Learning from USAID, Peanuts, and “Sun Sickness”

I have been working for USAID/Benin (U.S. Agency for International Development) for a little over a month now, and have learned so much about both development issues in Africa and how the U.S. government operates within the arena.

To give a little background about USAID for those who aren’t as familiar, it was  created when President John F. Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act in 1961. This followed the success of the reconstruction of Europe after World War II through the Marshall Plan and the Truman Administration’s Point Four Program — the 1950 program to engage in technically-based international economic development.

USAID uses less than half a percent of the federal budget and has offices and projects in over 100 countries. Fun fact right?  Just wait, there’s more..

I work in the Office of Program Coordination as a “Program Specialist,” though the Mission Director always introduces me as a Consultant (the ultimate catch-all term for someone who still doesn’t know exactly what they do…) It is really great to be at such a small Mission because I get to see much more of what goes on than say being in Washington or a larger Country Office.

USAID has given our specific country office $30 million for this fiscal year. To some that might sound like a lot of money, but when you look at the countries that recieve the most, we pale in comparison. For example for FY2011, these are the top 5 befitting countries:

1. Afghanistan…….. $1,438,596,449

2. Haiti……………….$970,910,372


4. Jordan…………….$460,251,837


Also among the top benifitting countries are Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria, South Sudan,  Iraq, and West Bank/Gaza.

Program funding ranges globally from Health (more money goes to health than any other program),  to Agriculture, Good Governance, Education, Conflict Mitigation and Reconciliation, Counter-Narcotics, Disaster Readiness, the list goes on…

Here in Benin, partly because of what I consider to be a  midget of a budget, we really mainly concentrate on health, with some residual funding for educational projects. Over half of our program budget goes to combatting malaria alone. But, mention this to a Peace Corps. Volunteer here and you are likely to get a scoff or rolling of the eyes. I’ve talked to many who think it’s not a wise way to use resources.  And I can’t say I necessarily blame them. To most locals, getting malaria is like getting a flu, they don’t relate to it the same way an expat would.  But there are definitely vulnerable populations, particular infants and children under 5. This can often be fatal to their more delicate systems.

USAID and other health orgs have created Public Service Announcements (PSA), held events where bed nets are given out, etc. What Benin may need to most is effective education. I was fascinated to find that many people call malaria “Malade de Soleil” or in English, “Sun Sickness.” Why? Because some village person decided that people get malaria from being in the sun too long, not from mosquitos and the idea spread… many others believe malaria comes from peanuts. Yes, peanuts. Another village myth.

So… spending money distributing bed nets to a population that thinks that they get malaria from peanuts and the sun,  may not be the most effective route? Who knows. I can’t speak from any sort of expertise, I just think it is interesting to hear different view points.

So that is a little about the work that is done here, USAID has lots of other programs here that deal with maternal health, etc., but that is what I found most interesting.

Last little fact, we are in transition of welcome a new Ambassodor and just bid farewell to Ambassador James Knight. I met him during his last week in office, nice guy, super super tall. The Embassy and USAID threw him a surprise going away party and we all ordered handmade African outfits ( a common tradition here…) We even gave the Ambassador and his wife matching outfits as a going away present. Below is a picture of the Ambassador, his wife, Amelia, and yours truly. (Note I am almost 5’7″ and wearing heels, he’s soo tall!)

So that is all for now, I know I will be learning so much more in my next five months and hope to share with you soon! Sending lots of love from Cotonou!


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  1. john says:

    thought you had disappeared into the bush. Good to see you back on line.

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