Partnering for Resilience

How universities can help break cycles of recurrent crisis: An interview with University of Arizona Research, Innovation and Impact’s Greg Collins and Eric Bergthold

Nov 1 · 6 min read
Saleh Ahmed (Boise State) as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona working with fishermen in Bangladesh to better understand decision-making around fishing and farming and the effectiveness of community-based adaptations in response to climate stress. / Md Sultan Mahmud, The Pennsylvania State University

USAID reflects on 60 years of international development that engaged higher education, two Agency alum discuss how a project begun in 1963 — just two years following USAID’s founding — offers lessons on how universities today can support a shift from relief to resilience.

Eric Bergthold, formerly USAID’s senior democracy and governance advisor for East Asia, brings more than 20 years of international development experience to his current role as executive director of the Office of Global Projects at the University of Arizona.

Gregory Collins, associate vice president of Resilience and International Development at the University of Arizona, spent more than 11 years with USAID, including as founding director of the Center for Resilience, the Agency’s resilience coordinator and, most recently, deputy assistant administrator for the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security.

The University of Arizona’s Eric Bergthold and Gregory Collins. / Courtesy of the University of Arizona

USAID has partnered with a number of universities over the years. What would you point to as a successful collaboration involving the University of Arizona?

Eric: There’s a variety of work we’ve done with USAID, but I think our collaboration with the Federal University of Ceará in Northeast Brazil is one that really demonstrates how a project can have ripple effects far beyond the original engagement.

When that work started in the early 1960s, most of the ag faculty at Ceará weren’t even full-time, and almost none had advanced degrees. The goal was to help them build those programs — undergraduate, graduate, research, and post-doc training — as well as advise on equipment and new labs and buildings that were then being constructed.

In 1965, University of Arizona professors work with farmers selling squash at open-air markets in Northeast Brazil as part of a USAID-funded partnership with the Federal University of Ceará. / Copyright © Arizona Board of Regents, the University of Arizona

Within about 10 years, more than 80% of the faculty were full-time, more than 80 percent had advanced degrees, and, by 1989, their students had researched and written more than 300 master’s theses to support Brazil’s agriculture economy.

Today, in part from what’s now the Center for Agricultural Science at the University of Ceará, Brazil accounts for about half of all agriculture research spending in Latin America.

University of Arizona professors introduce agriculture students in Northeast Brazil to tillage machinery in 1965 as part of a USAID-funded partnership with the Federal University of Ceará. / Copyright © Arizona Board of Regents, the University of Arizona

Greg: One thing I think is really important in that example is that it shows what we can achieve when we put local actors first and serve in more of an advisory role, especially as a university working with other universities.

Part of our vision is to reimagine the role of universities in this space. When we help set up education and research programs locally, as in the Ceará partnership, those institutions can build on that over time and ultimately produce their own cutting-edge science.

So when we think about building resilience — especially in confronting this triple threat of COVID, conflict, and climate change that in the last two years has sent 150 million people hurtling into poverty and crisis-level hunger — I see that university partnership as a proven model we need to be expanding on today.

University of Arizona researcher Kevin Fitzsimmons works with Myanmar fishermen to harvest tilapia in a development collaboration with the University of Yangon focused on the country’s vital aquaculture industry. / U Soe Tun, University of Arizona

When you talk about building resilience, what does that look like in practical terms?

Greg: I was based in the Horn of Africa in 2010 and 2011 when a huge drought drove displacement and widespread famine. A quarter of a million people lost their lives, half of them children under 5 years old. It was the defining event of my career, and it’s when I really began to push for this idea of resilience.

There are areas around the world where we see large-scale, humanitarian emergencies over and over. Through food aid and other assistance, maybe you get them to a point where they’re not hungry and they have shelter. Then another crisis hits — some combination of drought, conflict, disease — everything gets wiped out, and all that investment gets swept away.

So at a fundamental level, building resilience means shifting the focus from perpetual humanitarian relief. It’s shifting to building capacities at the household level, community level, country and systems levels, to mitigate, adapt to, and recover from these shocks and stresses without backsliding every time.

University of Arizona professor James Buizer, founding director of the Arizona Institutes for Resilience, working with women in Bihar, India, to understand how vulnerability to climate variability impacts their microfinanced agricultural projects. / Zack Guido, University of Arizona

How do you measure resilience?

Eric: To be honest, it’s a challenge we’re still figuring out. It’s one thing to say that if we do A, B, and C, then it only stands to reason that people will be better off, more resilient. But in reality, that’s not always the case.

As a research university, one of our goals is to build up this somewhat nascent field of measuring resilience.

As part of that, we’re currently partnering with TANGO International to develop tools and frameworks that will accurately tell us if an investment led to more resilient communities and averted or reduced the need for humanitarian assistance down the road.

What do you see as the University of Arizona’s role in international development going forward?

Eric: I think the University of Arizona has a lot to offer. For one, with our roots in Latinx and Native American communities and our designation as an Hispanic-serving institution, we have language and cultural skills that really help with work in communities in Latin America.

University of Arizona Ph.D. candidate Fiona Gladstone researching food assistance policy, local food systems, and community health in rural Oaxaca, Mexico. Gladstone’s work has been supported by USAID’s U.S. Borlaug Fellowship in Global Food Security. / Photo courtesy of the University of Arizona

Of course, we also live in one of the world’s largest deserts and have done a lot of work around water scarcity and mitigating extreme heat. Many of those global areas of recurrent crises are in arid lands, so work we’re doing here also has tremendous relevance for building resilience in other parts of the world.

And solving for resilience really does take an integrated, institutional, cross-discipline approach, which is the goal for our Arizona Institutes for Resilience: bringing together geographers, economists, engineers, public health — all working across disciplines to take on these wicked challenges.

University of Arizona research professor Zack Guido working with Blue Mountain coffee farmers in Jamaica to build resilience to recurrent challenges stemming from crop diseases and climate change. / Photo courtesy of the University of Arizona

Greg: I think the other big role for the University of Arizona and university partners more broadly is helping to get out ahead of key issues we see on the horizon, rather than waiting to respond to them, and meeting the urgency of this moment with direct engagement.

When I stood on the Somalia-Kenya border in 2011 and witnessed one of the world’s most horrific famines unfolding in real time, I felt a sense of urgency to deal with these problems in a way that hadn’t been done before.

Frankly, a lot of students going into graduate studies and research feel the same way. They’re not in it just to learn and get a degree and move on. They want to be engaged. They want to make a difference.

Universities will still produce research for journals in the hope that it will eventually trickle down to maybe influence policy. But that’s not a model anyone can rely on, and it’s definitely not how we confront, again, this triple threat of COVID, conflict, and climate.

It’s happening now. Impact is our mandate, so we absolutely have a role to play in meeting the urgency of this moment.

Follow the University of Arizona’s Office for Research, Innovation & Impact on Twitter. Learn more about USAID’s 60th anniversary at

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