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Foreign Service Life

August 2005

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Ambassador Bullington for years has been a valued contributor to this journal of accounts of his work as director the Peace Corps in Niger and, importantly, the service of the dedicated volunteers in country.—Ed.

Letter from Niger, September 2005

Food for Thought
The rains have continued to fall normally throughout the summer, and what promises to be a good harvest is getting underway. This is bringing an end to Niger's unusually long and severe hungry season that garnered so much attention in the international media. Massive amounts of food aid, though too late to prevent widespread hunger and even starvation in some areas, began arriving in July and continue to pour into the country. Additional humanitarian aid organizations have set up operations, and existing ones have added hundreds of expatriate and local employees to their staffs.

This outpouring of international generosity is both needed and welcome. However, as with most emotional, media-driven responses to complex problems, it has weaknesses.Especially with famines, it seems, the media's focus and the international aid it generates always arrive late. Food shortages are fairly easy to predict, and this one was in fact predicted last November, soon after it became apparent that the harvest was poor. But agricultural statistics and economic indicators can never be as telegenic and compelling as images of skeletal children with distended bellies.

Such pictures and the accompanying commentary claiming that millions of people are facing starvation have the unintended consequence of driving already high food prices even higher because of panic, profiteering and hoarding. Then, weeks or months later, when the food shipments begin arriving from abroad, prices drop dramatically. If, as is often the case, this coincides with an average or better harvest, farmers (three quarters of the population in Niger) have to sell their production at lower than normal prices and are driven even deeper into poverty. Thus, food aid can do harm as well as good.

Volunteers Seth Wright and Jason Walsh, in a field of ripe millet
Experts have long recognized the potentially perverse consequences of food aid, and organizations such as USAID and the UN's World Food Program are trying to limit them as they respond to Niger's immediate needs. Some well meaning but less sophisticated donors, however, are not so careful.

Another danger in this media-hype-and-emotional-response syndrome is that it tends to give the impression of a temporary problem (in Niger's case, drought and locusts) that can be solved with short term measures such as emergency food aid. In fact, Niger's food insecurity is structural and long term, with multiple causes, and it can effectively be addressed only with development aid that promotes sustainable economic growth.

Katie's Twins
One of our Peace Corps Volunteers, Katie Leach-Kemon, illustrated some of the complexity and frustration of trying to alleviate this deep-rooted poverty with a concrete, human example in a story for her hometown newspaper:

Part of my job includes working with mothers to rehabilitate severely malnourished children. Since January, I have been working with a pair of twins and their mother in a neighboring village. The twins, Amara and Boubacar, weighed only nine pounds each when they reached their first birthday.

My friend Indi, a nurse at the local clinic, and I have been visiting the twins' house over the past eight months. During each visit, Indi and I discuss nutrition and hygiene with the twins' mother. Our instruction has been partially productive: the mother has been diligently preparing a protein-enriched porridge for her children, but she has yet to improve hygiene in her household. Despite Indi's and my constant reiterations about the importance of sanitation, nothing seems to change. Bowls of food left open and covered with flies, chickens eating out of cooking pots, and waste scattered throughout the yard where the children play is the scene that often greets us when we visit the twins' house.

Children pounding grain in a rural village
For the past several months, the twins have been showing signs of amelioration, like steady weight gain. Just the other day, however, I saw the twins and their mother at the clinic. Both twins were sick with vomiting and diarrhea, and their frail bodies had lost all evidence of the last eight months' progress. I am hoping that antibiotics the twins received will restore their health. I am wary, however, knowing that the unsanitary conditions in which these children live may attack their defenseless bodies with a fatal infection any day now. While I have tried to help rehabilitate the twins as best I can, I am convinced that the only way to reduce malnutrition among young children in Niger is to encourage primary school education for girls.

Research has shown that girls' education has a direct impact on infant mortality rates. In Niger, only 16 percent of the population is literate, and a mere 24 percent of girls attend modern school. Increasing school attendance among young girls seems to be the most viable approach in reducing malnutrition and infant mortality in Niger. If the twins' mother had attended school, it is likely that her hygiene and feeding habits would be dramatically different. If nothing else, she would better understand the connection between dirt and sickness, and perhaps be more responsive to my counseling. While the news headlines scream “CHILDREN ARE STARVING IN NIGER,” the solution seems so simple. If they are starving, bring them food. End of story? Not quite. There is no “quick-fix” that will help Niger out of the hole in which it finds itself. The best way to help Niger is to work with its people and its government toward long-term goals, like increasing primary education for all children, reducing population growth, slowing desertification, and improving access to healthcare for all Nigeriens.

Holy-Unholy Alliance for Aid
It is relatively easy to generate a constituency for emergency aid to disaster victims, and the U.S. has always been very generous with this sort of assistance in comparison to other rich country donors. It is much harder to develop public and political support for the long term development aid that can help lift poor countries out of poverty and avoid at least some of the disasters.

New York Times pundit David Brooks wrote a perceptive column recently on the politics of fighting poverty. He said:

We can have a culture war in this country, or we can have a war on poverty, but we can't have both. This is to say, liberals and conservatives can go on bashing each other for being godless hedonists and primitive theocrats, or they can set those differences off to one side and work together to help the needy.

The natural alliance for antipoverty measures at home and abroad is between liberals and evangelical Christians. These are the only two groups that are really hyped up about these problems and willing to devote time and money to ameliorating them. If liberals and evangelicals don't get together on antipoverty measures, then there will be no majority for them and they won't get done.

With regard to foreign aid, a third element should be added to that alliance: moderate or conservative internationalists (my tribe) who see international assistance not only as a humanitarian obligation but also as an important element of American “soft power” that, properly directed and administered, can serve our interests as well as those of the recipients.

Peace Corps certainly represents the liberal impulse. While I've met a handful of Volunteers who are conservative, the overwhelming majority is somewhere between left and far left in political orientation. A National Peace Corps Association poll of its members before the 2004 election found 87% supported John Kerry.

Evangelical Christians are well represented in Niger by some 400 American missionaries. They have been operating freely for decades, and although they have had little success in converting the overwhelmingly Muslim population to Christianity, they have earned toleration and a measure of respect for their good works. Several non-evangelical but nonetheless faith based humanitarian organizations are also very active here.

Our Volunteers frequently work in collaboration with Christian organizations such as World Vision and Catholic Relief Services that focus on development projects rather than religion. Sometimes, the Volunteers work in more limited ways with local missionaries, although they must scrupulously avoid any association with proselytizing.

At the policy level, the Bush Administration is having considerable success in bringing together an evangelical-liberal-conservative internationalist coalition in support of increased aid to Africa. Even those who are normally critical of the President and all his works are coming to recognize this.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, for example, wrote recently that “Bush has done much more for Africa than Bill Clinton ever did, increasing the money actually spent for aid there by two-thirds so far, and setting in motion an eventual tripling of aid for Africa….it's worth acknowledging that Bush, and conservatives generally, have in many ways been great for the developing world.” Kristof went on to note that “Nobody gets more bang for the buck than missionary schools and clinics, and Christian aid groups like World Vision and Samaritan's Purse save lives at bargain-basement prices.”

Another unusual source of praise for the President is Julius Coles, the head of Africare, an organization with roots primarily in the African-American community that promotes and delivers aid to Africa. Coles recently wrote in the Washington Post: “A generation from now, when historians analyze the turning point in Africa's development, they may have to credit George W. Bush with playing a surprisingly important role in the continent's economic progress….he appears intent on being remembered as an American president who did much in real terms to secure Africa's future.” Coles specifically praised Bush's program to combat HIV/AIDS, the Millennium Challenge Corporation that associates increased aid with good governance, massive African debt forgiveness, and new campaigns to promote education and fight malaria.

The conservative Bush Administration has also been very supportive of the prototypically liberal Peace Corps, which has more than a third of its programs in Africa. While Congressional appropriations have been far short of what would be necessary to meet the President's goal (stated in his 2002 State of the Union address) of doubling the size of Peace Corps, the number of Volunteers has grown by about 1000 under Bush, to more than 7700, the highest number since 1975.

Evangelicals, liberals and conservative internationalists can indeed work together to achieve broadly shared objectives, and they are now doing so to aid Africa.

Remembering Rita
Tuy-Cam and I have come to deeply admire the Peace Corps Volunteers we've led and supported during the past five years in Niger. While there are vast differences among them, they all tend to share a deep commitment to service and a strong taste for adventure. Also, all of them are willing to give up American affluence for two years of poverty, hardship, and sometimes danger in the African bush. It hasn't been possible to develop close personal relations with each of the more than 400 who have served here under my direction, but many have become almost like family, and we follow their post-Peace Corps lives with much interest.

Rita at her house in Niger
One of our favorites was Rita Herkal, a member of the first group of new Volunteers to arrive after we did. She was an outstanding Volunteer, not only surviving in the harsh environment of a small Nigerien village but actually thriving in it. She extended her normal two years of service for an additional six months, and then stayed on in Niger for several more months to travel in the Sahara with a group of nomad herders.

After leaving Niger and spending some time with her family in the U.S., Rita got a job with Save the Children, a major international humanitarian organization. (Many Volunteers go on to careers with international organizations of this sort.) She was with a Save the Children affiliate called Building with Books, and her job was to help rural communities in Malawi build schools. She wrote a series of emails to us and many other Peace Corps friends describing her adventures and the progress she was making on the schools. In the most recent one, on August 24, she said, “I am happy and healthy and so satisfied with my life and what I am doing. It truly is an incredible feeling to have each minute permeated with contentment and gratification.”

Two days later, on August 26, Rita was killed in a bush taxi accident. (Bush taxis are the aged, crowded, unregulated, uncomfortable, dangerous vehicles that serve as the primary, often only, form of public transportation in much of rural Africa.) She was 28. We should remember her as a hero who lost her life in service to humanity. She represented the best of Peace Corps, and the best of America.


J.R. Bullington is currently Country Director of the Peace Corps program in Niger. He was formerly a US Ambassador and career diplomat, with extensive service in Africa and Asia.

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