Alum in Action: Curbing the Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic Through Data

Aaron Chafetz (MPP ’13)
Aaron Chafetz (MPP ’13) is a senior economist in the Office of HIV/AIDS at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where he has risen in the ranks over the past decade.

For the past five years, Aaron Chafetz (MPP ’13) has been doing triathlons for fun. While he has always enjoyed exercise (as a UVA student he played ultimate frisbee), the true satisfaction Chafetz gets from triathlons just might be the data tracking involved in the sport.

“I take metrics on heart rates and power zones and food consumption while I’m on the bike and all of that,” Chafetz said in a recent Zoom conversation. “I can tell you, for example, that I’ve put in 6,200 miles into this in the past five years,” he said, gesturing to a bicycle leaning against a wall in the background.

As a senior economist in the Office of HIV/AIDS at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where Chafetz has risen in the ranks over the past decade, he is in charge of a team of analysts who are using data to curb HIV/AIDS around the world. His office’s work as part of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has contributed to the U.S. government’s ability to “[save] more than 21 million lives, [prevent] millions of HIV infections, and [support] at least 20 countries to achieve epidemic control of HIV or reach their HIV treatment targets” since 2003, according to the U.S. Department of State.

We spoke with Chafetz about balancing public policy and data in his job, what’s kept him devoted to USAID and advice he has for Batten students about to enter the workforce.

Q. What first got you interested in economics and public policy work?

A. When I was growing up, my dad would always say: “Whatever you do, just make sure it involves giving back.” That’s something that really resonated with me.

I started UVA with a deep interest in foreign affairs. After taking a few classes in the politics department, professor David Waldner told me, “Look, if you want to go far in politics, analysis and writing, you really need to know economics and math.” So, I signed up for all these advanced math classes and fell in love with working with numbers and data.

I ended up double majoring in economics and foreign affairs. When I got into Batten, I wanted to work for the United Nations, although I can’t speak any other language. (I did take Latin through high school and the beginning of undergrad, but it didn’t really get me very far.)

At Batten, I worked with local governments for my culminating Applied Policy Project. And so in applying for jobs at the end of my time at UVA, I was looking for jobs in city governments, where I could take my policy and analysis skills and be able to see an impact.

And then I happened to apply as well to USAID because deep down, I still really wanted to do something with foreign affairs. I was able to get into an internship there, which then turned into a job and then I've been there ever since. Everything just kind of worked out.

Q. How did Batten help prepare you for your career?

A. The pros of Batten were the program size and the generalized ability of what you came out with. So rather than going into a Ph.D. in like, agricultural economics where you’re on a very narrow path, setting up at Batten gave me the credentials for employers to say, “Look, this person was accepted into a small program. He’s able to use these skills and move forward.”

I think I found a niche in USAID because I had a background in foreign affairs and economics, but it was through Batten that I was able to advance my skills and data analysis. I had the opportunity to teach as a TA in a research methods course my second year of the program. That definitely helped me get to where I am and helped me understand a passion I had for teaching and working with others.

I think I found a niche in USAID because I had a background in foreign affairs and economics, but it was through Batten that I was able to advance my skills and data analysis.

Aaron Chafetz
(MPP ’13)

Q. Can you tell me a bit about the various positions you’ve held at USAID?

A. I started in the Office of Economic Policy in 2013, where I was doing a lot of cost-benefit analysis and teaching some courses, which progressed into working for USAID’s chief economist for a couple of years.

From there, I followed a call for working in the Global Health Bureau. They were looking for staff to work in the interagency space to support advanced data analytics for PEPFAR. So that’s where I ended up in 2016, through USAID’s Office of HIV/AIDS.

Over the past six years, I’ve honed my skills and helped grow a team of data scientists and data analysts who are working to curb the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Our work focuses on how we can use data to identify hotspots and then how best to target our approach. This work advances both USAID’s programming under PEPFAR, which is headed by the U.S. Department of State and run in partnership with other governmental agencies including the CDC; the U.S. Departments of Defense, and Health and Human Services; Census Bureau; and the Peace Corps.

Q: How do you use data in your work?

A. So across PEPFAR, we are working in around 35,000 sites and communities that are mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in Central and South America, Asia, and Europe. Our implementing partners on the ground are providing HIV/AIDS service, staff and supplies. All partners report on 35 standardized health indicators every quarter, broken down by things like age bands and sex, allowing us to track what is happening with our work at the site level, including the tracking of supply chain information like drug regimens. These data allow us to answer questions like: How many people are newly being infected and are coming into the clinics. How many people are we able to treat? And are we losing patients at certain sites?

In non-pandemic times, I would travel to sub-Saharan Africa three or four times a year for anywhere from two to four weeks at a time. Typically, the countries I support are Tanzania, Malawi, Nigeria and South Africa. I work with data teams on the ground, training them up on business intelligence tools, and how to analyze data and use it more efficiently.

Q. It’s impressive that you've been at USAID for almost a decade. Is there something about the organization itself that has kept you there?

A. I think there are few reasons. The first is connected to my father’s mantra of trying to do work that gives back. Second, I’m definitely a risk-averse person for the most part, and I have something good at USAID. I’ve been around the block and I know how things run and I know who to talk to; that’s definitely an asset. And third, it’s a great organization that invests in its people. There are always opportunities to learn, and it’s a very flat hierarchical structure. If I have policy recommendations, it’s very easy for me to push things through and make things happen. The USAID administrators I’ve worked under have also been really inspiring, especially Rajiv “Raj” Shah [recipient of the Batten School’s 2020 Thomas Jefferson Medal in Citizen Leadership] and Samantha Power.

Q. What advice do you have for Batten students who are trying to enter the workforce right now?

A. They have gone through a rigorous program, and they should feel confident entering the job market, knowing they have a lot of skills working in teams and working on applied policy projects. At USAID, a couple of offices have hired more and more public policy people because they have these generalizable skills and analytic minds, but also policy program training as well. Batten grads are able look at problems, boil them down into smaller segments, and then use data to support claims. And that is a huge asset.

The other advice I’d give to current students is just to take advantage of the classes across UVA. Try your hand at things. If you’re interested in, say, urban planning, take a course in the urban planning department. That’s a great feature that many other graduate programs don’t have.

Finally, really make sure to take time to get to know your classmates. For me, that was such a nice network to have. Many of my friends in D.C. are the folks I went to Batten with, and we see each other all the time.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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