Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, November 19, 2012

Cira helps countries manage urbanization

Dean Cira

Mentors are crucial

The World Bank named Dean Cira the 2012 Mentor of the Year. He says mentoring is especially important for younger staff at a large organization like the World Bank, which has about 10,000 employees.

"When I first came to the World Bank, I was really fortunate to have a great mentor who not only helped me navigate the institution, but really helped in developing my career and ideas about development work," Cira says.

"I feel, therefore, paying it forward is important now that I am in a senior position 15 years later. I really like that part of the job, and when you think about it, aside from having money to lend, our real asset in the World Bank is our people and the knowledge and passion they bring to development work. It is important, therefore, that we act as mentors to our younger staff."

He adds that all his professors at La Follette helped in some way to shape his world view and his career decisions. Dennis Dresang, Bob Haveman and David Weimer were especially important, Cira says, "but I really have to thank all the faculty and staff at La Follette for two very wonderful years."

People in countries around the world are better able to manage rapid urbanization thanks to the problem-solving skills Dean Cira learned at the La Follette Institute of Public Affairs.

As a 15-year employee with the World Bank, the 1990 alum has helped make management of Vietnam's water utilities more efficient, established disaster risk management practices for East Asia and improved living conditions in Venezuela's slums and Brazil's favelas.

In 2012, Cira moved to Kenya as a lead urban specialist working to upgrade living conditions in squatter settlements, improve urban management in larger cities and help develop the metropolitan region of Nairobi.

"Our urban practice group is also trying to improve the urban services management and governance capacity of local governments throughout the country," Cira says. "In all we are investing about $700 million in cities in Kenya. What all of us are most focused on is ensuring that local governments have the human, technical, and financial resources and capacity they will need to take on their new devolved functions following adoption of the 2010 constitution. This transition is ongoing and a watermark will be the elections in March 2013 where new county and national government leaders will be elected. We all hope that the violence that followed the last elections will be avoided this time around and that this transition will be as smooth as possible."

Cira arrived in Kenya in July 2012 after spending four years in Vietnam, where the World Bank has committed $2 billion through its urban and water and sanitation program. "On the water side, our focus in large cities like Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is to facilitate public-private partnerships to make management of water resources more efficient and to reduce non-revenue water losses," he says. "In smaller urban areas, the focus is on expanding services and promoting the financial sustainability of the local water utilities. As for rural areas, Vietnam lags in its Millennium Development Goals in water supply and hygienic sanitation, so that is an important area for the World Bank and Vietnam's government. In the past few years, the government has made great progress in this area."

The World Bank's broad urban programs in Vietnam include upgrading informal settlements, drainage, and wastewater collection and treatment; managing urban expansion in fast-growing cities; urban transport and land use planning and adapting to climate change. "Vietnam is among the countries most at risk to sea-level rise," says Cira, whose last technical report written about Vietnam's urbanization is available online. "We are trying very much to help Vietnam's cities develop sustainably, by looking at urban development through what we call the Eco2 approach — economically and ecologically sustainable."

Four men talking at an urban construction site.

World Bank urban specialist Dean Cira, right, confers at a work site in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. In July 2012 the 1990 alum left Vietnam for Nairobi, Kenya.

Cira enrolled at the La Follette Institute of Public Affairs in 1988 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. He completed a master's degree in public policy and administration 1990. He interned during his second year with the Madison Mutual Housing Association, an experience that prepared him for his first two jobs out of graduate school in affordable housing in San Francisco.

In 1993 he joined the Peace Corps and went to Chile as a municipal/urban development specialist. "I always thought that I would end up working internationally," Cira says, adding that although the institute did not have an international track in the late 1980s, the program's flexibility meant he could develop his own international focus.

When his Peace Corps service was complete, Cira joined the World Bank as a short-term consultant and became a staff member in 1999. "I led or contributed to economic research in urban development and housing, developed several urban projects and provided technical and policy support to local, state and national, high level policymakers in Latin America," Cira says.

One important project in Venezuela improved living conditions in the slums. "Even after the change in government in 2000, this was the one World Bank project that the current Chavez administration allowed to continue given its strong poverty focus," Cira says. "When your work can adapt to radical political economy changes, you know that you might be doing something right."

Cira attributes that success in part to his graduate training. "La Follette provides an excellent foundation for working in a place like the World Bank," he says. The University of Wisconsin and La Follette are highly valued brands, and La Follette alumni have a lot to offer as the public policy background cuts across many disciplines and development work is becoming increasingly cross sectoral in nature."

"I think what I take away most from my time at La Follette is how to look at a problem and objectively assess the tradeoffs of different solutions to it," Cira says. "That's where our training in policy analysis, statistical analysis, benefit cost analysis, etc. come in to play — as does our ability to understand the political economy in which we are working. It is a good fit for the World Bank because what we learn at La Follette can prepare us to be researchers, or to be practitioners or managers. All these skills are used at the World Bank."

In 2003, Cira became senior urban specialist for Brazil, where he managed large investment loans to municipal, state and national governments for urban development and housing policy. Five years later he moved back to Washington, D.C., to serve as East Asia's disaster risk management coordinator. He established the disaster risk management practice for East Asia and Pacific Region and leveraged grant funding to develop disaster risk reduction programs in three countries. "During that time I also managed the World Bank's infrastructure portfolio for the reconstruction of tsunami-damaged areas of Indonesia in the wake of the 2004 tsunami," Cira says, "and I coordinated the bank's response to simultaneous natural disasters in Myanmar and China in May 2008."

A few months later, Cira moved to Vietnam for four years, and then he headed to Nairobi, Kenya.

He is optimistic about the future of the two countries as they manage their rapid urbanization. "I have still much to learn about urbanization in Kenya, but my sense is that while Vietnam's urbanization is being driven by a strong shift to manufacturing, value-added agro-industry and higher level service industries, thus creating a virtuous circle of development, this is not entirely the case in Kenya," Cira says. "There, crime and violence, low levels of education and high rates of unemployment complicate urbanization, despite relatively strong economic growth and growing foreign direct investment."

"There is a high sense of optimism in both countries, and both countries seem to embrace the idea that urbanization is an essential part of the path to becoming middle income countries," Cira adds. "I share that sense of optimism."