January 22, 2008
William Garvelink

William Garvelink

U.S. Leadership in Responding to the World's Humanitarian Crises

Underwritten by: Christian Reformed World Relief Committee


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Listen to the Inner Compass interview (#813) of
William Garvelink that also took place while she was at Calvin College.

Garvelink highlights U.S. role in international disaster response

Calvin alumnus Ambassador William Garvelink spoke to the January Series audience today on the role of the United States government in responding to humanitarian crises all over the world.

In short, the efforts the United States puts forth in humanitarian aid make it the leader in disaster response in the international community. USAID, an agency Garvelink has served for many years, has over 1000 foreign service officers stationed in far-reaching outposts. The agency and its disaster response arm, The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) administers aid to the tune of $2.5–3.5 billion per year. OFDA is primarily a management organization, monitoring natural and human-made disasters and distributing funds to NGOs that then get food and other aid to people in need.

The disaster assistance provided by USAID is given to countries in need regardless of their relationship with the United States government. With this policy, disaster aid has been deployed to places like Iran and Cuba even though they may not be eligible for other types of aid from the United States.  In any disaster situation where the local government is stretched beyond its capacity to provide aid for its people and will accept outside aid, USAID will provide disaster assistance.

Garvelink highlighted some of the worst natural and human-made disasters he has seen since his work began with USAID in the 1970s. Among the natural disasters was the 1988 earthquake in Armenia that killed 50,000 people, the 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran that killed 26,000 people and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan that left 73,000 dead and 4 million homeless. The worst human-made humanitarian crises Garvelink has worked with include the Rwanda genocide that killed 800,000 people in 1994, the recent strife in Darfur, Sudan and Eastern Chad and the current unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has seen 4 million people die since 1996.

More about the speaker

Mr. Garvelink is the Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). His responsibilities include oversight of USAID's worldwide humanitarian assistance programs and he is a member of the Senior Foreign Service. Prior to this appointment, Bill served since 1999 as the USAID Mission Director in Eritrea.

On any given day, William Garvelink 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.

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.

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.

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."

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."

Ambassador Appointment (May 30, 2007): Congratulations to William Garvelink on being nominated by President Bush to the position of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. White House press release >> Garvelink will be sworn in as the Ambassador on October 22 and will leave for the Congo in November.

William Garvelink, class of 1971, was awarded the 2007 Distinguished Alumni Award by Calvin College in May, 2007.