William S. Elliott '73
U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)
Since 1961 USAID has helped dozens of countries rebuild after war or disaster, and has facilitated the expansion of democracy and free markets all over the world. Will Elliott joined USAID in 1983 after working overseas for General Electric. His assignments with USAID include Botswana, Jordan and South Africa. Now as chief of the Programs Operations Division in the Europe and Eurasia Bureau's Office of Operations and Management, Elliott is involved in strategic planning, and design and implementation of development projects in 26 countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
What hopes and values drive your work?
I believe in the dignity and worth of every human being regardless of social status, ethnicity, race, color, gender, religion or worldview. As an American, I am a person of privilege, living in a country of incredible resources. I feel an obligation, therefore, to work for a more just and equitable world.
I also believe that we need to encourage values that reduce resentment and promote reconciliation--values that transcend material self-interest and the bitter memories of past conflicts. Only in this way can people pass on to their children the possibility of growing up in a world more just than the one that they inherited.
What are the top priorities for reconstructing countries, like Iraq, just emerging from military action?
The Office of Transition Initiatives was specifically created within USAID in 1994 to help us respond to postwar situations. There are many aspects to rebuilding in the wake of a military campaign. Each situation is different and there is no cookie-cutter approach that will work. Certainly ensuring that food is available is essential for any society. Also, stability and personal security. Where there has been a strong central government, we seek to strengthen the civil society. Where there has been a weak central government, that needs to be strengthened.
What makes rebuilding Iraq easier than rebuilding Afghanistan?
Iraq is different because it has a large middle class that is educated, urbanized and sophisticated. Our task in Iraq is truly rebuilding, whereas Afghanistan is at an earlier stage of development. The similarities between Iraq and Eastern Europe are greater than those between Iraq and Afghanistan-- the former are societies with heavily centralized economic and political systems that have been exploited for the purposes of the top leadership of the country.
The Iraqi people were traumatized by Saddam Hussein's rule. How does the psychological health of a people factor into relief efforts?
We learned much about emotional trauma in the Balkans. In Bosnia, USAID funded several efforts that dealt with the severe trauma experienced by families--both refugees from other countries and internally displaced persons--through individual and group counseling sessions. Much of our work focused on women who suddenly found themselves as heads of households due to the death of husbands and fathers in the war, or whose spouses and/or fathers were still missing. To offer the counseling, we worked through private U.S. organizations as well as local groups in Bosnia.
The latest World Values Survey shows that most Muslims want a democratic government. Do ethnicity and faith pose specific challenges to establishing democracy?
I have found the same type of challenges in all countries, regardless of the ethnic and faith traditions that prevail. For example, deep ethnic divisions in the Balkans led to war and are a very real impediment to development. Teaching children the values of tolerance is one hope for lasting change. With financial support from USAID, two U.S. organizations combined their expertise in conflict resolution and children's television programs. They established a local company in Macedonia to produce a television series aimed at increasing tolerance. The series involved children from five ethnic groups who worked together solving disputes in their neighborhoods through seeing life from the other groups' perspective.
How did your WPI education prepare you for your work?
I was one of the first 32 students to graduate under the WPI Plan. My education taught me life skills such as problem solving, resourcefulness and teamwork--all essential to international development work. I was in the second group of students to study abroad--three of us went to the City University of London for the fall semester in 1972. Professionally and personally, my experience in London formed the basis of my lifelong interest and involvement in international matters. My parents wisely sent me to a precollege study course at WPI, through which I met a classmate from Kuwait. We became good friends and through our years at WPI we vacationed together. He joined me for meals with relatives in Massachusetts; I visited his home in Kuwait in 1975. Thus began my attempt to understand the Arab and Islamic worlds, which continued during studies in London and beyond.