In every profession there are those who just do their job and those who go above and beyond the call of duty. The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals honor federal employees who fall into the latter category. Cara Christie ’00, a disaster operations specialist at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is competing for one of this year’s awards, which are so prestigious that they are known as the Oscars of government service.
In naming Christie a 2013 finalist for the National Security and International Affairs Medal—one of eight medals presented annually by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service—the organization said Christie “identified a looming humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa and coordinated a complex U.S. relief effort to help millions of people who faced starvation and death due to the worst drought in six decades.”
The crisis in question is the 2011 East Africa drought. According to Christie, who oversees a $300 million annual budget for humanitarian response and disaster risk reduction in East and Central Africa, the drought occurred across the 2011 and 2012 calendar years and was focused primarily in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. At the height of the crisis, 13.3 million people needed emergency assistance, Christie says, “so the sheer size of it was massive.”
Others may have been surprised by the severity of the drought, which by some accounts claimed more than 250,000 lives, but Christie saw it coming. By “recognizing the significance of the impending famine almost a year before it unfolded,” the Service to America Medals website says, Christie “hastened aid to the region and saved lives.”
Christie describes USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) as a crystal ball of sorts.
“They combine an impressive array of information in order to come up with climate forecasts and likely humanitarian need at the macro level several months out,” she says.
Between FEWS NET’s grim predictions for the region’s rainy season and harvest, and the instability in Somalia created by its ongoing civil war, “you really had the makings of a full-blown crisis,” Christie says.
Christie’s superiors at USAID agreed with her assessment and put her in charge of a group called the Horn Drought Humanitarian Response Team.
“Cara is one of the top experts in this region as it relates to humanitarian assistance,” says Carol Chan, acting director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. “Because she’s a very credible person—she’s not a Henny Penny—we all paid attention and we provided the support that she requested because we knew that this was probably going to be a horrendous crisis if we didn’t do something now.”
No relief operation is simple, but Christie says four factors made this one particularly complex: the acuteness of the drought (the worst in 60 years), the size of the affected population (more than 13 million people, including fully half the population of Somalia), the huge geographic area involved (roughly the size of the eastern United States), and the difficulty of working in Somalia (at the time, the least safe place for humanitarian staff in the world, and the only country where the crisis reached the level of a famine).
Despite these obstacles, Chan credits Christie with saving hundreds of thousands of lives and alleviating the suffering of countless others.
“She was instrumental in mobilizing the financial resources as well as the staffing resources,” Chan says. “You’re not going to stop the crisis. The best thing you can do is mitigate the severity.”
Christie managed the response from her office in Washington, D.C. She collaborated with USAID’s field team in the Horn of Africa and established a disaster assistance response team, or DART, responsible for monitoring the conditions in the region as well as delivering humanitarian aid, which took the form of health care, clean water, and, of course, food.
That Christie was nominated for a Service to America Medal illustrates the importance of her work. The winners will be announced in October at a black-tie gala in Washington, and the competition is stiff; one of Christie’s fellow finalists for the National Security and International Affairs Medal led the effort that eradicated polio in India.
“It’s a very competitive group of people who are [at] the top in their profession,” Chan says. “Most of the nominees are at director rank. Cara has done a job that very few people at her grade level and years of experience could do. She’s working well beyond her level.”
For Christie, who has been at USAID since 2006 and holds a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, the nomination is a tremendous honor.
“I definitely feel like this would be a career-crowning achievement, which is kind of crazy to think of, reaching that so relatively early in my career,” she says. “It would just be very humbling.”