Translating a Dream into Reality—Making the World a Better Place
Interview with InterAction President Mary McClymont, June 29, 2002, Washington, D.C.
by Margaret Fisher
Fisher: It seems that almost everyone dreams of making the world a better place. You seem to have achieved that in your career. When did you develop your commitment and involvement in making the world a better place?
McClymont: It began as a young person. I'm a person who came out of the 1960s, when there was a lot of interest in broader social issues, such as protest against the Vietnam War and interest in the world at large. Then, when I was young, I traveled to the developing world, so I saw for the first time extraordinary inequality and poverty.
Fisher: What would you say are the three most pressing needs in the world?
McClymont: I think that first and foremost is the extreme poverty and enormous disparity in people's wealth. Tied to that and really a part of that is social exclusion and inequality.
Fisher: So, say a little more about social exclusion.
McClymont: It means that people don't have access to the fundamental things of life such as clean water, basic health and education, a way to improve their children's lives, and the means to give their kids an education or food. These are fundamentals. If you live in extreme poverty, you don't have access to them. Social exclusion also happens when, because of the color of one's skin or one's gender, a person is excluded from basic opportunities to participate fully in the world and society.
Fisher: How have the events of September 11, 2001, affected the efforts of InterAction, the coalition that you lead, to address world problems?
McClymont: Well, what we believe is that the American public is looking with fresh eyes on what happens overseas now. Americans understand better than ever a connection between helping Afghanistan parents get their kids food and clothing and their own personal safety. They see a connection. Certainly policy makers understand the national security implications of making sure that people's basic needs are met in other countries. And we know that Americans are more interested in paying attention and helping people build self-sufficiency around the world. They do see a connection between September 11 and development assistance.
Fisher: When you meet with high-ranking U.S. government leaders, how do you get them to listen to your point of view?
McClymont: We are very privileged to be able to meet with individuals very high up in the U.S. government, for example, Condoleezza Rice, assistant to the president for National Security Affairs, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. They're good governmental officials; they are open to listening to the nongovernmental perspective. They recognize that our member NGOs are often partners with the U.S. government in delivering aid and development. We have a point of view about certain issues that are a part of delivering that aid, and they need to listen to us because we bring real experience from on the ground. Our members are in every developing country; we know what is going on, on the ground. That is critical to a policy maker, or it should be.
And it is, to knowledgeable people such as the two I've just described. So they want to know our perspective, and they know how important the NGOs are to the larger world and, frankly, to Americans. InterAction members, in the aggregate, get $3 billion in donations from the American public. They are a very important player and they are respected by Americans to a large degree. So our policy leaders recognize that it is good politics to listen to NGOs-that they have real knowledge to bring to the table.
Fisher: Let's talk about the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), which was announced by President Bush earlier this year. How is this different from international aid that our government has given out before?
McClymont: Many people are skeptical about international development. We have myriad examples of how basic assistance has improved people's lives: smallpox was eradicated in 1977; over the last 30 years, illiteracy has been reduced by 20 percent; life expectancy has increased by 20 years; river blindness, which kills hundreds of thousands of people throughout Africa, has been virtually eliminated. These kinds of things are going on all over the world because of development assistance.
However, many Americans are worried because they think that aid may go to corrupt governments who will waste it. What we need to do is show that aid really does work if done in the right way. So in light of that, the president said, he will give more money, but he wants to make sure that the money is targeted better. He developed a set of criteria that would be used before a country would receive these additional dollars in aid.
Basically what happened is that he said by 2006 the U.S. government would annually give an additional $5 billion to our aid budget for international development assistance, and that is quite a substantial increase. The president promised that the money would be used to fight poverty and to help people find hope and opportunity. What we plan to do is work hard to make sure the $5 billion materializes and that it is used for poverty-focused development, which will make people's lives better, give them a basic education, give them basic health care, help mothers and children stay alive and get clean water, and so on. That's what we want the money to be used for, and we're going to work hard to ensure that, through the MCA, it is used that way. The MCA will be directed at certain core countries. But we also want to make sure that the regular traditional assistance does not diminish but is increased as well. There are billions of poor people all over the world who will not benefit from the MCA because they don't necessarily fall within its criteria.
Fisher: What types of criteria are used to select the core countries?
McClymont: They must show progress toward ruling justly; they must have basic governance and provide human rights; they must show they are investing in their people, in their education and health care; and they must have good economic policies. A lot of the research shows that for large-scale aid to be effective, it needs to go to countries among the truly poorest that have good, reasonable economic policies and good governance. That's where research tells us large-scale aid works best.
Fisher: In terms of the selection of the countries that meet the MCA criteria, would you say that there is a correlation between the poorest countries and countries that have good, reasonable economic and governance policies, or are the poorest countries going to be those in the most chaos and therefore not eligible for the MCA aid?
McClymont: We absolutely won't get to some of the poorest countries through the MCA. That is why we say that there is another pot of money: the traditional development accounts. InterAction is just saying that that money has got to continue and be increased and be used for those poor people who aren't otherwise going to get it through the MCA.
Fisher: Let's look at the young people of the United States and what role they might play in these issues. Of course, young people can donate to a specific organization or do fund-raising to benefit an organization. How else might they get involved?
McClymont: I think they can contribute to one of our members, an organization that they respect. I also think they can do advocacy work; they can urge and also get their parents to urge Congress to provide increased international development and humanitarian aid. They can speak to their friends and tell them about how important this work is. Not only will this make them safer, it is the right thing to do.
They can learn more about their neighbors around the world. I am sure that almost every young person in the United States goes to school with someone who comes from a developing country. Have them learn about the experiences of their fellow students. The conditions of the countries from which these people have come can only broaden students' personal understanding.
Of course, if students are lucky enough to have the opportunity, they can travel. They can join volunteer programs. Many of our member organizations operate volunteer programs in which people can go help out in another country. They can join the Peace Corps when they are a little older. They can participate in fellowship and exchange programs around the world. There is nothing better, as I experienced in my own life, than firsthand exposure, seeing for yourself what it's like to live in another place where people are truly poor.
Fisher: What about a career in humanitarian aid and development? What should a young person plan on?
McClymont: I get calls from literally hundreds of people asking about such employment. I can tell you that the best preparation is to have good knowledge about international issues and a very specific skill, such as public health. This combination is what organizations are looking for when hiring people for international development.
Fisher: Are there any of your 160 organizations that specifically include young people in the work of the organizations?
McClymont: What young people can do is go to our Web site and be linked to the members. Many of our members have Web sites, but I couldn't begin to cite them individually. I just learned about this the other day: President Bush is creating a U.S. Freedom Corps. Its Web site will link to volunteer opportunities across the board.
Fisher: When I browse your Web site, I read about so many organizations doing so many wonderful things around the world. Do you have any advice about how a young person should go about selecting an organization or a particular issue to support?
McClymont: I just think it's in the eye of the beholder. It's a personal thing; it's what moves you most, from your own personal experience. Naturally enough, I would urge people to get involved in helping people overseas to live better lives. The readers need to know that 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 per day. That is an astonishing amount of extreme poverty. About 3 billion, which is half the world's population, live on less than $2 per day. That's why I believe global poverty is the most crucial thing that people can turn their attention to. As I said, there are many other issues—the rights of people, justice, and social exclusion—but they are all wrapped up with poverty. I think poverty is not only about income levels but also about being excluded from the most basic opportunities.
Fisher: What other advice might you have for interested young people?
McClymont: Reading about a cause, learning about it, and becoming expert on it are really important. Young people can talk to their friends and family and influence others to work on helping other people. That is the key: to figure out issues that are actually going to contribute to other people's lives.
Activities related to the interview with Mary McClymont.
Student Central | Students in Action
Translating a Dream into Reality—Making the World a Better Place
Interview with Mary McClymont | Relieving Human Suffering (Organizations & Activities)