by Elisabeth Kvitashvili (bio below)
Three years ago, a friend of mine in the Bay Area introduced me to a grad school friend of hers. This woman, a Bosnian who resettled in the US after the war ended in 1995, worked to assist victims of human trafficking in California. I had not realized trafficking was an issue in California. For those of us who worked in post war Bosnia and later Kosovo, we knew trafficking of young women was and indeed remains an issue where displacement, poor governance, corruption, poverty combined to make it easy to trade in human flesh. I was struck by how this young woman with a master’s degree in international development from a prominent US university was directing her attention to a problem here at home, in the US, rather than focusing her energies internationally.
Since retiring from my career as a Foreign Service Officer for USAID in 2015 , almost daily I read about the many “development” challenges I dealt with in my own international development career: improving the quality and safety of elections and their outcomes, rehabilitating the housing stock and public infrastructure including roads and bridges, improving access to quality education and health care, and improving governance and building stronger linkages and decision making processes between leaders and citizens. Stories of poverty, injustice, and inequality, including racial inequality abound. What makes these stories stand out is that they’re all home grown!
The development challenges I spent my entire professional life trying to address abroad can be found no further than Kansas, my own backyard, to borrow from Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
International development specialists and peacebuilders like to think we know how to help fragile states to address issues of poverty, ethnic and religious inequality, market development—the entire gamut of development problems. Our toolkit includes financial or technical support to national and local leaders and communities whether in Honduras, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Nepal, Burundi or Jordan, all countries I know. We seek out and engage partners who embrace empowerment of local leaders, women’s empowerment, broad inclusion of stakeholders, ethnic and religious tolerance, adherence to the rule of law, the creation of a fair system of governance and the equitable and sustainable distribution of government social services in the health and education sectors, among others. Yet, recent events call into question whether we practice these approaches here at home.
I have been privileged to serve as an adjunct professor at a prestigious university where I mentor scores of grad students launching their international development careers. My message today to a young generation of peace builders and international development practitioners is to “think local.” Just as President John F. Kennedy called for a young generation to go abroad and help foster democracy through the Peace Corps, those of you excited about working abroad should consider instead looking at your local community and offering your insights and skills where they are needed. Instead of only focusing on solving problems out there, we need to also work on our own “development challenges” with a strong degree of humility where whether as “insiders” or “outsiders” need to put local leaders and solutions first. Your generation is likely to see the U.S. become not only a supplier of development solutions but the recipient of lessons learned abroad. You and your colleagues may find that international development will include tri-partite learning where the problems of governance, or access to quality health care and education or fighting infectious disease where the case studies include U.S. cities and communities. For example, for all our health care advances, in 2019 the World Health Organization’s ranks the US 55th, just behind Russia and just ahead of Ukraine in maternal mortality statistics. This is despite the fact that the US spends more per capita than any other country in the world.
All Americans abroad serve as representatives of our country whether formally as members of the US diplomatic corps or informally, as Americans working, studying, or travelling abroad. YOUR engagement can help others re-discover our voice as a force for positive change in the world. We must rebuild our ability to engage productively internationally in such a way that upholds human rights, re-establishes a commitment to address climate change, advances democracy, etc. We are not living up to our role as a leader of the civilized world. We have lost our perspective, presume an arrogance of power, when all the while we ignore the conflict in our own backyard. To recover our moral voice for positive change, we must tackle our own problems and thereby serve as an exemplar for the changes now being demanded by so many of our fellow citizens in the US and throughout the globe.
The fires are burning, and your generation must pave the way to quell the flames if not extinguish them Without a doubt, there will be a lot to do to recover the ground lost ground in our diplomatic and development institutions. But there may be greater opportunities to explore problems that the U.S. shares with the rest of the world, contributing to both local and global solutions. In five years, international development studies may just be called “Global Challenges” and the solutions — including to our own problems — may be ones you work on both here and abroad.
Elisabeth is an accomplished development practitioner with global humanitarian and crisis response leadership and field operations expertise spanning more than 35 years with USAID in countries such as Sri Lanka, Georgia, Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Bosnia, Honduras, Rwanda, DRC and the Horn of Africa. Among many assignments, she served as Director of the Disaster Response Division in the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and Mission Director in Russia and Sri Lanka. She was the founding director of USAID’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation which launched new ways of thinking and approaching development through a conflict lens. She later led USAID efforts in transforming how the Agency approached engagement in Non-Permissive Environments.
Now retired from USAID, she remains engaged through a variety of international consulting assignments and Board of Director positions including with Give2Asia and CDA. She is President of the Georgian Association in the USA. She mentors USAID officers and, graduates of Georgetown University and University of London’s SOAS. She is also an international election monitor with OSCE. In addition, she continues to serve as adjunct professor at Georgetown University, in the Master’s Program in Conflict Resolution where she recently taught a practicum on “Humanitarian and Conflict Assessment”. Elisabeth has an MA degree from London University, School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS), with a focus on Near East Studies. In her spare time, she volunteers for several organizations and teaches English to Russian immigrant senior citizens. Married with two adult children she now lives in San Francisco where she spends much time hiking outdoors and volunteering at the Botanical Garden.