USAID’s efforts in international development are often represented merely by quantitative improvements within the Agency’s mission countries, but Mark Oviatt, currently part of USAID/Sri Lanka, shares some sentiments that prove USAID’s presence is more than just numbers.
Mark Oviatt’s history with USAID began long before he was employed by the Agency. Mark was raised overseas and was able to witness his father contribute to some of the Agency’s best-known accomplishments, including building the Friendship Highways in Thailand and Vietnam and developing the model village, Djoliba, in Mali. Mark noted that the best part of growing up as a USAID dependent was “all of the adventure of new cultures, experiences, boarding schools,” and visiting his father’s projects and seeing and hearing change firsthand. His father’s large role with USAID – even before it became USAID – set the tone for Mark’s future involvement with international development.
Mark’s first direct work with USAID began in Iraq in 2003 when he was placed in charge of restoring, refurbishing and rebuilding all of Iraq’s water and sanitation systems. He worked on what probably remains the most ambitious rural water project in the world – designing and implementing ways to bring clean drinking water to hundreds of remote villages throughout Iraq. This water project, in conjunction with hygiene programs and major treatment plant interventions, reduced the region’s infant mortality rates, shortened the distance women had to walk to fetch water for their families, and increased overall general health of villagers by reducing gastrointestinal disease. Mark’s time in Afghanistan with USAID was also lucrative for the region. Through training, marketing programs, and new crops, many farmers were able to increase their incomes. Increased incomes meant more financial stability that allowed families to send their children to school and college, as well as reduce their dependence on cultivating illegal high value crops.
In Sri Lanka, Mark’s current post, recently returned Internally Displaced Persons, former combatants, war widows, and victims of conflict are restarting their lives for the first time in nearly 30 years because of USAID efforts. The Agency is providing small grants to help villages rebuild livelihoods and regain a semblance of community life. These and many other similar interventions follow on the heels of the tsunami in 2004, which devastated the islands’ low land populations and left 2.5 million homeless and 40,000 dead.
Mark’s story shows how USAID’s young history of 50 years has made significant impacts to both international development and individual lives. “Looking back,” Mark said, “Even from now in Sri Lanka where we are working to restart rural livelihoods, I have a sense that my upbringing as a USAID dependent set a path or was the underpinning foundation for what I have been doing since beginning work with USAID in 2003.”