2007 Distinguished Alumni Award • William Garvelink '71

On any given day, William Garvelink '71 may be dealing with 30-40 disasters all over the world, many of which escape the notice of most Americans.

Areas devastated by earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and civil wars are where Garvelink focuses his attention; he's among the first to be notified when any such event occurs.

William Garvelink
William Garvelink at Commencement 2007
Photo by John Corriveau

As the Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Garvelink oversees the major humanitarian operations of the United States government.

"It is probably the most visible thing that the U.S. government does," said Garvelink.

It hasn't always been such a high priority for the United States, however.

When Garvelink began his career in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1970s, humanitarian assistance was not a big issue, he said.

Garvelink developed a passion for it, though, by working for Congressman Don Fraser (DFL-Minn.) after graduating from Calvin with a history degree and from the University of Minnesota with a master's degree in history.

"My objective was to get my master's and Ph.D. in history and then teach at a small school," he said. "While pursing my doctorate at University of North Carolina, I ran out of money to continue studying Latin American history, particularly for the travel I needed to do."

During that time, Garvelink and his wife, Linda Arendsen, who also attended Calvin from 1968 to 1970, visited a friend in Washington, D.C., for a weekend, and he was hooked.

After a three-year stint as an aide for Fraser, he began working as a foreign service officer for USAID. Since that time he has conducted assessments and has directed relief operations all over the world, including Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Near East, Europe and the former Soviet Union.

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He has played the lead role in responding to the humanitarian needs of civilians during the war in Afghanistan; the war in Iraq; the conflict in Darfur, Sudan; the earthquake in Bam, Iran; and the Asian tsunami, to name a few.

Humanitarian aid is now one of the top five priorities of U.S. foreign policy, Garvelink said. He oversees a budget of more than $3.5 billion for food and non-food assistance. Yet much of what the United States does goes unnoticed by many Americans. But it is clearly visible to those who so desperately need help.

"Nobody is worse off than the displaced people in the middle of Sudan," he said. "And it would be very easy to forget about these people, but they are completely dependent on foreign assistance. We have to be committed to taking care of the people of the world."

In situations such as the one in Sudan, Garvelink's role goes beyond just working out the logistics of supplying food, water and health supplies to four million people.

"It's complicated there," he said. "I have to deal with some nasty, unsavory folks," he said, "negotiating with rebel leaders just to get them to allow our relief efforts in. We tell them, 'Here's what we want to do; don't shoot at us.'"

"It doesn't always work," he said. "In some areas, relief workers are the highest casualty rate; it's probably safer to be a soldier."

In the case of natural disasters there is no negotiating; Garvelink must make swift decisions based upon very limited information. "'I don't know' doesn't work. You have to respond quickly to save lives," he said.

And he has saved many, according to Roger Winter, former USAID Assistant Administrator for the Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance Bureau. "His professionalism, humanitarian concern and sweat saved, undoubtedly, thousands of lives and sustained hope in the survivors of these terrible events," he said.

The 1988 earthquake in Armenia and the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, are two natural disasters that stand out in Garvelink's memory. "The devastation was unbelievable," he said.

Fifty-thousand people were killed in each. "In Bam, everything was leveled; there was no possibility of survivors. All we could do was begin pulling out dead bodies," he said.

Experiencing such devastation throughout his career has been difficult, Garvelink admitted. "In the early days, it was much harder to deal with," he said. "I've learned to look at the health, water and food needs clinically, and then I work at getting them what is needed. That's what I focus on, but it gets to you every now and then."

A Christian-based education with a broad liberal arts background has been the foundation for his career, Garvelink said.

"It struck me the other day," he said. "What kinds of skills are necessary for what I do? You need to be able to think logically, analyze situations, write clearly and make decisions. Calvin's training couldn't have been better.

"And my passion for this comes from my Christian upbringing and education," he added. "In my early years, I didn't realize how important Calvin was. It is a rare commodity, combining a quality education with moral guidance. When people come to work in Washington, I notice right away when they are from Calvin."

Reflecting on his 30-year career, Garvelink said that is has been amazing to represent the U. S. government in this way.

"The U.S. is expected to be everywhere and participate in everything," he said. "There are 18 countries that provide 99 percent of the aid in the world, and for that, we set the tone. The U.S is more involved than it ever has been, and we are expected to provide answers."

And that's what Garvelink will continue to do.