A few days ago I listened to an interview with the recently installed head of the Agency for International Development (USAID) on NPR’s Talk of the Nation show.  (For those of you not familiar with this 5-days-a-week, hour-long interview program I highly recommend it as always interesting, informative, and, quite often, entertaining.)

The new USAID Administrator, Rajiv Shah, comes to his new position from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation where he was involved in some of the organization’s important international development efforts.  I take this previous experience as a strong endorsement of his abilities, and of his potential for reenergizing this critical arm of America’s foreign aid apparatus.  Apparently the lure of retirement has severely reduced the number of experienced staff at USAID.  The constant Congressional bickering over budgets has tended - as Peace Corps supporters will recognize - to demoralize the staff that remains, and the process of economic and social development remains as mysterious as it always has been.  Shah certainly has a big job ahead of him, which he recognizes, and I wish him well in what on my more pessimistic days, I judge to be just possibly ‘mission impossible.’

It wasn’t always that way.  During the 1970s those of us who were optimists were sure we knew what needed to be done to solve the development problems of the Third and Fourth Worlds.  We had all sorts of respected academics and internationalists describing the ‘take-off’ point that existed just around the corner for these countries if we could only get a few things right.  First would be the creation of conditions in which the countries could become self-sufficient in terms of food production.  This would then free up people and resources for infrastructure development, entrepreneurial activity, and social and cultural enhancements.  Once the ball got rolling development was assured, so the theorists theorized.

 And somewhat surprisingly (surprisingly when looking back from today’s perspective) real development occurred in a number of countries.  Remember, Malaysia, Korea, India, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Iran, and others all were considered Third World countries fifty years ago, and large in-country Peace Corps contingents were justified for decades.  No more.  These countries more than stand on their own these days and, in fact, give American competitors a run for their money on numerous fronts. 

 But what about all the other Third and Fourth World countries?  Those we placed in the same category as Malaysia, Thailand, et al, fifty years ago?  Why haven’t they progressed?

When I left the Philippines for PC/W in 1974 I had no doubt that the Philippines was on its way to success.  USAID and PC/P had just been jointly awarded the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Golden Harvest Award for their contributions to Philippine agriculture.  Progress was evident across the entire agricultural sector (or so we thought) and self-congratulations abounded.

It wasn’t until 1995 that I got my ‘reality check.’  While roaming the shortwave frequencies early one morning I heard then Philippine President Fidel Ramos address the Australian parliament while on a visit to his neighbor to the south.  In it he lamented the sorry state of his country’s development and pledged to make dramatic improvements.  His first priority was food production self-sufficiency.  Talk about ‘deja vu all over again!’  More than twenty years had passed and the first step remained to be taken.

The Philippines is just one example - and certainly not the worst - among all of those yet-to-be-developed countries around the world.  There are countries in Central America, South America, southern Asia, and Africa where conditions are every bit as bad as they were fifty years ago despite the large amounts of resources deployed and the heartfelt contributions of development experts of all stripes, many of whom are RPCVs.  What piece of magic is missing?  What else can the developed world do to ensure progress this time?

During John Dellenback’s directorship (1975-77) I was assigned the task of devising a ‘formula’ that would allow the Peace Corps to decide which host countries should receive priority access to Peace Corps resources, especially should - as appeared likely - the agency’s budget take a big hit.  The memorandum I produced has long since disappeared (unless Josie discovered it in her recent trip to PC/W) but I recall one lasting impression from the exercise.  No matter how many variables went into the formula, no matter how complex the statistical calculation, no matter what part of the world was under consideration one piece of data said it all:  infant mortality.  Where infant mortality was high, development was low; where infant mortality was high, and getting higher, the situation was desperate.

Could it be that targeting infant mortality as priority number one in development work is the answer, or at least an important part of the answer?  Doing so would obviously be multitasking at its most extreme because the causes of infant mortality are many and varied.  But targeting that statistic could, as they say, ‘wonderfully concentrate the mind.’  It would require donors to come to grips with population issues, women’s rights, family planning, rural outreach, affordable medical care, and a host of others key elements in any successful program.  Some of these issues - family planning and women’s rights come to mind - are likely to create emotional responses that are hardly constructive at home or abroad.  (I remember how shocked the participants were during a rehearsal for an upcoming Congressional session when I corrected the ACTION director’s “absolutely not” response on the question of Peace Corps involvement in family planning by saying “We did it in the Philippines.”)

Whatever the answer is - and Rajiv Shah has shown good sense by not offering one early in his tenure - it’s high time we got it right.  Tucked away in Peace Corps’ five decades of experience may well be the missing link.  Let’s hope someone over there is working on it.