By: Anne Ralte, USAID Senior Advisor
I was born in Mizoram (“land of the Mizo people”), a remote, mountainous part of north-eastern India, with our own language and culture. During my early childhood in the 1950’s, we were a marginalized tribal group with most families, like mine, making a living by farming. We lived in simple one-room wooden houses built on stilts along the hill slopes – with no running water or electricity. Our everyday life centered on work in our family rice farm. My mother, older sister and I had the additional burden of fetching water from mountain springs, washing the family laundry in rivers, gathering firewood and cooking. Since there was no public transportation, we walked everywhere – up and down hills and valleys. When I was able to make the four-mile trek, I sometimes joined my older siblings in attending a small missionary school. With no television or radio, our universe revolved around our close-knit community, with occasional stories by those adventurous enough to walk across the border into Myanmar (then known as Burma).
After my father died, when I was five years old, my mother struggled to take care of the farm and the small home bakery that my father had started. Although illiterate, she intuitively knew that for us to do better in life, we would have to be placed in an English-speaking boarding school in Calcutta, West Bengal. In those days, widows automatically lost their social standing in the community, with their role relegated to the upbringing of children and menial duties assigned by in-laws. Traveling outside the community (or having an independent life) was frowned upon by the elders, so her decision led to her being ostracized. Now, forty plus years later, my mother’s vision has become widely accepted.
This is how I ended up in a small school that served the poor with a Title II food aid and a children sponsorship program. The Welland Gouldsmith School, connected to the Old Mission Church, was a charitable institution founded in 1870 to impart European education. My mother was able to get my older sister and myself enrolled by paying a small amount of monthly fees. However, she died about a year after we were enrolled as boarders. My older brother, who stepped in to take care of us at age 16, also died within a year. Fortunately, a family from New York participating in the Christian Children’s Fund sponsorship program took a special interest in me as they were school teachers pursuing doctoral degrees and just like them, I loved to learn. Besides excelling in my studies, I learned to play the piano and violin, and also tried learning the sitar. My early years of trekking up and down the hills of Mizoram prepared me well for competitive track races, basketball and other sports — so my life, while there was deep sadness, was full.
My final years in school were fully immersed in preparing for the Senior Cambridge (later known as the Indian School Certificate) examination, a requirement for entering college. I was the first boarder (i.e., disadvantaged child) that represented my school, finishing in the first division. This brought new opportunities. My sponsors (now my parents) offered to bring me to the U.S. for further studies and be part of their family. I arrived on June 4, 1971. That same day and time, my husband Joe Connors, was at the same airport departing for his Peace Corps assignment, and noticed me. His search for me ended almost eight years later on July 17, 1979, when he amazingly saw me again in the revolving door of Bloomingdales, New York. We became instant friends over a cup of tea. Over the following 32 years, he has witnessed and supported my work in Asia, Africa, and now at USAID/Washington DC.
My USAID work brings me full circle to my humble beginnings — and not a single day passes without me thinking how fortunate I am. Without U.S. food aid, the school could not have fed me and other disadvantaged children, most of us without parents or a stable home. We received bulgur wheat and milk (for our breakfast porridge), milk and bread for our mid-morning snack, and rice – a staple for lunch and dinner along with dhal (lentil soup). Nourishment led to scholastic achievements which led to opportunities and a career in international development – and, purely by coincidence, working for USAID’s Office of Food for Peace in 1996. I helped Food for Peace establish its results management framework. Partnering with NGO implementers such as CARE (that over forty-eight years earlier had provided me milk, bread and other food), we were able to provide tangible, aggregated evidence, for the first time in history, that our emergency food aid provided significant benefits to people in need.
The Bureau for Policy and Program Coordination (PPC) recruited me to develop Agency-wide goals and performance measurements in Humanitarian Assistance to meet the Government Performance Results Act (GPRA) requirements. Realizing that USAID alone could not meet increasing global humanitarian needs nor report on progress without mobilizing other humanitarian actors, the work evolved into the global Standardized Monitoring and Assessment of Relief and Transitions (SMART) initiative that brought together the world’s experts in emergency nutrition and food security, such as Professor Michael Golden and Dr. John Seaman, who shared my commitment to helping beneficiaries.
In 2006, as part of the PPC team that established State Department’s Office of the Director of Foreign Assistance, I led the development of the Humanitarian Assistance program hierarchy for the Foreign Assistance Strategic Framework. In late 2006, I joined USAID’s Office of the Chief Operating Officer, Office of the Administrator, to rebuild USAID’s policy functions, focusing on crisis, stabilization, and civilian-military cooperation.
My life experiences prepared me well for hardships along the way, and, in particular, in being comfortable in taking risks to pioneer new concepts or developing new partnerships. A lesson from my mother is that one courageous person can make a huge difference – to change a community, an entire way of life and the future. As I embraced my new life in U.S., I made a conscientious decision early on to maintain a balance of values from my origins, including kindness and self-sacrifice for the service of others — a traditional core value of the Mizos — also shared by my American parents who sacrificed to support me.
I am fortunate to be in a line of work that connects to my traditional values and inspires me to help move USAID forward to transform more lives, and to work with some great people at USAID – too many to mention.