Jason Wolfe '99: Our Man in Afghanistan ...
and Pakistan, Ecuador, Moldova, the Philippines, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia ...
Writing reports in his USAID cubicle inside the bowels of the massive Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., Wolfe often feels like little more than “a glorified government bureaucrat.” But being out in the field energizes him. That was particularly true three years ago, when he traveled to rural Pakistan to assess a program that helps homebound women find markets for their beautiful embroidered clothing in urban Pakistan, India and the Middle East.
“They come from very conservative, restrictive cultures in which they can’t go outside of the home unless accompanied by a male member of their family and generally can’t interact with other people,” Wolfe says. “They had no idea what they did was so valuable and, before this program, hadn’t been able to get market feedback regarding what people like best.”
By the end of the project two years ago, nearly 10,000 women were selling to those lucrative markets, and the money they were earning was empowering. “You could see a cultural change happening,” Wolfe says. “Their male family members were starting to see that these women could be breadwinners and deserved a bit more independence. They told me about now being in business partnerships with their husbands, and how they go places without their husbands. It was just brilliant to see their confidence levels rising.”
Despite his lack of travel as a youth, Wolfe, who began studying German in eighth grade and Spanish in ninth grade, had long been interested in cultures and issues beyond his small hometown. He came to Susquehanna in 1995 intent on studying diplomacy and European studies, an idealistic young man “completely allergic” to economics because he identified it with big business.
But his faculty adviser, E. Brooke Barlowe, a former assistant professor and coordinator of the international studies program, encouraged him to look beyond Europe to Latin America—one of her specialties—and the significant roles that poverty and economic development play within the political landscapes there. He initially resisted Harlowe’s suggestion to elect dual study in economics and international studies. But after taking an introductory microeconomics class with Professor of Economics Olugbenga Onafowora, whom he calls “a fantastic, dynamic professor who was one of my favorites at Susquehanna,” Wolfe was so captivated he decided to pursue a double major.
During the spring of his junior year, Wolfe participated in the Washington Semester Program at American University, taking classes and performing an internship with the Seed Capital Fund. The small nonprofit was trying to launch a fund that would minimize the risk to large investors who advance Latin American microfinancing, small loans that enable poor households to improve their economic conditions by starting small business ventures. It’s the type of financing for which Mohammed Yunis of Bangladesh and his Grameen Bank won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.