An Interview with Pamela A. White, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti
Pamela A. White has served as the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti since July 2012, returning for her second assignment to the country since the period from 1985 to 1990. White was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon from 1971 to 1973. She later joined the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S.A.I.D.), serving in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Haiti, Egypt, and South Africa, Mali, Tanzania, and Liberia, and assumed the role of Deputy Director for East Africa in Washington, D.C. Prior to her most recent assignment in Haiti, White was the U.S. Ambassador to The Gambia for two years; she is one of the only foreigners to have received the Medal of Honor from The Gambia. Born in Maine, White earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine and her master’s degree from the School for International Training. She is married to another Foreign Service Officer, with whom she has four children.
The Politic: What compelled you to join the Foreign Service?
It goes way back to when I was a senior in high school, actually, and the Vietnam War was raging. My favorite cousin (who still is my favorite cousin) Jimmy was in the army, and he was sent home extremely sick — a near death story. I went to visit him in the hospital, and he was hooked up to everything and barely talked. At the same time, at my high school, there were five people or so who came from Washington from Peace Corps, and said, “There is a better way of engaging the world than war.”
I went home and I said to my dad, who is a Marine, “Daddy, I’m gonna join the Peace Corps.” And he said, “No you’re not, don’t be ridiculous.” I said, “I’m gonna go to Africa!” And he said, “Don’t be even more ridiculous.” Four years later, I was accepted to Peace Corps, and after four and a half, I went to Africa. And I never looked back.
The Politic: What was your first job within the Peace Corps?
I was a teacher in a little tiny village with no running water, no electricity: the only English speaker for a hundred miles around. I just engaged with the people of Cameroon — who are wonderful, warm people — to a point that I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to work with people who wanted help and wanted to help themselves. There is no doubt whatsoever that I learned a heck of a lot more from them than I taught them [through crossing] with women at night and teaching them literacy — 99 percent of women in Cameroon at that time didn’t read or write, and they were thirsty for knowledge, so it was a great experience.
The Politic: I know you have served as Ambassador to the Gambia. How has some of the work that you did there informed the work that you are doing in Haiti? I ask that thinking of a project that you did in Tanzania: It was a $130 million program that worked on several issues that are relevant in Haiti today, such as malaria control and HIV/AIDS prevention.
I worked for 28 or so years for USAID. All of those experiences and all of those countries, whether I was head of AID — I was head of AID in Mali and Tanzania and Liberia — or I was working inside the mission, taught me lessons. My first job was as a Community Liaison Officer for the State Department job in Ouagadougou [the capital of Burkina Faso], way back in the late 1970s. That taught me how important it is to reach out to people and be a ‘people person,’ so people know that you care about them. If people think you don’t care about them, then you are not getting the full worth of those people, because they are not bringing everything they have to the table. So every job, whether or not you think at the time, “Oh that’s going to make me a good ambassador” — and believe me, I was not thinking about being an ambassador back in those days — contributes to being a well-rounded ambassador.
I am very proud of many things that AID did over the years, but one of the things I’m proudest of was being part of a program on Zanzibar in Tanzania that eliminated malaria. We started with about a 40 percent rate of infection, or incident rate, and at the end of two years, we got it down to less than one percent. To this day, it is down to less than one percent. You can pretty much say that we eliminated malaria on Zanzibar in spite of many people telling us it couldn’t be done. We were invited to the White House, we were given special awards — rewards — the Chief Zanzibari doctor and I. It was quite a thrill.
We did it because we had everything we needed (and you don’t very often have everything you need to really fix a problem in the long-term). We had enough money; we had enough bed-nets; we had enough spray; we had enough test kits; we had enough drugs; we had the political will; we had a great message and saw behavior change. You just don’t get all that stuff together very often. We really did a great job there, all of us. There were many donors, and the donor coordination was good, too.
The Politic: During your Senate confirmation hearing, you said that the instability within the Haitian government at that time — post-earthquake
— was impeding Haiti’s ability to recover as quickly as was necessary after the earthquake. Do you still believe that is true, or do you believe you have made significant headway on this point?
I think they’ve made significant headway. Haiti was always a bit of a political cauldron. There are lots of teledjol — rumors in the streets. I think the great instability at the beginning of the [Michel] Martelly administration is certainly much calmer now. We have not seen major shifts in the government. They do occasionally change ministers, but the major ones that we interact with have been pretty stable for a long time. That is a great plus. The most important thing is that the prime minister has been stable for a long time, and that is incredibly important to us because he controls all of the ministers; he controls the vision for how to move forward. He is very tough on corruption and very supportive of private industry and enterprise, tourism, jobs — all of these things with which which we agree. So having a steady hand there has been incredibly important.
The Politic: What do you believe are the development programs that have worked the best in Haiti?
I think, without a doubt, many of them have been successful. The Caracol Park in the north has certainly been a success, and it will be more successful as we get more jobs in the factory up there and can use more of the resources that we’ve built.
The head of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control], Dr. [Thomas] Frieden, was down here a couple of months ago. He said, “It’s not often that you can do an unqualified success and Haiti in the same sentence, but the PEPFAR program and many of the other health programs have been a huge success here.” The HIV rate about ten years ago was 4.6 percent, and this year, we dipped down to a little below 2. Halving the HIV rate is a miracle. I have been working in HIV for years, and nowhere have I seen the rates dip by 50 percent. This year, we did an HIV surveillance survey, and we found that 88 percent of pregnant women who need drugs so as not to pass on HIV to their babies were getting the drugs that they needed. That is huge in a country that has a weak infrastructure.
The number of kids vaccinated over the last year or year and a half went from something like 50 percent to 80 or 85 percent. Many donors came together, and the Minister of Health here has been a real leader in donor coordination. She has gotten the best out of all the donors. We have some really amazing statistics. It is sort of one success after another, and we have played a critical role in that.
The Politic: Following up on that, in an interview that you did with World Learning, you related a very interesting and funny story about a meeting with several Malian tribesmen with whom you were working on preventative measures for sexually transmitted diseases. The lesson that you pulled out of that [experience] was that it is very important to take everything in a cultural context, and solutions to chronic issues could not arise if they were not considered within that context. Have you implemented that within your approach in Haiti, and if so, how successful has it been?
It is definitely an incredibly good point. Every country has a different set of values, and if you don’t begin to understand those values, then you’re not going to be successful in that country. We spend millions of dollars on behavioral change messages, and some of them just aren’t going to change behavior, because the messages have not come up from the ground. The messages either came from the elite or another country. You cannot transplant messages. I remember that we tried to do that with a soap opera that really worked in Ethiopia — about HIV/AIDS and a guy that was running around transmitting AIDS here and there. [I recall] how that was perceived in Ethiopia and how differently it was perceived in Mali; we had to completely change the soap opera. I would say, if you want to get a good behavioral change message out there, then you have got to sit under trees; you have got to sit with women in their outdoor kitchens. You have got to take the time to say, “Does this message resonate with you?”
There are two fabulous brothers [Chip and Dan Heath] that wrote a  book [“Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die”]. They are famous for working with companies and state governments, for coming up with messages and making them stick in peoples’ minds, so that you really can change behavior. Somebody gave me their book for Easter one year when I was in Tanzania, and I said, “I want these guys to come to Tanzania.” They had never heard of Tanzania and they had barely heard of HIV. I found their names on their website, just Googling, and sent them a [message] to say, “I am head of AID in Tanzania and I really want to talk to you about coming out here.” And they said, “Wow, where is that?” I got them on the phone; one was in California and one was in Duke University, so we had to be careful about what time we chose. I started telling them about what I needed, and why it was important that we had a new fresh look. After three or four months of negotiation, they came, and they didn’t charge anything. I told them I would take them on safari, and that finally closed the deal.
In any case, they came. They taught me, first of all, to get people from the street. They went right into the street, and they started telling people, “Come in, we want to listen to you; we want to hear your ideas.” We had workshops with different kinds of people. They were coming up just out of nowhere: “If I wanted to have a message about protected sex, this would be the message.” They were very down to earth. But [they came up with different kinds of messages] — “This is gonna kill you;” “This is gonna hurt you;” “This is gonna hurt your family” — we would have never come up with on our own.
Then, they took these different messages, and they took all these people — ordinary people; we didn’t have anybody fancy; it was not a million dollar contract — and put them on buses all over Dar Al Salaam. They started saying, “Does this mean anything to you?” “Would you stop doing acts if you heard this fact?” They did that for three weeks, and at the end of this whole thing, we had a message that we knew was going to work because it didn’t come from up here, it came from down there. We tested it on real people. We need to do more of that, and I try to do that as much as I can. When somebody says, “This is a hugely successful housing project,” I think, “Well, let me talk to the people who live here. I don’t want to hear it from you, I want to hear it from them.”
The Politic: That is very interesting. Within the Haitian government, there has been a separation between what the people want and what the outside — or those that come into Haiti — wants to do. There is a disparity between them, and one of those disparities is with the NGOs that operate within Haiti. One statistic says there are 343 unregistered organizations operating within Haiti, and another says there are 20,000.
(Laughs) Yeah, somewhere between the two.
The Politic: How has the U.S. Embassy itself been involved, or how could it be involved in working toward, say, a system of registration for NGOs, or at least U.S.-operating NGOs?
I am talking about this with the Prime Minister and — because we did this when I was in Liberia — the [Liberian] Minister of Finance, who was one of my best friends in Liberia. He is still one of my really good friends. We try to see each other whenever we can. He and I realized that we had to get a handle on all the NGOs over there, because it was almost as bad as it is here. They were just forming everywhere; we had no clue. So his government, under President [Ellen Johnson] Sirleaf, decided that all NGOs had to register. It cost [about] $100 to register. We sent out teams to get GPS locations for everybody who was working; it was a matter of getting people to register and also mapping NGOs that were working throughout Liberia. By the end of the year, we had a very good handle on how many there were, what they were doing, and where they were. The latter was important to the government because we found that there were bunches in one county, and nothing in other places with big populations. Instead of trying to push back on what existed already — because that is hard to do — as new NGOs came in to register, including American NGOs and those that AID was hiring, the Minister of Plan would look at his map and say, “Listen, we don’t need anymore clinics over there. We need them over here.”
That is what [Haiti] really needs. It is trying really hard to do that and we are trying to help them to do that. I am going to try to bring in the same people here that worked with me in Liberia. It is a hard thing to get a handle on because people don’t particularly want to get registered. They want to do their own thing, and we are all here to help Haiti. So many people are doing so many great things, there’s no doubt about that. But you need some organization.
The Politic: Sometime around the Senate elections, you made a statement that was an attempt at dispelling the idea that the U.S. was going to intervene in Haitian elections. That statement was basically: “There are times when people overestimate the ability of the U.S. Embassy to intervene in politics, especially Haitian politics, despite whatever past they had.” I want to know a little more about what you felt the Embassy could or could not do. What are some of the misconceptions the Haitian people have about the U.S. Embassy — its role here and what it is that you are trying to do — versus what it is that you think you are here to do, and what the Embassy is capable of doing and will do?
There is no doubt that we have had a long history of intervening in Haiti, starting with the Marines back in 1930s that were not very well received here — “Here we come, whether you like it or not.” So there is a perception that the U.S. is involved in every decision that is made within the Haitian government, which is just not true, nor do I want it to be true. We try to stay away as much as we can so Haitians can make decisions for Haitians. But you have to be very careful that you are not saying something that someone is going to perceive as leaning to one side or the other.
I do try to support the Martelly administration because I think that they care about their people, but also because any change in government here destabilizes the country and throws us five years backwards. We just can’t afford to keep doing that in Haiti. To have a stable and elected government complete a full term is very important. And most politicians [and Haitian people] believe that too, I think. Especially with the elections that we really want to have happen this year, we do have money that we put into the basket that will be used by the UN to do logistics and work with the transitional C.E.P [Conseil Electoral Permanent].
We also have projects that will be working for traditional voter education. I am especially interested in getting women involved at every level. Whether it is a mayor, or [senator], or deputy, I want women involved. I don’t think they are involved enough, and they haven’t been. But there are lots of group organizations that are trying to help us make that happen. I think we just awarded that contract, or will award it very soon, so we can get moving on voter education, especially for women.
The Politic: I want to ask you about how you were working to improve of the lives of women and children within Haiti, because a lot of your past work has focused on this. [In] a recent project that you were involved in between the Department of State and Goldman Sachs, you worked with Haitian entrepreneurs who were women and sent them to a conference for entrepreneurship.
That was a great program — is a great program, actually! I want to do more. I spent a lot of my first year here at the Embassy figuring out who was doing what, what the strengths and the weaknesses [were], and how we can make the Embassy function more efficiently from within. I also developed relationships with key players within the Haitian government. I am very concerned with gender-based violence and girls’ education. By the way, the latest statistics say that there are slightly more girls than boys enrolled in primary school, so that is a great thing. The President is very strong on girls’ education, as is his wife, the First Lady; they pushed it very hard.
Getting women in the workforce is also extremely important. In fact, in the north, we have significantly more women in the workforce than we do men; they turned out to be really good employees! I would like to take on a couple of strong causes and support them this year, and my first project in 2013 is getting more women in the electoral process, which is top-to-bottom. And I will be giving speeches on that and pushing it.
The Politic: I am a Haitian-American who is coming here. I started a non-profit and am working on that this summer, and I think that is incredibly important. Some of the responses that I have received from Haitians here are that this is something that they would like to see more of — Haitians, or Haitian-Americans, coming back to Haiti. How important is the Haitian diaspora, and will they be a part of the contributing force in your plans for the future?
They are very important and very enthusiastic. I went to a meeting with about 5,000 of them in Brooklyn with President Martelly, and it was just fabulous. You can tell they care and they do want to contribute. But they often do not know how to do that, and I think we need to give greater clarity and opportunity so that it’s easier for them to contribute. The current AID Administrator, Rajiv Shah, has been very strong about something he calls ‘USAID Forward.’ That [program] involves is giving more money to (in this case) Haitian organizations and not going through all these huge NGOs. We are moving in that direction.
I believe that is the very best way forward, because, again, they automatically have this cultural link that we need so badly. We do not want to fumble around for three years doing something that perhaps is not even what people of Haiti want. We are headed in that direction and it is the right direction. I told Administrator Shah that there is nothing that he has done in his time that I have been more supportive of than this direction to give money directly to host country organizations.
The Politic: What do you think are your biggest successes so far in Haiti?
Personally, I think just reconnecting with this country that I loved when I was here in the 1980s and understanding the current state of affairs. The level of poverty, the level of
commitment, the resources that we have, the changes — you can’t instantaneously come into a country, especially a country that gets this much foreign aid, and make snap decisions. Every decision is critical, whether it is a health decision, an infrastructure decision, or an education decision. They are all intertwined, so you have to be very astute at how you can use them all to build one on the other. And I think that is something that I have done well here — gotten my hands on the DOD [Department of Defense] side and the AID side and the CDC side and brought the picture together so that we are making a [U.S. government] contribution.
The Politic: How do you think that you promote American economic, political, social, and cultural interests and values in Haiti?
Everywhere, all the time, you will see me and hear me. I think the United States is still looked at by most Haitians as the promised land: the land of freedom, of human rights, a place where people can get ahead if they work hard. We try to make sure that — in everything I do and I say — those basic rights, those basic freedoms, and what we stand for as Americans [are discussed] with great pride. People want to hear that and most people expect that for themselves.
I have not gone anywhere since my first day in Haiti where I haven’t been asked for a visa. And some people say, “Well that just must drive you crazy!” It doesn’t drive me crazy. I am very proud that people want to come to the United States of America, and there is a reason they want to come to the United States of America. So it does not upset me. I tell them I don’t have one in my back pocket, but this is how you get there.
My Fourth of July speech was basically about how I see Haiti and the problems that exist in Haiti. I know there is too much corruption, I know there are not enough jobs, and I know we need to do better. But I also see how much progress has been made, and I want to encourage the Haitian people to not lose hope. The most important lesson that the Haitians have taught me since I got here is, no matter what happens, no matter what storms come, or earthquakes come, or [how hard] somebody pushes you down, you must get back up. I think that is a lesson that Haiti can teach the world. And we are going to spread that.
The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?
That is a very tough one! I am sure there are, but I don’t think I will be saying them today. Like I said, America is still viewed as the country that represents all the values that I hold most important, so I am very proud to be a representative of that country. I think that our foreign policy, for the most part, also represents those values and makes us want to be better world citizens. Although a lot of people tend to believe that the Congress does not want to spend a lot of money on foreign aid, that they would rather spend it on doing domestic work, the Senators that I talk to — like Senator [Patrick] Leahy who came here from Vermont — know that we have to engage in the world and cannot be isolationists. This is the same lesson that I learned as a senior in high school: It is better to engage the world in peace than in war, so that’s what we diplomats try to do.
Embassy of the United States to Haiti: http://haiti.usembassy.gov