DrPH Student Spotlight: Santi Kusumaningrum

In 2012, the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health introduced a new degree program—a DrPH in Leadership in Global Health and Humanitarian Systems. This degree requires a minimum of 33 credits, a practicum project, comprehensive exams, and an applied research dissertation. It has proven a popular offering, attracting 55 to 65 applications per year for three to four spots. There are currently 14 DrPH students in PopFam.

Beginning this fall, each issue of the Family News will spotlight one of these students. This issue spotlights Santi Kusumaningrum, an Indonesian-born student who is completing the second year of her DrPH also directs the Center on Child Protection at the University of Indonesia (known as PUSKAPA), a program she co-founded.

"We designed our DrPH program to prepare public health practitioners for leadership positions by enhancing their population level knowledge and skills with global health and humanitarian response systems emphasis,“ explained Neil Boothby, EdD, who assumed the leadership of the program this year. “Santi was perfect.”

How and why did you come to pursue a doctorate in public health at Columbia University and the Mailman School?

I first met Neil [Boothby] in 2008 when he came to Indonesia to do an evaluation of UNICEF’s tsunami response and I was managing [UNICEF’s] child protection component focusing on access to justice…In 2009, Neil and I met again and we thought about starting up the Center on Child Protection [at the University of Indonesia], which we did. We established the Center with the Government of Indonesia, allowing our work to have direct impact on informing programs and policies on the ground. We started with three and a half people and today we have more than 20. I am very proud of the way the Center has progressed, but I also I realized at some point that as someone leading this Center, I needed to upgrade my capacity.

Tell me about your dissertation research. What is your focus?

My research focuses on the role of legal identity documents that facilitate people’s access to basic services, including health, education, and social protection, as well as the role of bigger civil registration and vital statistics systems that produce legal identity—the systems that government needs to gather accurate data on their population and to inform public policies related to health, education, and social protection.

Why is having proof of legal identify so important?

It has direct consequences on people’s lives. In Indonesia, many key life events, such as birth, marriage and death, are not registered or accurately recorded, and without legal identity, many basic services cannot be accessed. You cannot sign up to vote or find employment in the public or private sector. The lack of a birth certificate is also overwhelmingly linked to child marriages and impedes further education. Also, I have found in my research that having a legal identity document is associated with wellbeing outcomes.

Is the government of Indonesia working to address this issue?

They are working on this …but they have been addressing the wrong barriers. [The government has focused primarily] on people’s lack of knowledge about or willingness to obtain legal identity documents but the biggest problems [in terms of access] are cost, distance, and complicated procedures [for getting legal documents]. You need to remove fees, bring services to villages, and cut out the middle men and red tape.

There are other challenges, too. One of the big ones, which has emerged through my research, is there is no demand for [people to be registered] from the health sector. In other middle-income countries, like the Philippines and India, this demand made a huge difference in the development of effective civil registration systems. In Indonesia, the health sector has been relying on interim measures, like health surveys and other health data that they collect outside of the civil registration system. So there’s a lot of work to be done. We need to simplify procedures and build incentives for people to register their vital events, we need to improve the quality of the vital data so other development sectors want to use it, and we need to increase the demand from policy making to trigger such quality improvement.

What would you say has been the biggest benefit of our course of study in the DrPH program so far?

I have really enjoyed all my methods classes, which have given me the knowledge and skills to appraise [research] methodology and connect research with policy. I also really enjoy the breadth of courses available to us and that the program allowed me to continue my work in Indonesia and to still manage the Center on Child Protection.