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A life of foreign service in Africa

  • USAID Representative Stephanie Funk performs a site visit to a primary school in Damerjog, Djibouti.
    USAID Representative Stephanie Funk performs a site visit to a primary school in Damerjog, Djibouti.
Published January 15. 2010 05:00PM

While she was attending junior high school, Stephanie Funk wondered what kind of career path she would take.

Every Sunday, she would look at possibilities in the Weekly Reader section of a newspaper that detailed careers for young teens, but it was difficult to find a match.

"I was getting worried, because nothing appealed to me. What was I going to do when I grew up?" said Funk.

Finally, one Sunday, there was the answer: Foreign Service Officer.

The article piqued her interest immediately.

"I cut it out of the paper and hung it up on my bedroom wall," she recalled. "It stayed on my wall all through junior high and high school. I took it to college and hung it on the back of the door, and that was it. I wanted to see the world and help people."

That career developed for Funk in ways she never imagined. It has taken her halfway around the world, far away from her small town roots of Tamaqua, where she has now spent two decades on the continent of Africa.

Today, Funk serves as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Representative to the Republic of Djibouti. She was home in Tamaqua after attending a world-wide Mission Directors conference in Washington, D.C.

USAID has 79 Missions throughout the world and the conference discussed USAID priorities, progress, and their vision for the future.

USAID is an independent federal government agency that connects the United States with developing nations overseas.

According to the USAID Web site, the agency was created by executive order in 1961 with the signing of the Foreign Assistance Act, but its history dates back to the Marshall Plan and reconstruction of Europe after World War II, during the administration of President Harry S. Truman and the Four Point Program.

USAID is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and is the principle humanitarian and development assistance agency for the U.S. Government. It provides assistance in a number of crucial areas, such as health care, education, food security, climate change and democracy and governance.

USAID is active in five regions of the world: Sub-Sahara Africa; Asia; Latin America and the Caribbean; Europe and Eurasia; and the Middle East.

Stephanie, who is the daughter of the late Rev. Clarence Russell Funk and Marilyn (Funk) Kennedy, is a graduate of Tamaqua Area High School and the University of Scranton, where she graduated with honors and earned a dual degree in political science and history. She is also a recipient of a Business and Professional Women's Scholarship and a Merit Scholarship from Drew University, where she completed her master's degree.

She began her career in Africa as a volunteer for the Peace Corps in a remote village of Botswana's Kalahari Desert, where she taught math and English.

"Peace Corps was a great foundation for joining USAID because it introduced me to living and working overseas, to being a minority in a different culture and country, and to dedicating my life to helping others," she said.

After Peace Corps she attended graduate school and then joined the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C., managing a USAID contract that brought masters and Ph.D. students from Egypt to the U.S under the Peace Fellows Program that was established as part of the Camp David Accords.

Watching history

Stephanie joined USAID's civil service in 1988 and the Foreign Service in 1991. Since then, she has served in Malawi from 1992-1996, Ethiopia from 1996-98, Zimbabwe from 1998-2004 and in Sudan from 2004-2008, prior to moving to Djibouti in September, 2008.

"Counting Peace Corps, I've been in Africa for 20 years,"she noted. "It's hard to believe. It has gone so quickly."

Her work has earned her recognition, including the Administrator's Implementation Award, Meritorious Honor Awards and two group Superior Honor Awards.

Stephanie said she has been fortunate to serve in these countries during historic times.

"It's been extremely rewarding," she remarked. "I was in Malawi when the country transitioned from a one-party to a multi-party system. In the end, after years and years of being beaten down and suppressed by a 'President for Life,' Malawians came out in huge numbers and quietly stood in line to vote for change. Witnessing their quiet dignity reverse almost 30 years of dictatorship was something I will always remember.

"I also served in Zimbabwe during the rise of the opposition which fought another one-party dictatorship. Zimbabweans are amazing people. Their belief in democracy and human rights propelled them to push for a people's centered Constitution and free and fair elections.

"Unfortunately, in this case, the transition has been brutal and in many instances people who opposed the system put themselves at great personal risk. It was an absolute privilege to work with such committed and passionate people who put their lives on the line every day to fight for a better future.

"I also worked in Sudan (where she supervised USAID's largest Democracy and Governance program in Africa) during the negotiation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and its implementation.

At the point the agreement was signed in 2005, the north and south of the country had been at war for all but 11 of the past 50 years. Once peace was established, the international community stepped forward to help rebuild the country.

"When I look back at all of this, I'm humbled to have been in these countries during such important times in their history," she said.


Stephanie's next move was to Djibouti, which she welcomed after spending so much time in crisis-ridden environments.

She directs a multi-million dollar USAID portfolio that supports three major areas of development assistance: primary education; health; and democracy and governance. Humanitarian assistance of food aid and nutritional programs complement the portfolio.

Djibouti is located on the Horn of Africa and bordered by Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. The rest of the border is the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, with Yemen 28 miles across the water.

"It is often referred to as 'an island of stability in a sea of instability,' and its location combined with its peaceful, pro-West, tolerant Muslim views, makes it a unique and strategic partner for U.S.," she related.

"Djibouti is an intriguing country. It's a small (the size of the state of Massachusetts), culturally fascinating, anchor of peace that invests in its people and forges relationships with foreign countries.

"The relationship between the U.S and Djibouti is a prime example of partnership with a Muslim country (99 percent of the population is Muslim) based on mutual interest and respect."

Because little of the land is arable, growing and producing food is not possible. Instead, they have developed the only deep sea water port in the region and entered into an agreement with Dubai Port World to manage the port and a free trade zone.

"On the social front, Djibouti has committed 40 percent of its national budget to health and education," Stephanie noted. "This is critical because Djibouti has some of the lowest health indicators in the world and less than 50 percent of the population is literate."

Working together with the Ministries of Health and Education, Stephanie feels USAID has made impressive gains in Djibouti. She is proud of the increases in primary school enrollment, the construction of health clinics in rural areas and the reduction in child mortality rates.

She explained that USAID does not attempt to force American values into areas where it is offering assistance.

"We never show up and tell people that this is what we are going to do," she said. "We work in partnership with host country counterparts to determine what is needed. It's the only way to ensure that our assistance will be sustainable after we leave."

"In the end, people are the same the world over. We all have the same wants and needs. Everyone wants economic and social opportunities so that they can better themselves and improve their lives, and we can help them get there.

"From a moral perspective, helping to lift people out of poverty is the right thing to do, and from a U.S. policy perspective, creating a more stable world is in our national interest."

3D Approach

Djibouti hosts the only U.S. military base in sub-Sahara Africa, with over 2,500 American and coalition troops stationed there. Stephanie also serves as the principal advisor on development to the U.S. military to promote program synchronization and the effectiveness of civilian-military affairs in the nation.

"The world has changed since 9/11, and we find ourselves doing things we've never done before," she said. "In Djibouti, when USAID funding for health clinics came to an end, the Department of Defense stepped in to continue construction of these much needed facilities.

"U.S. policy now focuses on the 3Ds of Defense, Development and Diplomacy, with each of us working together in what is called 'a whole of government' approach' in implementing our foreign policy overseas."

There has been change on the home front as well, with the election of Barack Obama as the first U.S. African-American president. Stephanie said Obama's ascendency has had a major impact on how African nations are now viewing the U.S.

"I was in Kenya when the U.S. election took place," she stated. "It was phenomenal to be there and see the outpouring of enthusiasm that people felt. Obama's victory gave people hope for what they have always seen America as being, which is a beacon of opportunity for everyone, a place where you can pull yourselves up by your bootstraps and make it to the top. That is what Obama exemplifies to people all over Africa."

She thinks it is important for Americans to grasp how their actions influence others.

"America is such a large country and as a result it's an accomplishment to travel to different states," she commented. "In other parts of the world like Europe or Asia, where your neighbor is a country that speaks a different language and has a different culture, it is easier to be exposed to the differences to the outside world."

Stephanie brings home gifts from Africa every time she returns. There are stone sculptures from Zimbabwe, wooden giraffes and warthogs from Kenya and baskets from Botswana decorating homes all over Tamaqua.

This year, she was especially happy with the timing of the conference in December, because it meant she could come home and surprise her mother for her 75th birthday.

So although Stephanie lives among different cultures every day of her life, her yearly visits to the U.S. enable her to keep strong ties to her family and friends.

"They provide the foundation that allows me to do this work," she said. "Everyone has to find his/her niche in life. For me, USAID and foreign service is my niche."

Stephanie advises anyone considering such a career to pursue it.

"Don't think you can't do something because you come from a small town in Pennsylvania," she said.

"You can do anything you want, if you point yourself in the right direction."

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