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"If You Have a Heart Beating in Your Chest" - Fall 2002

"If You Have a Heart Beating in Your Chest"
John U. Davis '84 reveals the sublimely pragmatic soul of a development policy wonk

It's 110 degrees in Dosso, Niger, in Saharan Africa. At her mud dwelling, a Nigerien woman makes cooking oil to sell in the microbusiness she started with a loan from a local women's organization funded by Catholic Relief Services. The loan was for $30, a tidy sum in a country where the average person earns $300 a year.

In the remote Agadez region of the country, a deeply dark-skinned woman who is kept in indentured servitude by a lighter-skinned Nigerien catches a broadcast on the community's shared hand-cranked radio. She learns that slavery is illegal in this democratic country and in the world. The radio, which gets the airwaves to the many Nigeriens who can't read and can't afford radio batteries, is paid for by Africare.

Waiting in a bus station while on his seasonal trip to Cote d'Ivoire, a migratory laborer, a high-riskcandidate for HIV, stops by an AIDS prevention kiosk operated by Care International and Population Services International.

Group photo at AIDS education event.

Behind these and dozens of other humanitarian programs in Niger (pronounced Nee-zhare) is the hand of John Uniack Davis '84, who from July 2000 to July 2002 was the development assistance coordinator for the U.S. ambassador to Niger, Barbro Owens-Kirkpatrick.

You might say it was a magic hand, considering that Davis managed to secure major U.S. government money – $4.5 million – for Niger after the United States officially cut off funding to the country. His accomplishment earned him a State Department Superior Honor Award.

As a political science major at KSC, Davis was strongly influenced by Professor Chuck Weed. "He was good at getting students to question conventional assumptions about the United States's role in the world," said Davis, "and to see that they had an obligation to think outside themselves in an altruistic way. He played a part in opening my eyes to the world."

"John was always a world traveler-learner," said Professor Weed, "saving up money so he could go to countries in Africa that spoke French or to Guatemala to rendezvous with his brother, who was a witness-for-peace accompanier. I think almost everything John did in his life was designed with the effect of trying to help people."

Photo of Niger Well Two months after graduating from Keene State with a bachelor's degree in political science, Davis joined the Peace Corps and went to Africa for two years. He returned to the States to earn his master's degree in agricultural economics at UMass-Amherst and his doctorate in political science at the Michigan State University. Then it was back to Africa.

"In 1996, when the government was overthrown and a dictatorship took over, the United States withdrew its USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] mission," Davis explained over lunch during a vacation in New England in August. With great care, sometimes even halting deliberation, and a habit of saying "ya know" in a homespun way that softened his sociologyspeak, Davis articulated his enormous command of the social, political, and economic issues faced by impoverished African countries such as Niger.

"In 1999, when Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick arrived in Niger, the country had just held free, fair, and transparent democratic elections," said Davis, "and yet it was not getting the democracy dividend [i.e., U.S. aid]."

Migeriens love life and are incredibly hospitable. But they are closely acquainted with fate. The ambassador was shocked by the conditions in Niger, said Davis, and still more by the fact that USAID did not have a presence in the world's second poorest country. (The poorest is Sierra Leone.) She asked USAID to reopen its mission in Niger, but the agency declined, citing budget cuts.

She then asked for an aide to advise her on funding humanitarian programs.

"USAID refused even that," said Davis, "and that's when the ambassador decided to find State Department monies to fund a position with a USAID mandate."

Davis got the job. He and his wife, Jennifer, an associate director of the Peace Corps in Niger, were living with their infant son in Niamey, the capital of Niger, where Davis worked as a development consultant.

"Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick's innovative vision created the position," he said admiringly, "and our mutual vision made it operational."

On the State Department payroll but reporting directly to the ambassador and performing the work of a USAID development advisor, Davis was given, he said, "unique autonomy and breadth of responsibility."

Photo of Niger Desert He advocated for Niger's economic, social, and political development; advised Owens-Kirkpatrick on humanitarian and development policy; participated in project conception; represented the embassy to the European Union, UN agencies, and other donors; and carefully – since he could be seen as stepping on their turf – served as the liaison to USAID.

But mostly he got people to open their wallets. In fact, most of the $4.5 million he rounded up for development in Niger came from USAID, which shows just how careful he can be.

Niger is persisting with its fledgling democracy, not yet 10 years old, against all odds. Much of Niger has no electricity or phone lines. It's one of the world's hottest countries, and 30 percent of its children die before the age of five. Life expectancy is about 42 years. Because many girls in this mainly polygamous Muslim society marry in their midteens and start having children early, the incidence of serious gynecological problems is high. AIDS is a threat from African neighbors on all sides.

Nigerien on a camel. Most Nigeriens live off subsistence farming and seasonal labor; the minority who live in Niamey work as state functionaries or unskilled laborers. To know how to read is to be one of the nation's elite. Only about 15 percent of Nigeriens can read.

"I don't want to paint a ghastly portrait," said Davis, his blue eyes ever intent behind his small wire glasses. "I want to avoid the Sally Struthers phenomenon – irrational pity. People [in Niger] are as optimistic as they can be. They love life and are incredibly hospitable. But they are closely acquainted with fate."

Davis secured funding for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to use for programs in every area of Nigerien life. The programs are thoroughly organic to Nigerien society:

BulletA migrant worker who visits an AIDS prevention kiosk takes a chair in a small group to watch a film and hear the counsel of truckers, sex workers, and other migrant workers.

BulletRadio Niger, the community radio initiative that reaches even the country's remotest nomad encampments, trains the few Nigeriens who are marginally literate to deliver educational programming to the many who can't read a single word. Programs teach farming techniques, women's rights, principles of democracy, sanitation methods – you name it. The suitcase radio stations are largely solar powered, since electricity is rare.

BulletThe loan program for women's microbusinesses taps the spirit of collaboration intrinsic to many villages, which motivates women to repay their loans so other women can also sell their sewing, vegetables, or cooking oil and join the cash economy.

BulletNGO programs bring Internet access to a national assembly of legislators who have no computers on their desks.

BulletOther programs pay for surgery for women whose gynecological systems have been wrecked as a result of giving birth before they were biologically ready. They finance recovery facilities for women who have the surgery and fund education efforts to counter men's rejection of these women.

Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick, at right, visiting rural development projects. John Davis is in the first boat.Photo by Karen Lantner

How did Davis pull off the equivalent of bringing the ocean to a landlocked country – getting USAID money flowing into a country without a USAID presence?

"If you have a heart beating in your chest, and you're in the world's second poorest country...," he replied pragmatically.

Essentially, this New Hampshire native is in and of West African life. He and his staff consulted the chief of staff of the Nigerien president, Daouda Malam Wanké, and the U.S. NGOs in Niger to learn how they would use funding if they had it. He found out "who the key players with respect to West Africa were in the USAID Washington office" and took them concept papers from the NGOs.

"I asked, 'What are the gaping needs?' and 'Which are the needs that we have a reasonable chance of getting funded?'" said Davis. "I had a sense of not trying to go over the top and ask for too much."

"In the State Department and USAID, plenty of people have consciences, and when they're presented with compelling, obvious makes it hard for them to say no."

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, Davis and his staff also argued that providing humanitarian aid to this impoverished Muslim country is now a security concern. "Perceived national interests play a really big role in aid," he noted. "The argument we've tried to make is that in our war on terrorism, it's relevant to help the world's poorest Muslim country." To him it's not the ideal rationale for giving aid, but if that's what it takes, he'll use it.

Having completed his tenure as development assistance coordinator for the ambassador in Niger, a job he described as "fabulous... the only one like it in the world," John Uniack Davis is now in Mali, working as the assistant director of CARE International – Mali.

Deborah Klenotic is assistant editor of  Keene State Today.