Continental Drift

July 21, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 8:41 pm

So now that you have some sort of sense of my whereabouts, onto a description of work. I’m working at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Regional HIV/AIDS Program (RHAP).  Within Pretoria alone, there are several U.S. government (USG for those in the know) offices that work on issues of HIV and AIDS.  In addition to RHAP, there is the USAID South Africa Country Program, the Health Attache at the Embassy, a branch of the CDC and who knows what else coming out of the State Department.  We are well represented here in Pretoria, hence we have a gigantic and scary embassy.  Someone suggested to me that this does not help us ‘blend in’ as it were.

But I, luckily, do not work at the Embassy.  It would be a little too intense of a fortress like experience for everyday comfort.  Despite the fact that under the new administration, USAID has been somewhat subsumed by the State Department (as in, the head of USAID has to report directly to the Secretary of State, I believe), the organizations are still distinctly separate. This is why the USAID building is in Groenkloof while the Embassy, and therefore the State Department, is sort of downtown.  Despite the separation in practice it is a really interesting time to be working within the government bilateral aid system, because both Clinton and Obama seem to be serious about their rhetoric of development and humanitarian work as a key facet of American foreign policy.

I know you are probably impatiently waiting for me to get onto the specifics of what I do, but bear with me, diciphering the politics of USAID is honestly half of what I’ve been thinking about-if not doing-since I’ve arrived.  Right now, the biggest issue in USAID is that Obama has still not appointed a leader for the agency.  Though the rest of the positions within USAID are civil service jobs hired non-politically, the head of the organization is a political appointee.  And since the inaguaration in January, USAID hasn’t officially had leadership.  That’s kind of a big deal at a time when all of this restructuring of the USG development funding is going on, and changes to PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief): all things USAID has serious stake in.  Hillary called a town hall meeting in Washington to discuss future plans for USAID, and someone asked a question about the leadership issue.  She says that some very qualified people have turned the position down, but that their current candidate is bogged down in paperwork.  Though she did not name names, both online and in the office, rumor has it that this candidate who is stuck in the vetting process is none other than Paul Farmer!

For those of you who are not particularly invested in the world of international public health, Paul Farmer is basically the last word in health care in developing countries.  If you suddenly feel inspired and interested, go read one of his books…AIDS and Accusation is about Haiti and the history of the AIDS epidemic, or else read his biography Mountains Beyond Mountains to hear all about the stuff he has done.  I don’t know about other academic institutions, but at Brown in Development Studies, you basically read all about how every development project fails and makes things worse and you read Paul Farmer.  If you don’t feel the need to know more about him, just know that he is a medical anthropologist and doctor, and has spent much of his career proving the international development aparatus wrong.

So what would it mean if he were in a position to head it?

I heard people discussing the possibility of his appointment today, and no one seemed to think it likely that he would be approved.  But everyone (including me) was curious to see what his tenure would look like.  Considering that much of his work so far has been in small target communities, would he be able to translate his belief in equitable care to the scale of USAID? I really don’t know.

But anyway, beyond theorizing on the future of USAID, I spend a lot of time thinking about what the US is doing in Southern Africa on issues relating to Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVCs).  In fact, you could say that my job description is to know what USG money is funding what programs that impact OVCs.  Which sounds like something that ought to involve no more than looking at one web page, but of course it requires somehow excavating through the work of each separate agency.  You’d be surprised how many government agencies have small amounts of funding for overseas work on children.  I’m working under the auspices of Public Law PL 109.95, in which Congress basically said “There are a lot of orphans and children in bad situations in the world.  The US should be doing more to help them.  All US agencies that help OVCs should be working together. We want you to coordinate and collaborate, but we aren’t going to give you any specific funding for this project, we just think that you should help those poor children.”

So my boss–who is the Technical Advisor on OVCs for the RHAP office– (are you sick of acronyms yet?), basically wants me to figure out what is happening in relation to PL 109.95 in the Southern Africa region.  That main project is a bit on hold now while we wait for some data that people in Washington are supposedly collecting by August.  But all of the other work I’m doing is somehow related.  Mostly, when he is interested in knowing something, he asks me to try and find it out.  This week, I’ve been trying to understand what work is being done in Lesotho (tiny country entirely surrounded by South Africa) on issues of child protection.

Though all of my work does tend to involve researching at my computer screen, its really not tedious.  I get to look into things that I am already interested in, and Kirk encourages me to focus on my interests even if they aren’t exactly what he is looking for.  I also attend meetings and take the minutes as a way to have an excuse to listen in on some of the work that USAID does.  Today I actually got to attend the meeting of the new Embassador for PEPFAR when he came to Pretoria this afternoon.  He met with a good sample of the PEPFAR team (basically anyone whose work is at all related to HIV/AIDS) and outlined some of the future vision for the plan and some key issues he wants to address. It was really interesting listening to the questions people asked.  Though I still feel like the organization is incredibly bureaucratic, corporate and expat driven, a lot of these people are really smart and interesting and very much know their stuff.

So basically what I’m doing while I’m here is trying to learn from them, whatever that means.

That, and going to Swaziland next week from Tuesday to Sunday for meetings, site visits and the Bushfire Music Festival.  Extremely excited.

P.S. I haven’t forgotten about the animals or my religious experience, just got distracted.  I’ll tell you all about it soon.



  1. Sounds like you’re already very immersed in the USAID context and culture in Pretoria. Your informed “on-the-ground” and “in-the-trenches” perspective is so much more engaging than a piece in the NY Times! Is the Bush Fire Festival considered business or leisure? Checked it out online and it looks pretty exciting…Beer tent and all! Have fun! Send more pix!

    Comment by UK — July 22, 2009 @ 9:53 pm | Reply

  2. I’m curious why you think Paul Farmer would not be someone nominable if he is as distinguished as you say and Mrs Clinton is considering him. I would have thought that with majorities in both houses, nominees would have an easy time of it. No?

    Comment by Steve — July 26, 2009 @ 2:35 pm | Reply

    • It’s the vetting process, not the nomination process that is so extended and complicated. Any nominee has to fill out extremely extensive paperwork listing everywhere he/she has lived during his/her life, etc. In Farmer’s case (if the rumors are correct and he’s even being considered), verifying the information on every foreign national he has had contact with in the last 10 years or whatever could be an infinite task considering how much work he has done internationally. Bureaucratic problems, I suppose, rather than outright political ones. Although I suppose he has some enemies within the establishment who he has critiqued in the past. But really, no one knows what is going on.

      Comment by unaleona — July 26, 2009 @ 4:06 pm | Reply

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