I’ve been a part of dozens of MOU signing ceremonies over the years, but this one was refreshingly different. Here I was, Counterpart’s new Director of USDA Programs, taking my first trip for the organization to kick off a new USDA McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mauritania, an experience that ignited in me a passion for Africa and development that has changed and guided my adult and professional life for almost three decades. I owe the people of Mauritania a great debt and here were USDA and Counterpart offering me the opportunity to make a big payment.
Development work really means something in Mauritania, one of the harshest environments on the planet. When people ask me where I did Peace Corps and where Mauritania is, I joke that “It’s the edge of the world and the Sahara Desert – it’s just south of Morocco and east of the Old Testament.” The desert has been expanding for a century and the climate grows harsher every year. The rural population has been pushed to the extreme south of the country along the Senegal River, where temperatures exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) for six months out of the year and average rainfall is just 26 inches (66 cm) during the three-month rainy season. Crop failure is the norm and communities suffer from chronic food insecurity and extremely low health indicators. According to UNICEF, 20 percent of the country’s children under five-years-old are underweight and another 22.5 percent of children exhibit signs of stunting. Life in Mauritania is hard and short – average life expectancy is just under 65 years, 13 years less than in the U.S.
USDA’s new program can make a real difference for these communities. It is led by Desire Yamego, an experienced and dynamic Chief of Party who is a social connector and whirlwind of activity. At the heart of the program is a school feeding program that will serve more than 48 million nutritious meals to 115,000 students in 209 schools in the Gorgol and Brakna regions, improving nutrition and also promoting improved enrollment and attendance. A capacity building program at the national, regional, and district levels will improve government officials’ and teachers’ skills in managing school feeding and literacy instruction. Book distribution, extracurricular reading activities, and public awareness campaigns will promote increased literacy and underline the importance of education. The program’s strong potential for having real impact in Mauritania was an important reason in my decision to sign on with Counterpart.
I’ve been a part of dozen of MOU signing ceremonies over the years as a participant, an organizer, and sometimes the guy holding the pen and making the speech in halting French. I often come away feeling a jaded sense of disengagement from the national government and bi-lateral partners. Not so at all in Mauritania! The U.S Embassy and USDA were extremely engaged with Counterpart in the organization and execution of the ceremony. Our USDA Program Analyst made the trip out to Mauritania with me to attend; the Embassy’s dynamic Development Assistance Coordinator (a former Peace Corps Associate Director) opened Ministerial doors for us all week; and the U.S. Ambassador himself attended each Ministerial meeting, visibly knowledgeable about and engaged in the program, and gave a heartfelt speech at the signing ceremony itself.
The Mauritanian government was even more engaged. The Ministers of Education, Economy and Industry, and Health took the time to meet with our delegation and pledged their support and assistance. The Education Ministry’s Director of School Canteens, who will be our day to day counterpart, was dynamic, friendly, and palpably excited to get to work with us. I came away from the week with the genuine feeling that we have a true partner in the Mauritanian government.
The signing ceremony itself was what it should have been – a symbolic representation of the mutual excitement of all partners for the program. Desire and Counterpart’s Program Managers sweated the details; neckties were tied and suit jackets were (briefly!) worn in the heat; speeches were delivered in several languages, haltingly by some; hands were shaken over a newly-signed MOU; and all of this was broadcast on the Mauritanian nightly news.
What was different for me, for this former Peace Corps volunteer and sometimes jaded development professional, was the distinct feeling that yes, this is going to work, and some real good is going to come of this. What a great gift from USDA and Counterpart to me and Mauritania, a country that I owe a great, great debt.