Connecting Resource Conservation to Economic Development

A NATO helicopter bringing relief supplies to Kashmir, Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake. (Rik Vanoijen/Flickr)

Juniper Neill speaks about her work on environmental issues as a Natural Resources Management Officer in the Foreign Service of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), part of the U.S. government.

Could you describe your work for us?

I'm a new Foreign Service Officer within USAID's Bureau for Economic Growth, Agriculture and Trade. Specifically, I'm a Natural Resources Management Officer.

I entered the Agency through the New Entry Professional (NEP) Program. NEPs undergo from 12 to 24 months of training in Washington DC before being posted overseas for a majority of their careers. I'll be moving to Tanzania in early 2007.

What do you consider to be the best feature of your work?

As a technical officer working on environmental or natural resources issues, I'm able to pursue my love of international work, community development, and resource conservation as a representative of the U.S. government. I'm responsible for designing programs and managing financial resources to acheive positive outcomes where they are most needed. This is an exceptional opportunity to help create real change on the development front.

How do the national and international aspects of your work come together?

Strictly speaking, USAID is a good example of the connection between domestic and international work, in that our money is appropriated to us by Congress. That means the U.S. taxpayers are the source of our international development funds, thus making it critical that we report our results back to Congress and the American people. As well, U.S. policy now recognizes development as one of three pillars in our National Security Strategy, the others being diplomacy and defense.

Please describe an example of how an event elsewhere in the world could directly influence your work.

During my training in Washington, the terrible earthquake in Pakistan occured. I was already working in the South Asia Affairs office and was asked to work full time on the Earthquake Response Team. Natural disasters are a good example of how USAID must be ready to mobilize instantly to respond to humanitarian crises elsewhere in the world.

In high school, were you involved in any international groups or special programs like study abroad?

I graduated from Soldotna High School in Soldotna, Alaska. As much as I desired to do a study abroad program, I was not able to. I was, however, very involved in Model United Nations and student government.

What internships or programs did you participate in prior to beginning to work full-time?

After college, I went right to work in the environmental consulting field. However, I realized that I wanted to pursue international work and needed that experience. So I joined the U.S. Peace Corps where I spent two years in Ukraine working on sustainable development projects.

I then obtained my Master's degree and was selected for the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program, which provided me with a wonderful opportunity to work in the Federal Government with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on global climate change research.

What motivates you to do the work you do?

I've always been concerned with issues related to poverty, and as a young girl I was deeply moved to learn of the hardships of people around the world, as well as in the U.S. I also developed a love and respect for nature. It wasn't until later that I began to understand the connection between resource conservation and sound economic development.

I began to believe that we can, and must, use our resources wisely in order to obtain the kind of economic and social sustainability necessary to lift whole nations, or even communities, out of poverty. My greatest motivation for this work is the belief that we can solve these problems.

Knowing what you know now, what might you have done differently at university?

I have a Bachelor's in International Relations and a minor in Environmental Studies from Mills College in Oakland, California and a Master's in International Affairs from Columbia University with concentrations in Environmental Policy Studies and Central East European Studies.

I always knew I wanted to work on environmental issues, but thought I would go to work for the United Nations, rather than the U.S. government, mainly because I was unaware of all of the opportunities available to me. It pays to research!

In hindsight, I would have taken more economics and foreign language courses as an undergraduate, and more history and philosphy courses as well. I believe a sound liberal arts foundation is necessary for any career, but especially when your job is to tackle some of our world's most pressing, complex and interrconnected problems.

Could you share some advice for students interested in similar careers?

Know what's going on in the world! Read the paper! Try to do volunteer work in a developing country after high school. There are many programs that offer this experience.

When you begin college, consider doing a U.S. Department of State summer internship, which will place you in a U.S. Embassy overseas. A summer internship is a wonderful way to find out if this type of work is for you.

Also, if you want a great international experience, join the Peace Corps. A majority of USAID Foreign Service Officers also served as Peace Corps volunteers.

Where do you picture yourself in ten years from now?

Tough question! I try not to think that far ahead, but rather look to my immediate future and do what makes sense, follow what drives me, and take those steps to make it happen. Likely, I'll be living overseas with my husband and children, still doing meaningful development work, and having a great adventure!

Author: Interview conducted by Lawrence Dabney