Alonzo Fulgham | Palladium - Jan 30 2020
Global Development Needs Young People of Color

Alonzo Fulgham, Senior Advisor

Every time I think about the best-case scenarios for economic development in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, I can't help but ask myself where the change will begin? And who will lead this change?

The community of people, agencies, investors, and groups dedicated to international development has never been larger. But if America’s young people of color don’t soon get involved at a significant level, how will we, a global community, ever establish a legacy impact anywhere else that people of color live?

Building Trust

I remember being in Haiti as a young Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1980s. I certainly hadn't mastered French or Creole, and yet I saw myself reflected in the communities with whom I worked. The people looked like me, and in many ways, they were dealing with some of the same challenges I had experienced growing up in the inner city of Boston.

I recognized their need for resources, representation, and redress of the conditions of lack and legitimacy they still face to this day. I was there with a sense of optimism, and the Peace Corps felt they could use my ability to “speak” to those needs.

That was the beginning of a career spent working in many places throughout the world where the people looked like me. Over my many years in international development – beginning as a staffer through to my role as the head of USAID – I worked to develop infrastructure, capacity, and resiliency for people of color and diverse cultures. And, rightly or wrongly, I had better access, information, and opportunities to collaborate because I was able to relate with people who felt I resembled them or could better empathize with their plight.

The relationships I built were often stronger than those of my majority counterparts, particularly as pushback against the idea of “white saviors” materialized. We speak in the development industry about the need to “localize” our interventions, as communities justly question our motivations and demand to be included in the solutions we’re implementing. Collaboration with local communities is recognized as the most effective way to deliver aid, but building those partnerships and designing solutions together requires trust and relatability – something I’ve been able to achieve in part because of the unique characteristics I possessed, in the communities’ eyes, as an African American who was there to help.

"I recognized their need for resources, representation, and redress of the conditions of lack and legitimacy they still face to this day."

The Next Generation

I've had the privilege of mentoring a number of young people who’ve also had an inkling that life in global policy and international development might suit them. Among the ones I thought could be most successful, there have been a few common strengths:

  • They demonstrate genuine curiosity about the way other people live.
  • They feel empathy for others and have often experienced socio-economic distress in their own lives.
  • They’re confident in their ability to lead when called upon, with humility that would allow them to serve.

These are the qualities we must seek out in young people of color today – qualities that can lead to sustained and effective careers in statecraft, global policy, and international development.

Right now, a number of initiatives are underway to find, engage, and equip this next generation of diverse, young problem solvers. Fisk University, for instance, has partnered with the Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE) to provide 75 free passports to underrepresented students to study abroad.

But more opportunities are needed for young people of color to go out and experience what needs to be done. Only this first-hand experience will provide the kind of foundation our youth need to move the needle on the world’s most pressing challenges – to achieve meaningful change and enduring global development.