IAF staff bring a wealth of diverse experience to the job. A quick look at our staff bios will confirm that. This month, we speak with IAF Senior Foundation Representative Miriam E. Brandão who, as a member of IAF Programs Team, manages the IAF grants process and works directly with grantee partners.
How long have you been working at the IAF?
It will be 20 years in July since I started.
What keeps you working with the IAF?
There are three big reasons: the mission, the people, and most of all, the grantees. It’s a job that allows Foundation Representatives to learn and grow every single day. I have my own expertise but I love researching and learning from potential grantees every time I read a proposal. Discovering new groups and meeting people who are sometimes in a situation of great deprivation and difficulty, but still committed to their communities. Seeing that human spirit that wants to survive and strive and improve. I love my job every single day—I know that I make a difference.
What do you do at the IAF?
I’m a Foundation Representative (FR), so I work with our Programs Team to select projects to fund and work with grantees to meet their objectives for their grants. Over time I’ve handled our grant portfolios for Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, and now Peru.
With each country, you learn about the craft of identifying potential in grants and relating to grantees. The more experience you gain, the better you get at it. But the country context is also really important, and the learning curve to understand a country’s culture, politics, and economics is huge. You would think that a smaller country would be easier, but it’s not. Nicaragua, for example, is a complex country, so different from north to south, east to west. That’s one of the huge advantages at the IAF: that we do get to understand the context of each country where we work.
I’m also a Senior FR, so I lead a team of four other FRs and two Program Staff Assistants. Working in a team is rewarding because I get to understand their portfolios across 7 countries and some 125 grants. We all have strong personalities and we like to challenge ourselves, so we have great discussions. But we’re on the same page that we need to do our best to support the grantees.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was born in a university town in the interior of Brazil. My world was very small. When I came to Washington, DC, I was exposed to a very international community. That’s when I started thinking about international work, and at the time, all I knew of was diplomatic service. I wanted to be a diplomat.
What professional training and prior experiences most prepared you to work for the IAF?
I studied international studies at American University until I took an amazing course in economics taught by two professors from very different political perspectives. I decided to add an economics major. As I was trying to decide about graduate school, American University created a new program, a Master’s in international development—probably the first or second in the nation to do so. Many of the IAF’s founding staff taught there.
At the time, the IAF had the most sought-after internship program in Washington, DC. Landing that internship from 1977 to 1979 changed my life. That was the most perfect training ever. I had the academic program and hands-on experience, traveling with staff and getting to know countries at the community level.
Following graduate school, I joined Partners of the Americas’ Women in Development Program and got a further graduate degree in agricultural economics before moving to the World Bank. I was at the World Bank for seven years, responsible for agricultural and rural development projects in Mozambique. In 2001, I saw that the IAF was hiring for the first time in years and jumped at the chance to come back.
What’s your favorite part of your work with the IAF?
One of my favorite parts of the job is traveling and meeting a group for the first time. I review up to 80 proposals a year and narrow them down to a dozen prospects that I visit. Then, with the in-country staff we sometimes travel for 12 hours through hot and cold zones, taking small planes and ferries and canoes and trucks to reach them. You anticipate that visit where you actually get to meet the people who submitted the proposal… and they’re so hopeful because many have never been visited by a donor. Once you get there, you get a strong first impression and your intuition tells you whether the group is going to work well or whether they’re not ready. It’s important to vet potential grantees thoroughly but also remain open to new ideas.
What’s the most interesting thing that’s happened to you on the job?
I once had the opportunity to do a site visit to the Indigenous Ramkokamekrá Canela, a group of 1,500 living in relative isolation in the state of Maranhão in Brazil. To visit, we worked with an anthropologist from the Smithsonian who prepared us to speak and act appropriately with them. Their site was so remote that we had to spend the night, and only people with familial ties were allowed to stay in the village. So they adopted us, gave us Canela names, and painted our arms and legs. It was a fascinating experience.
How do you handle respecting communities’ cultural traditions while also promoting inclusion from underrepresented groups like women?
We respond to grantees’ own strategies for improving their lives and livelihoods, but like most donor agencies, we expect and explicitly look for women’s active participation in project activities and decision-making. Many communities working with us are in rural areas, where certain attitudes about gender are entrenched, but I’ve seen incremental change toward inclusion. We need to be mindful that donors’ attitudes and expectations can play a role in promoting that change. We invest in women’s capacity and economic empowerment because families, communities, and societies cannot grow and develop when only half of their members are able to meaningfully contribute their talents and intellect.
Thank you for everything you do for the IAF, Miriam!