March 1, 2010

U.S. foreign assistance, the long and short of it.

Andrei and I both recently experienced several frustrated days, a spell where nothing seemed to be going right. Work colleagues are unresponsive to our calls and emails, impeding our progress. We bought a kilo of frozen prawns that were spoiled, the stench lingered in our kitchen for days. ATMs are out of cash or power, and so are we to do anything about it. A friend's $400 blackberry was stolen from an open window of our vehicle in moving traffic, shaking our complacency with security concerns in our immediate surroundings. Amidst all of these frustrations, it is easy to loose sight of our motivations for being here and the importance of foreign assistance work in Africa. However, a positive reminder of my commitment to this line of work appeared in my inbox this morning.

During the recent Congressional recess, two U.S. Senators conducted a tour of U.S. foreign assistance efforts in East Africa. They not only visited a CARE office, but toured some project sites where I have been directly involved in managing emergency transport and communications systems for improved health outcomes. Below, I include an excerpt from Senator Dick Durbin's (D, IL) remarks to President Obama reflecting on this tour.


Last week I joined my colleague Senator SHERROD BROWN of Ohio on a trip to East Africa. It was an important trip that took us to Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Sudan. We went in to observe American development assistance, to look at programs that help the victims of HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, child and maternal mortality, victims of sexual violence, clean water, sanitation issues, democracy, governments, refugees.

We spent a lot of time meeting with people, meeting with government officials, meeting with individuals who are part of the current political environment of Africa, but also many of their lives are touched by programs in which the United States is involved.

I could not help but notice as I traveled the extraordinarily dedicated Americans who are in our Foreign Service. Many of them are posted in places around the world that are not glamorous by any means. Their jobs are hard and sometimes dangerous, and they go to work every day without complaint. We need to tip our hats to them as Americans. Let me add in there Peace Corps volunteers, many who work for the nongovernment organizations, the NGOs. Many Americans serve our best interests around the world every day without fanfare or praise.

We went to Tanzania. In Mwanza in Tanzania, we encountered a group of young Baylor University doctors who are doing part of their residency at a regional hospital, one that serves a population of several million people. Can you imagine one hospital serving that many people? That is what the people are up against in Africa.

We met a representative from Abbot Labs from my home State of Illinois who was there helping to build a modern laboratory and train local staff for the hospital.

In a small rural village several hours down a dusty, bumpy road from the nearest city, we witnessed a program by the nongovernmental organization CARE that helped build a rudimentary but critically important health clinic. It is hard to describe this to an American, what an African would call a health clinic. It is, in fact, a building without windows but with openings for air to flow through. It is a building that is so basic it does not have running water or electricity. But it is, in fact, a building where 168 babies were born last year. When you see this and meet the people who are delivering the babies, you realize that in many parts of Africa health care is very basic. The man who runs this clinic has about a year or two of education beyond high school. The woman who serves him is one who is gifted with not only personal skills but a lot of human experience in delivering babies. 

What happens if there is a complication in the middle of this village in the middle of nowhere with no means of communication? Well, they try to get the message to the man who runs the ambulance. The ambulance in Mwanza is a tricycle, a tricycle with a flat bed on the back. They take a woman who is needing a Caesarean section, for example, put her on the back of this tricycle and take her off for a 4-hour trip to the closest hospital. That is maternal and childcare in Africa, in Tanzania. We are trying to help through the organization CARE that I mentioned earlier. 

With their help, they have not only brought them the money necessary for their ambulance, this tricycle, they have helped the local residents develop a savings and loan where their modest earnings they make by selling agricultural produce are banked away for a better day. They are allowed to borrow small units of money for buying sewing machines, which can dramatically change a life in these poor villages, or livestock or to help to pay for their kids to go to school.

There are frequent debates about the value of U.S. foreign assistance. When Americans are asked, how much do we spend in foreign aid, the most common response is, about 25 percent of the Federal budget. The fact is, it is just over 1 percent in foreign aid around the world. We spend far less as a percentage of our gross domestic product than many nations. But the work we do is so absolutely essential for maintaining life, fighting disease, for making certain that young people have a fighting chance.

President Obama recognizes that. I hope we can have bipartisan support to continue our
help with foreign aid, even in this difficult time.  


Senator Durbin's comments provided a powerful reminder of the day-to-day realities of the beneficiaries of U.S. foreign assistance and humanitarian aid. On a personal level, his comments were not only a high level recognition of the importance of the work I am involved in during my time as a visiting fellow with CARE in Tanzania, but also a swift reminder to not let short-term frustrations obscure the importance of longer term development objectives and goals.

If anyone happens to be interested, I placed a video on youtube that provides an example of one of the community tricycles for emergency health transport referenced in Senator Durbin's comments above:

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