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Learning Lab Partners Inspire Future Leaders to Embrace Population, Health, Environment Approach

Home gardener in Kasese, Uganda, who participated in PHE program, showing eggplants for sale

University students in development-related fields are eager to study successful  approaches to address the linked challenges of rural poverty, natural resource degradation, and gender inequality. One such approach is Population, Health, Environment (PHE), practiced globally and supported by Pathfinder International in East Africa.

The PHE approach integrates conservation, reproductive health, and livelihood interventions to reduce poverty, limit impacts of climate change, empower women, and improve overall community health and well-being.

In 2014, Pathfinder launched the PHE Learning Lab to create a regional learning laboratory for PHE programs in East Africa and demonstrate PHE’s contribution to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The Learning Lab has partnered with universities to introduce PHE to faculty and students in the US and East Africa, complementing PHE theory with practice, and providing opportunities to interact with PHE practitioners in the field.

Cross-border partnerships

In 2016, the Learning Lab partnered with my university, the University of California, Berkeley, to develop and deliver PHE-related curricula and to conduct collaborative research with East African university partners: University of Nairobi in Kenya, University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and Makerere University and Mountains of the Moon University in Uganda.

  • We co-developed an intensive PHE short course with the University of Nairobi; alumni have gone on to promote PHE in academic and government spheres throughout East Africa.
  • Makerere University opened an interdisciplinary PHE Coordination Center charged with integrating PHE into existing courses, developing research proposals, and providing support to Uganda’s National PHE Network. The university developed Lecturers sans Borders, a PHE Affinity Group with more than 60 faculty members. These activities are supported by the Learning Lab.
  • Pathfinder has been working closely with the University of Dar es Salaam on developing a full Master’s program in PHE that will be offered in the evening to allow professionals to enroll, especially from government.
  • Mountains of the Moon University is pioneering interdisciplinary student field placements with Pathfinder’s field partner, Rwenzori Center for Research and Advocacy (RCRA).

At the University of California, Berkeley, we are supporting faculty and students at the four East African universities with PHE-related reference materials, case studies, collaborative research, and summer practicum opportunities.

Faculty, November 2019 PHE Launch Workshop, Makerere University, Kampala


We are teaching both undergraduate and graduate students to think critically about the PHE approach in classrooms across PHE-related disciplines (e.g., Global and Reproductive Health, Conservation Biology, Development Practice). The approach comes alive through global case studies and opportunities for students to conduct research on topics proposed by PHE practitioners in East Africa.  Examples include:

  • Persistent Large Family Preference and Stalled Fertility Transition: The Case of Tanzania and the Tuungane Project  
  • Our Lake Victoria:  An Illustrated Children’s Book Dedicated to Future Generations
  • Tuungane Fisheries: Exploring Beach Management Units in Lake Tanganyika
  • Scenarios for Scaling-Up PHE through Model Households

The University of California, Berkeley, PHE Affinity Group brings together faculty and students engaged in PHE-related research to share findings and develop joint funding proposals.

Students study PHE in action

Dr. Robin Marsh with children and young mother on Jagusi Island, Uganda

One of the Learning Lab’s most exciting innovations is the Summer Practicum, which joins students from East Africa and Berkeley in 12-week internships at Pathfinder PHE sites—Tuungane in Western Tanzania, Endangered Ecosystems of Northern Tanzania, HoPE in the Lake Victoria Basin, and RCRA in Western Uganda. The students are exposed to PHE in action and the field projects benefit from supervised research and training led by the students.

In 2017, for example, students stationed with Tuungane helped 50 youth group members develop small enterprise business plans and made recommendations to project staff for addressing major market and transportation barriers.  In Northern Tanzania, students studied the socio-economic impacts of reducing livestock-wildlife conflict through “Living Walls” and made recommendations for expanding benefits, particularly for Maasai women and families.

In 2018, students began to study whether and how income generation by women leads to greater women’s decision-making power in their households and communities.  In addition to traditional survey and qualitative study methods, students used an innovative card game that asked women to select from decision-making scenarios they had experienced, or aspire to experience. In summer 2019, students will adapt the research for application in Western Tanzania.  Research results may inform donors on investments in women’s economic independence as a pathway to gender equality, a claim still lacking empirical evidence.

Through the PHE Learning Lab and academic partnerships, we are educating and energizing hundreds of young people to think about the challenges of community-based sustainable development from a women’s rights perspective.  We can expect these future leaders to continue to question the status quo and form a new generation of PHE champions.

Dr. Robin Marsh is a Senior Researcher/Socio-Economist with the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at the University of California, Berkeley.