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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Alumnae News March 16, 2017

‘I Want To Stop Big Problems Before They Happen’

Aubrey Menarndt smiling with her arms crossed. Trees and bushes are immediately behind her and behind them is the open ocean
Photographed in Washington, D.C. by Jimell Greene

When Aubrey Menarndt ’08 arrived at Smith, she knew only that she wanted to change the world. 

Guidance from professors—along with some exceptional opportunities—helped her see how she could do just that. Today, as a consultant in Washington, D.C., for Deloitte, she focuses on governance issues in countries whose economies are driven primarily by extractive industries, such as oil, gas and mining.

Problems in Democratic Thought, a course taught by government professor Martha Ackelsberg, transformed her thinking. “The biggest lesson I learned from that course is that you can’t have a democracy when everyone can’t participate. If a society is built on the idea that money buys influence, and you don’t have money, you do not have access [to political power].”

A 2011 trip to Nicaragua opened her eyes. “When I received a fellowship to go to Nicaragua for a month, I had never left the country before. I was scared! I had the chance to work with people who had survived landmine accidents. It was important work, but I also knew that it was a very one-person-at-a-time approach. I realized, in part because of that trip, that I wanted to find ways to stop big problems before they happened, instead of mitigating the effects of the problems afterward.”

A 2011 trip to Azerbaijan, whose economy is heavily reliant on oil extraction, focused her thinking. “I had the chance to visit Azerbaijan while I was working for the Truman National Security Project. I learned that when post-Soviet countries entered the market economy for the first time, they had difficulty managing large influxes of resource revenue and negotiating contracts with foreign companies interested in extracting their mineral resources—but they were getting much of their information from these same companies! ”

She saw an opportunity to make a difference. “There are countries that are taking in large amounts of money in oil, gas and mining industries, yet still have high levels of poverty and underdevelopment. It’s called the ‘paradox of plenty.’ For many reasons, countries that are wealthy in natural resources have major corruption issues. They tend to have single-sector economies that can rise—and then plummet. But if these resources weren’t mismanaged, they could lift people out of poverty. The revenue could improve infrastructure, hospitals and health care.”

“Countries that are wealthy in natural resources have major corruption issues. But if resources weren’t mismanaged, they could lift people out of poverty.”

She wants to help solve this problem. “We’re looking at pieces of this at Deloitte, and it’s so important. I’m an environmentalist, but we know that nobody is going to stop extracting mineral resources anytime soon. So how can we help manage this more effectively so that these resources don’t exacerbate the wealth disparity in these countries and make it harder for them to grow into democracies?”

She also wants to help women in these economies. “In a lot of these countries, women get crowded out of the workforce—in part because a lot of the jobs are in engineering, which women are not traditionally trained for, and in part because there tends to be a man in the family who has a big income, so women don’t have to work. It’s complicated, but there’s a huge correlation between high extractive-sector dependence and women being oppressed. This is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. I want to find a way to fit in to make a difference.”

This story appears in the Spring 2017 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.