You might never guess that the work of a USAID Program Economist could result in a trip to the Vatican for a personal meeting with the Pope, or to Canada as a chief architect of the Montreal Protocol. Richard Elliot Benedick, entering USAID fresh out of Harvard Business School, certainly didn’t. And yet, the work he did as a young twenty-something in Pakistan would one day help him do all these things.
Benedick came into USAID and the Foreign Service at a time when it needed more economists. For his first assignment, from 1959 to 1961, Benedick was assigned to Tehran to work on economic reforms. From 1962 to 1964 he was responsible for the same type of projects in Pakistan. His primary assignment was to help develop markets through careful long-term planning. In doing this he realized that, in all their planning, USAID and other entities were failing to take into account the impact of Pakistan’s rapidly growing population. Benedick pushed these issues in Pakistan in the face of much opposition. Over the course of his career he became a pioneering advocate for addressing population factors, as well as environmental issues, in USAID’s development work.
Drafted by Sabrina Rostkowski
Richard Benedick’s interview was conducted by Raymond Ewing on August 31, 1999 (continued on March 1, 2000, and completed on June 20, 2000).
Read Richard Benedick’s full oral history HERE.
“I began complaining loudly to people that we’re ignoring the population factor.”
Reconciling Economics with Population in Pakistan: At that time we were doing five-year projections for AID purposes . . . and working very closely with the Pakistani Central Bank and with their Planning Commission […] I realized that a lot of efforts were being dissipated simply because the population was increasing untrammeled. This was back in 1960, and we had no population policies or programs at that time, helping countries in family planning. In the U.S. you still couldn’t buy condoms in many states, so it was not a very open subject.
[I]n point of fact, it was the very success of health programs and foreign aid, not just from the US but from the World Health Organization, from European countries, that actually caused the population problem. You didn’t have a chance for normal transition of falling death rates and falling birth rates as we experience in the West, but you had this sudden drop in death rates, particularly infant mortality, because of the good things we were doing in health, and we were ignoring the fertility side.
It wasn’t that people in developing countries were having more babies than before; the fertility remained the same, but the difference between the birth rate and the death rate widened enormously because we came in with 15 years of health programs before we came in with anything on family planning. You know, arguably that caused a lot of the misery that we’re seeing even today, because it’s not something you can stop quickly.
But in my travels around I was very much impressed with the . . . people. Of course, there were still undigested refugees from the partition with India and more and more coming and having more babies, and you could just see them sinking into squalor and filth and misery. I began talking about this around the AID mission. I began complaining loudly to people that we’re ignoring the population factor. Here we are making five-year plans for AID programs and for economic development, and in five years the population . . . is going to be maybe 20 percent or more and population of the cities even more so, and finally I said I’d like to do something about this. “We’re doing a five-year long range strategic planning exercise, and there’ll be a big report to Washington. There ought to be a chapter on population.”
[…] So I started poking around, pulled data together and learned that — you couldn’t get contraceptives at the bazaar or anything — there was a Swedish mobile van traveling around the country trying to advise people on family planning and giving out condoms basically and advising people. And there were a few enlightened Pakistani industrialists who saw their workers sinking into poverty, and they then had family planning lectures for them and distributed condoms with their pay cash. There were these islands of enlightenment in a sea of disillusionment out there, of ignorance. But anyway I did my chapter, and coincidentally in Washington at that time in the State Department Richard Gardner was Assistant Secretary for economic affairs, and he saw it and picked that up and he was also very interested. We didn’t know it until later on when we met and then we realized that we had been each in our way doing something to try to promote a greater awareness of the population issue, which was so critical for economic development. Of course, it wasn’t long before AID did have population assistance programs, and later on I had a partial responsibility for that, but that’s much later.
“The main thing that came out of that, of course — as we all know, it didn’t change the policy of the Church or of the Pope — but they at least stopped attacking our AID programs and we had a more civil dialogue with them. I think that was something.”
Population and the Pope: Now early on in this position [as Coordinator of Population Affairs], I became convinced that the role of the Catholic Church and particularly the Vatican could be critical in effecting change throughout the world, not only among Catholics. […] I felt that if the Church could change its viewpoint, it would also have an effect on other conservatives, particularly conservative Islam.
[The Catholic Church] had evolved somewhat in that they now promoted natural family planning, and I seized that as an opportunity and argued with my colleagues in USAID that we should expand our population assistance to include natural methods of family planning […] The population professionals all opposed that and said it doesn’t work, doesn’t work as well, and so on. I argued — and this time I had the weight of the State Department behind me — as a tactical measure but also I argued that it was a no-lose proposition because we did know that it works for some people, and otherwise we’re reaching people whom we otherwise would not reach, devout Catholic families.
[Pope John Paul II] appreciated what we had done about natural family planning. One of the arguments that I took, and this was sort of at the end, was that when I traveled I went to many of the same countries that he did but I saw different things than what they showed him, and he knew that […] The main thing that came out of that, of course — as we all know, it didn’t change the policy of the Church or of the Pope — but they at least stopped attacking our AID programs and we had a more civil dialogue with them. I think that was something.
“But understanding that science is absolutely basic — and this has been an area which has actually been neglected in the State Department.”
The Montreal Protocol and the Future: I was very lucky, I think, simply to say that I was in the right place at the right time, with a very difficult treaty. At the time no one would have predicted that it would have been successful. Afterwards in retrospect it looks easy, but that’s only because we know more now. At the time it was really very risky. The science was very uncertain, and that’s basically an important part of our diplomacy now when we’re facing issues such as climate change or biological diversity or desertification or the persistent organic pollutants, the organochlorines, these chemicals, is that the science isn’t necessarily certain. In fact, it’s far from certain, and you’re really balancing long-term risks against short-term costs, and other countries have other political objectives, mostly economic objectives and so there’s a lot of economics involved. But understanding that science is absolutely basic — and this has been an area which has actually been neglected in the State Department even in recent decades.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
BA in, Columbia University 1952-1955
MA in Economics, Yale University 1955-1956
MBA, Harvard University 1957-1962
Joined the Foreign Service 1958
Karachi, Pakistan—Program Economist, USAID 1962-1964
Washington, DC—Director, Office of Development Finance 1971-1974
Washington, DC—Coordinator of Population Affairs 1979-1984