When Development Programming Has a Face

By Craig Geddes
March 20, 2017

Living and working in global development for 12 years in sub-Saharan Africa changes you. Not only do you leave the comfortable life of being near your family and friends in your own country, where you are insulated from most of the world’s tragedies, but you begin a journey that transforms how you see what we, as citizens of the U.S., do for others around the world. 

You become neighbors, friends, and “family” with the people, communities, and countries you are serving. Day in and day out, you no longer have just a job or a career; you are living an all-encompassing life in another culture, working with a people different than yourself, and with a history far different from yours. They face a daily existence where eating, drinking, and receiving care are fights that are more urgent than anything you have ever fought. 

When you live and work overseas, the impact of development programming actually has a face and is not just a number – because your neighbor, the child your son plays with, the man you employ, the woman you see on the side of the road – they all have names and personal journeys. They have names that you know.  

Living in Zimbabwe, Angola, and South Africa and traveling extensively around Asia and Africa, my family and I saw firsthand the impact of the programs the U.S. government is proposing to cut. These impacts are innovations in the health sector, training and empowerment in agriculture and economics, sustainable interventions in education, life-saving inputs in nutrition, and peacekeeping efforts in war-torn countries we so often watch from the safety of our living rooms. They are all results of U.S. government-funded programming overseas. 

I have had the privilege of working on United States Agency for International Development (USAID) projects that have transformed smallholder farmers’ lives in the mountains of Zimbabwe, changed futures for children who are at the brink of starvation, and saved schools where teachers teach children while sitting under trees as the rain comes pouring down. I have seen the hard work of the African woman, combined with the generosity of the American people, change children’s worlds. If hard work was the foundation for success, the African woman would be the richest person in the world. Sadly, it’s not. Hundreds of millions of people around the world work all day, and sometimes all night, to try and care for their families, feed their children, escape war, enrich their lives, and transform their futures. They aren’t careless; they are in need of care. They aren’t helpless; they are in need of help. That help, which often changes the trajectory of children’s lives forever, sits in the hands of the U.S. Administration and the U.S. Congress. That help, coming from the richest nation on earth, is critical for peace, security, and the mission of the U.S. to be the “city on a hill” in times of trouble. 

So, as we hear about the numbers of children who benefit from U.S. government development programs discussed as line items to be cut, inconveniences, or as barriers to a balanced budget amendment, I remember my friend Thandiwe and her family. 

Thandiwe is from Zimbabwe. She had no income to pay school fees so her children were out of school. Because of our work with her and the community, she and another woman began leading the Mothers Group in the school, fighting against violence with children, working with young girls on self-esteem and joining the savings group. Within one year her children were in school, she was paying school fees, and she was running her own chicken business. With our programming help, she was not only solving her own immediate needs, but she was changing her family’s lives forever. 

I often wish that Thandiwe could stand in front of the U.S. Congress, with her family, her family’s family, her local chief, the pastor in her village, the local clinic workers, the community’s school teachers and their children, and their children’s children. I wish that they could all flood the chamber where our lawmakers, so far removed from any of the impact, stand and make decisions on the future of development as we know it today. I know that as the beneficiaries fill in, the main floor, the viewing gallery, the rotunda, the Capitol steps, and the Mall would be full –full of Zimbabweans, Somalians, Nepalese, Ethiopians, Palestinians, South Sudanese, and so many more who would stand and say: Vote as the U.S. has always said it would. Vote not just for yourselves, but for us. Vote for peace, equality, and prosperity. 

If we don’t, we become less a beacon of light in the darkness and more a place of silence in the chaos. So, since Thandiwe can’t come stand in the halls of the Capitol building or vote in chambers on the Hill, I plead. I plead on their behalf for pause, for poignancy, and for proactive strategies that not only protect and uphold the interests of the American people, but also, as America has always done, stand for the needs of the poorest in our world.