives could encourage families scarred by Ebola to return to health clinics, exploring violent extremism research opportunities in a Nigerian state wracked by Boko Haram, and (probably the most bizarre of all) presenting to space policymakers (yes, people trying to develop policy for that area outside our atmosphere) on the challenges of development and the role of space.

Evenings usually involved cycling around Boston, going for a climb, or cooking dinner with flatmates. On weekends, I’d usually run off into the woods of New Hampshire or Vermont to backcountry snowboard in the winter or climb/backpack in the summer.

River crossing in Sierra Leone to visit health facilities
A New England backcountry trip is never complete without fondue to thaw the bones in -20°F (-29°C) conditions

Kenya/Nigeria/India (2018)
They told me I’d be based in Nairobi, but I’m pretty sure I spent more time in the Addis Ababa airport (where the people-to-chair ratio is 2:1 at best) on my way to/from Nigeria, India, or Kenya. The question that drove my work: How do you help kids learn basic numeracy and literacy skills in education systems that are based on outdated, under-resourced, and broken colonial curricula? Indian NGO Pratham developed an approach that has helped millions of students, and I was tasked with exploring how we might best start or support similar methods in Kenya and Nigeria. A typical day included some deep thinking on systematic change, meetings with government officials, or conducting a site visit to assess student learning levels.

Observing a math game in India (with the universally applicable boys versus girls, girls won)

Kenya (actually living here this time)
Kate and I have nested in Nairobi, and we’re hard at work getting to know the ins and outs of this energetic and cosmopolitan community we call home. I’m now eight months into a new role at Living Goods. Living Goods is a social enterprise originally based on a door-to-door sales model reminiscent of the “Avon ladies,” but instead of makeup, our ~9,000 community health workers peddle high-quality preventive health products (malaria medication, water filters, etc.) to rural Kenyans and Ugandans. In a three-year study conducted by my former employers, researchers found that in villages where Living Goods operated, child mortality dropped by 27 percent and the prevalence of fake drug was halved. But as an independent business, Living Goods can only grow so fast and runs the risk of creating a parallel system to the government’s, rather than supporting improved public services. That’s where my team comes in. I’m tasked with (1) exploring where Living Goods may be able to support governments to strengthen their own community health systems and (2) evaluating the effectiveness of this new government-centric approach.

Living Goods community health worker sharing pregnancy tips with an expecting mother
Health facility in Ouagadougou (by far the coolest city name ever), Burkina Faso

PS: Bonus update! Ten years later, I visited the bicycle rental business I started in 2008 in Uganda and it’s going strong.

2008 “Grand” opening of the First African Bicycle Information Organisation’s bicycle rental business
2018 return visit, they’ve doubled the bikes (and have apparently never replaced the sign)

“I am forever grateful for the opportunities the Morehead-Cain provided me,” Justin wrote later. “While the financial resources created an essential support basis for my time at UNC, it was the guidance of the staff, the camaraderie of my peers, and the inspiring lives of alumni that ultimately ensured the Morehead-Cain community’s immeasurable mark on my life.”