Jason Wolfe '99: Our Man in Afghanistan ...
and Pakistan, Ecuador, Moldova, the Philippines, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia ...
Far from a waste of American tax revenues that would be better spent at home, Wolfe believes the $265 million USAID allocates for enterprise development from its annual $16.6 billion budget is a worthwhile investment in the future. “Trying to ensure we have good, growing economies overseas helps to develop a market for goods we want to sell,” he argues. Wolfe also cites a recent Religion and Ethics News Weekly interview with Andrew Natsios, the former director of USAID, who contended that in the developing world, “people think USAID is the greatest American institution.” And, Wolfe says, having a good opinion of USAID really helps strengthen America’s image abroad.
Wolfe is the antithesis of the cynical government bureaucrat who grows more jaded the longer he spends time in foreign outposts. “I’m continually inspired by the people I come in contact with,” he says. “When I was in Moldova [in January] they had just changed their government and kicked out Communists after eight years. I met with deputy ministers who are fairly young, dynamic, optimistic and educated, and their hearts and brains are in the right place. I’ve never been so inspired talking to government officials.”
The biggest challenge Wolfe and USAID face is helping people become self-sustaining without creating a culture of dependency. Historically, he says, that has been true of some aid programs in Tanzanian villages. Yet women who are participating in savings clubs there have told Wolfe that they don’t want handouts and felt bad when they couldn’t feed their own kids. Now, thanks to the savings clubs, they are proud to feed their children on their own.
“They’re not rich, and they still have aspirations, like having a metal roof, electricity and a TV,” he says, “but just the fact that they can feed their kids is a huge, life-changing moment for them.” Wolfe is proud of the role he and his agency have played in creating such opportunities. “It’s sort of the difference between charity and development,” he says. “Charity is something you do to make yourself feel better, and the gratification is immediate.
“Although it’s a very frustrating, complex process, when development works, other people feel better, and all you can do is take pride in that. It’s longer lasting and sustainable, and hopefully, saves us money when we’re not feeding the hungry, responding to emergencies or going to war, because these countries are more prosperous, stable and democratic.”
Bruce E. Beans is a contributing writer from Warrington, Pa.
Eyewitness to History
Drafted shortly after he graduated from Susquehanna with an accounting degree, Bill Livengood ’67 served as a U.S. Army personnel specialist in Vietnam for a year. That experience, combined with R&R in Australia and Japan, convinced the small-town country boy from Somerset County, Pa., that there was wanderlust in his bones. “It’s just the fact of all you can learn [by traveling],” he says.
A year after his discharge, Livengood joined the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to feed this yen. Over the course of the next 19 years, working his way up to chief of the central accounting division, he traveled to such USAID dispersing office locations as Mexico City, Paris and Bangkok.
Then, in 1989, he transferred to USAID’s foreign service section to become a controller in two offices that gave him a front-row seat to history. First he was dispatched to Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, today a terrorist hotbed to which he could now never return. Unaware if jihadists were beginning to organize then, he never felt threatened, even though, he says, “every male in that country carried an AK-47.” He was fascinated by the Muslim culture, the food and the feudal, 17th-century mountaintop villages he encountered while hiking in the country.
Returning from an R&R trip in London, Livengood flew back into Yemen the night of Aug. 2, 1990, the day Iraq invaded Kuwait. He stayed there, without incident, until he was evacuated in January 1990 just prior to the Gulf War.
South Africa was Livengood’s next assignment. He arrived in Pretoria, the administrative capital, in 1992 to act as the controller of a rapidly expanding USAID program that included housing, school curriculum development and teaching residents how to vote. “It was incredibly fascinating,” says Livengood. “I didn’t really think there were that many black people living in my neighborhood, but when I went out on Election Day in April 1994, there were masses of people standing in line to vote, and they extended the voting for three days.”
The night of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration weeks later, Livengood attended a party at the U.S. Embassy, which featured speeches by Vice President Al Gore; his wife, Tipper; and Hillary Clinton, then the first lady. He was also in Pretoria when, as immortalized in the 2009 film Invictus, the predominantly white South African rugby team won the Rugby World Cup in 1995. “The celebration in the streets was multiracial, and the fact that the victory of an almost exclusively white Afrikaner team was being celebrated by blacks had a significantly positive effect on race relations,” Livengood says.
Retired since 1998, Livengood continues to roam the United States and the world. Domestically, he visits Civil War sites and points along the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. His travels abroad include visits to Vietnam and throughout Africa.
One of his pet peeves while working for USAID was his belief that few people, including many overseas recipients, were aware of the good work USAID was doing.
Last year, however, while visiting gorilla parks in Rwanda and national parks in Uganda that protect mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, he saw signs indicating that USAID was a partner in the park projects. Livengood says he was overwhelmed to see the recognition and the good work that USAID continues to do.