Michelle Nunn took over the reins of CARE USA in 2015. Founder of an NGO Hand on Atlanta, which later became Points of Light, Michelle had seen her small initiative grow into an operation that currently operates in dozens of countries across the world.
The 50-year old mother of two graduated from University of Virginia in History and later went to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. She ran for the US Senate from Georgia losing a race that was closely watched in the United States. Her father Sam Nunn had been a four time senator and served as chair of that Armed Forces Committee. Michelle’s mother worked for the State Department and spent some time with the CIA too before becoming a stay at home housewife.
Michelle came to Bangladesh on a brief visit and went to the field to see CARE projects up close at first hand in Rangpur and Sunamganj. Dhaka Tribune caught up with her amid a very packed schedule for a brief interview.
You are the daughter of a four-time US senator. Your mother was a state department employee and also worked for the CIA. You yourself aspire to become part of the political establishment, which is almost by definition at loggerheads with the development world. And before joining CARE you had very little experience outside the US where you two outfits. So, many would have dismissed you as a certain failure. Why are they wrong?
I have 25 years of experience in NGOs and a good bit of time including the three years of Kellogg Foundation fellowship travelling the world looking at social justice. And the intersection of faith and social justice. I think I bring in both the experience of building public/private partnerships and a good understanding of the political system. That is important at driving impact.
I can take the extraordinary history of CARE in a place like Bangladesh and then bring in new perspectives, new talent and a different kind of stewardship for the future that builds upon our history that gives us an opportunity for bringing change in the future.
But let me also argue that politics is not antithetical to development or NGO. People in political service are there to make a difference. And for me there has been no discontinuity. From Hands on Atlanta to Points of Light, which operates in 36 countries. And then politics to CARE. It has all been part of the same continuum actually.
Slowly but surely Bangladesh is moving towards the next rung of the development, turning into a middle income country. A lower middle income country, but middle income nonetheless. A status with which we see our funds drying out and projects ending without renewals. What happens now? Do you simply roll up projects and leave? How do you see CARE’s role as Bangladesh goes through phases of development?
If you think about CARE’s history in Bangladesh, in some ways it reflects the evolution of the organisation at large, starting with food and humanitarian response evolving towards infrastructure and now it is centred on women and girls and social development and community engagement.
That history and trajectory is part of CARE’s broad history and trajectory. We continue to change based on the context. Bangladesh is one example. As it emerges into a middle income country we look at engagement that is more catalytic than direct service delivery.
Our work here is inextricably linked to ending poverty and lift up women and girls. And at the invitation of government and civil society we will continue to do that in new ways as the country’s needs change.
So we are looking at how Bangladesh is changing now and what it needs and how CARE can help and what it needs to do to remain relevant not just now but in 10 or 15 years.
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Michelle Nunn explains how she envisions CARE USA's role and relevance in Bangladesh in the coming decade. Rajib Dhar/DHAKA TRIBUNE
Is there a transition process underway then in Bangladesh? Is this something that CARE is experiencing elsewhere in the world as well?
We go through regular process and analyse the context and needs of the country. We have outlined a future for carrying forward our social enterprise work and humanitarian assistance and development.
Then there is Sri Lanka where our country office has actually morphed into a social enterprise. So our office closed down and turned into a social enterprise. So what happens to CARE will depend on context and the needs of the people and what CARE can do.
At the end of the day Bangladesh has changed. And CARE too, has to adapt to that to meet the needs of the times.
Fundamentalism and militancy has become a scourge on the face of this earth. It is a problem not just in Bangladesh but many other places in the world. Should development work address fundamentalism in any way. And if so, how would care go about it?
I think CARE’s work is focused not on ideology but on lifting up girls and women. And specifically to overcome poverty. So we work with a variety of different actors. We are a humanitarian organisation. We remain neutral to deliver services to different peoples in conflict areas. So what we address are fundamental needs of the people and try and ensure that they have the capacity to live out their fullest potential and to live in places where they have a voice, where they have resilience. And that is CARE’s work.
And, how would you like to be remembered at CARE?
I am two years into it. So I am still developing the theory of my legacy I suppose. But some of the dimensions I hope to bring at this point is a powerful voice for global humanitarian solidarity and American leadership in the world.
Two, I want to see that CARE is driven by innovation and scale and multiply our impact. There is something we call the accelerator, something that we use to multiply the scale of the work. Of all the projects of CARE, there are two examples in Bangladesh, a country that seems to have a disproportionate level of innovation.
The third would be innovative partnerships and movement building — hybrid ways of getting things done.
The skill based community health workers of Sunamganj is one of the examples that runs with GSK, a large pharmaceutical company, the government and CARE who play different roles in getting these community health workers out there.
It is also sustainable because the service they provide comes with a fee that the community decides.