PCI’s Carrie Hessler-Radelet: Women Are Best Possible Investment

LONDON AND WASHINGTON VIA SKYPE— Public service and development must be in Carrie Hessler-Radelet’s DNA. Not only did she serve as the director of Peace Corps, the overseas volunteer program run by the U.S. government (she was appointed by President Barak Obama in 2013 and resigned when President Donald Trump was inaugurated in January), but her family is also the only one in the history of the organization to have had four generations volunteer. It started with her Aunt Virginia in 1966 when she spent two years working in Turkey for Peace Corps (she later served as country director for the program in Thailand) and then after Ms. Hessler-Radelet’s grandparents retired in the early 1970s, they went to volunteer in Malaysia.

She served with her husband Steve (an international development economist) in Western Samoa from 1981 to 1984, and her nephew went to Mozambique doing work on HIV and completed his placement in 2009. “I knew I wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer since I was seven years old,” said the Frankfort, Michigan native who did her BA at Boston University and has an MA from Harvard University’s School of Public Health. “So it was not just the run of the mill Peace Corps experience and our family has been unique within the Peace Corps world.”

Before being named President and CEO of San Diego-based NGO, Project Concern International (PCI), she not only worked in numerous positions within Peace Corps but also founded and was the executive director of the Special Olympics in The Gambia. Later she  worked for John Snow, Inc (JSI) where she was the technical advisor for their MotherCare Project in Indonesia from 1991 to 1994, and later became the organization’s vice-president and director in Washington, DC. She was nominated and appointed as deputy director of the Peace Corps in 2010 and during her tenure in that position, and as the organization’s director, she oversaw reform of the Peace Corps.

Those reforms included not only improving technical training program for volunteers but also expanding and strengthening public-private partnerships and the rollout of Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn program.  That girls’ education program has recently come back into the headlines as there have been rumors that the current administration wants to abolish the program, which during the Obama administration was co-run with USAID and the First Lady’s office. Ms. Hessler-Radelet spoke with she-files about her excitement in her new role with PCI, the importance of girls’ education and the role the U.S. plays in global development. EXCERPTS:

BROWNELL MITIC–All of your career has been in public service and development, with a lot of that time spent with Peace Corps. Was it hard to leave? 

HESSLER-RADELET–I miss it but I have to say I have really found a home here at PCI. There are lots of returned Peace Corps volunteers who work here at PCI, and all of the countries where Peace Corps serve are also PCI countries. And in all the countries we are working together in one way or another. But maybe most importantly PCI is really dedicated to empowering communities to enhance their own health, to end hunger with a focus in nutrition work and overcoming hardships, which is the humanitarian relief and community work that we do.

Both with the Peace Corps and now with PCI, there is a real focus on women’s and girls’ empowerment. Is this something of particular interest to you in the world of development? 

I really love our Women Empowered program that is focused around micro financing. We have 500,000 in our WEP groups and together they have saved over $3.5 million that they use as capital to build their own business, send their kids to school, keep their families healthy and improve their quality of life. When you invest in a woman, that is the best possible investment you can make.

When you were Peace Corps director you were involved in helping implement the Let Girls Learn program that was introduced two years ago. Girls’ education seems to luckily be high on the development priority agenda nowadays. 

Yes, I think that is absolutely true and that is because there has been so much research that shows that in terms of bang for the buck– especially long-term development impact– the highest return on investment that you can get for development dollars is to educate a girl. A girl who is educated is going to be healthier, she is going to raise healthier children, her children are more likely to be educated, she is more likely to be engaged civically, she is more likely to be engaged in her community, she is more likely to vote and more likely to save and be an active participant in the economic growth of her community. And she is less likely to have HIV, less likely to be a victim of domestic violence—all of these things, and they are all empirically proven through research.

But what about secondary education? You would be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks it’s bad to educate a girl in primary school, but secondary school–for a variety of reasons that we have written about on she-files –becomes politicized and girls face a lot of barriers. 

There has been a huge push over last 10 years to get girls in primary school,  and now you see gender parity in primary school education. But where it falls off is in seconday school. So that is what Let Girls Learn was all about and that is what PCI is focused on as well,  factors that are associated with families being able to send their girls to school, such as  micro finance, such as health, such as water and sanitation, even building laterines and sanitary facilities in schools. But I think there is more we can do too in that scenario of growth, something I am personally interested in.

PCI has created something of a niche for itself in terms of working in post-conflict and post-disaster situations, which is an area of development that really is lacking.

It’s not just your straight crisis management, it is building capacity for communities to move from a crisis situation into a development situation. It is strattling that important middle where you are building resilient communities, you are helping people after a traumatic event—be it natural disaster or a conflict —helping them get back on their feet and helping to sow the seeds for long term development. And that is a very important space and one that, quite frankly, is not occupied by many other organizations. [NGOs] tend to be either really focused on humanitarian relief and disaster response or they tend to be straight development organizations so that inbetween time is a time when communities are extremely vulnerable, they no longer qualify for the funding that is available through disaster and it is a place where PCI is strong.


The development community has taken a real hit this year from the Trump administration that is not only pulling funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), but there is talk of folding USAID into the State Department and the Global  Gag Rule,  meaning that many organizations across the world that get funding for family planning from the U.S. will lose it.  

One of the hardest things right now is the high degree of uncertainty that exists. There is a lot of engagement on the part of partners and allies, such as the U.S. military, the business community, the faith community, there is a really broad bipartisan support for U.S. foreign assistance on the Hill. I would say strongly within the Republican party there is pushback on parts of this plan. Of course, PCI is proud to partner with the U.S. government, both here in the U.S. but also throughout the world. We know that the investments made in foreign assistance over the past few decades have literally saved lives and lifted billions of people out of poverty.

PCI also do work in San Diego–where PCI is headquartered– on issues around trafficking. 

In San Diego, the district attorney’s office is very focused on this issue and we partner with the DA.  They estimate in San Diego alone it is an $800 million industry. So we are very proud of our efforts in anti-trafficking, we are working on the demand reducton side in terms of starting a business coalition to get employers to educate their employees.  What the research says  is that the prime time for making arrangements—this is sex trafficking—is 2 p.m. using employer resources like the internet and phone to make dates for after work.  So part of the business conversation is bringing them on board, helping them understand that their workplaces are being used as ways to access child trafficking.


by Ginanne Brownell Mitic


Photos courtesy PCI: 1) Ms. Hessler-Radelet in Comoros Islands 2) Women in Tanzania; 3) Women in India; 4) San Diego PCI program to end trafficking



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