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Development in South Asia and Latin America: USAID in the ‘90s

There’s never a dull moment in the life of a USAID social anthropologist! The foreign service can indeed present a variety of unpredictable challenges. By necessity, officers must exhibit poise under pressure, adaptability in unfamiliar terrain, and the ability to deliver under a time crunch. Hugh Sheridan “Sher” Plunkett demonstrated all these qualities and more as a social anthropologist for USAID from 1975 to 2003. From treks through the Kharan desert to murder investigations in Pakistan to emergency orders of milk powder from Nepalese hilltops, Sher’s experiences abroad run the gamut, encouraging all foreign service officers to expect the unexpected.

Kacchi Canal: Mega Pakistani Irrigation Project (2018) Mohammed Arifeen | Pakistan & Gulf Economist
Kacchi Canal: Mega Pakistani Irrigation Project (2018) Mohammed Arifeen | Pakistan & Gulf Economist

Not only did Sher endure many obstacles in Mother Nature and beyond, but he became adept at maneuvering through USAID’s occasionally stifling bureaucratic maze. His creative problem solving and unconventional approach to paperwork boosted productivity, thereby cutting down wait time for necessary signatures and approvals. In one case, he even managed to get technical assistance advisors on the ground in Belize fewer than ten days after the mission’s formal request.

Increasing productivity and promoting USAID’s positive reputation was especially important in Sher’s time. His experience of USAID was as a declining organization in the late 1990s. The small agency functioned on the whims of influential congressmen, its primary focus shifting from issue to issue with every new presidential administration. USAID’s overall purpose became lost in a whirlwind of central goals, each worthy and necessary but pursued without organizational cohesion. The agency might tackle poverty alleviation for a few years, then development of the private sector before honing in on democracy promotion after Reagan’s establishment of the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Before head J. Brian Atwood launched critical initiatives to institutionalize USAID as a political aid agency, Sher played his part by cutting back on inefficiency, relentlessly pursuing a problem’s source. This was despite protest from colleagues less willing to deeply engage with a local community or go the extra mile to help streamline USAID’s bureaucratic processes. Along the way, Sher had plenty of adventures throughout South Asia and Latin America, engaging in anthropology fieldwork, agriculture research, and rural development.

Sher Plunkett earned his PhD from UC Berkeley in anthropology in 1972. USAID contracted him in 1975 as a social science specialist in Pakistan. Four years later he moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he served as a research officer for various agriculture and electrification projects. In 1985, Sher moved to Washington, D.C. and designed DESFIL (Development Strategies for Fragile Lands), an agriculture project for Latin American missions. After a few years developing irrigation in Nepal’s Agriculture and Rural Development Office, Sher returned to Washington, D.C. as an agriculture development and customer service officer. He spent his last assignment abroad in Lima, Peru, as deputy director of the mission’s Alternative Development Program. Sher retired from AID in October 2003. He passed away on December 24, 2021 in his Virginia home, leaving a wife and three sons.

Sher Plunkett’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy and Robin Matthewman on October 16, 2020.

Read Sher Plunkett’s full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on USAID work in Pakistan, click HERE. For adventures in Nepal, click HERE and HERE.

Drafted by Grace Dye

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Excerpts:
“We went to the village…because there had been six people murdered there just a few days before.”

Unrest in Pakistan:
PLUNKETT: Not long afterward, in about March of 1988, [AID colleague] Stephen Lintner got me back out to Pakistan with [supervisor] Gene George to fill in for this lady who didn’t want to do field work. I went to Balochistan, the southwestern part of Pakistan, to look at a proposed dam renovation and irrigation project. The hottest part of Pakistan, the hottest part of the year, myself, a Baloch-American economist, Naik Bozdar, and a driver, driving around in the desert for about six weeks collecting information. I have a picture––me looking at a long single shot black powder rifle that the guy in the middle had, with my bodyguards. They were from the Kacchi Scouts, similar to the Chitral Scouts. We knocked around and interviewed people. We went to the village in the picture because there had been six people murdered there just a few days before. We went to see if it had anything to do with the ethnic frictions between the Brahui, the Baloch, and the Punjabi immigrants, that were part of the project concern. As it turned out, it was just a personal family thing. Somebody stole somebody’s wife. So we had a nice chat, and tea, and left.

When we finished our field visits, we went up to Quetta. After lying out in the desert, looking at the stars for several weeks, talking about the wonderful food we were going to get if we ever got back to Quetta, we went straight to the bazaar and restaurant. We gorged ourselves on this mutton dish that Balochistan is famous for called sajji. Afterwards, we went to the AID office to call in and we couldn’t get through to the mission. Then, we tried the radio and the phone, but we couldn’t get through with anything, so we were concerned.

It turned out this was the day that the Russians in Afghanistan had organized a sabotage activity at the arsenal between Rawalpindi and Islamabad and things blew up. The embassy and AID and the people in Istanbul were bombarded with explosions and bits and pieces of things. Several rockets hit various parts of Islamabad. Three rockets hit the International School where my son had been until I left Pakistan. One of those rockets went across the stage of the auditorium, which was a safe haven for the kids, and across behind the kindergarteners. It did not explode. None of the rockets exploded. They just made a mess. But this was a big event in Islamabad. So, we stayed in Quetta until we were told to come back.

“The lady in the Food for Peace Office in AID would call my house at midnight….and I would relay back to her, and she would relay back to the United States.”

Milk Production in Nepal (2022) Rajesh Khanal | Kathmandu Post
Milk Production in Nepal (2022) Rajesh Khanal | Kathmandu Post

Emergency product supply in Nepal:
PLUNKETT: I would like to stick in a vignette about something that happened in Nepal. Fairly shortly after I got to Nepal, I think it was actually ’91, we got an urgent call from the Dairy Development Corporation in Nepal—this was after the democratic revolution. They were kind of shaking out, but they were still trying to do things. They provided these small containers of milk, or made them available. What they did was they used milk powder when they couldn’t get fresh milk. As you know, cows don’t give milk year round. So there was a season when they were dependent on the milk powder. And they didn’t have any—they were going to run out. They were going to have to close down, and this milk went to people who needed it, I gather.

They called us and said, What can you do? I said, “Okay, PL-480 [U.S. Public Law] provides milk powder.” This was in the days before email, of course. So I sent a cable and we found that milk powder might be available. My boss, Rob Thurston, sort of dumped the task on me. We went back and forth by cable, and by telephone—telephone was difficult because of the twelve-hour time difference. We were able to round up the milk powder, and we were able to get all the various permissions from the Department of Agriculture. I made contact with Rita Hudson in the Food for Peace Office, and we set in train the procedure for getting the milk powder shipped through to India and then up to Nepal.

However, the last phase of this had to do with getting a bunch of permissions, getting things signed off and getting things done very fast. At that time, a new director came in. He, being an ex-Peace Corps volunteer, was trying to do things right, and it was his first overseas assignment. He was in everything but the formality a political appointee, because he had been the head of AID’s legal team for some years, and was still on call for doing all kinds of important things for them. But he wanted to serve overseas, and when he got to Nepal, he wanted to get to know the staff. So he called for us to have a retreat up in the hills, just outside of Kathmandu. No phone service!

Q: Oh, no.

PLUNKETT: I was in the middle of this time sensitive activity. I went up to the retreat, and the lady in the Food for Peace Office in AID would call my house at midnight. My wife would take the call and then she would get on the shortwave radio connection to the retreat and relay what was being said, and I would relay back to her, and she would relay back to the United States. It was kind of exciting and it all got done. My wife was ex-Peace Corps and ex-CARE, plus being a sort of a dynamo anyway. It got done, with the FSN, Niranjan Regmi, managing local contacts with the officials. The milk powder arrived, the gap was closed before it appeared, and we all shook hands and congratulated each other. The other thing was that we monetized the milk powder arrangement, and used that money to encourage private milk production in the Nepali Terai, the area near India where most of the population lives. We were able to, as I recall, extend the amount of milk that became available to people in Nepal who might’ve needed it, in addition to the milk buffaloes that people who could afford them had.

“The Latin America Bureau was just dumbfounded. They had never had a centrally funded support project that was responsive…”

Efficient bureaucracy in Latin America:
PLUNKETT: Let me talk a little bit about DESFIL [Development Strategies for Fragile Lands project], as an AID person trying to do development. I increasingly became aware that I was trying to do development and so were my colleagues, in a foreign assistance agency. Foreign assistance at AID was following the policy directives of the U.S. government in the various countries that seemed to be worth supporting, or where we were trying to influence their policies via foreign assistance as part of diplomacy. That’s not necessarily development, as you know, because you could do a money dump, or you could do something else for a short term gain. But improvement of the quality of life or the income of people in the country was not necessarily the same thing.

For DESFIL, I was supposed to provide technical assistance to the Latin American, Central American, and Caribbean USAID missions. Having learned something from the procurement class, I very carefully built a trap door into the project design and into the contract. One of the paragraphs in the scope of work said something to the effect that, “In addition to whatever else, we can provide technical assistance to the missions for short term activities.” I’ve forgotten the phrasing, although I still have a copy of the document buried in my files. That turned out to be very useful. I sent out a cable, but you could also talk on the phone to Latin America in those days. So, I called up the Ag officers and schmoozed them––did marketing. I said, “You’ve got such and such going on, how can we help you out?” They’d say, We want an agronomist or a forester. We were doing a lot with proper forest management in South America. We had some very good people on the contract, who had decades of experience in Latin America, and so the Ag officers said, We want such and such.

I had a regular procedure. I said, “Send me the document.” We called it the PIO/T, project implementation order. Ordinarily, as documents came in, they went to the Latin America Bureau, and then were sent to the Procurement Office to the contract officer. They came up in paper copies, and then the contract officer, when he got around to it, sent it to a service that turned it into a Wang disk. Then, the Wang disk came back to the contract office, and then he would process it and then it went to the contractor as a work order. I said, “First of all, send me the project documentation, the paper copy, and a Wang disk.” They would send that directly to me. I would walk it across the street to the USA Today building and put it on the desk of the contract officer. I then schmoozed the contract officer and found that this procedure shortcut a very long series of delays. My pride and joy was a request from the mission in Belize on day one, and I had technical assistance advisors on the ground in Belize on calendar day ten.

Q: Wow.

PLUNKETT: The Latin America Bureau was just dumbfounded. They had never had a centrally funded support project that was responsive, so the word got around. Because I was doing this, not only through the Ag, but also the Environmental Offices, we had a whole bunch of things we could do for the Latin America missions under DESFIL. That worked out very nicely for us all. In those days, you had a core funding of a certain amount, and then the missions were able to buy into that by allocating some of their mission funding for it. So not only did the Latin American Bureau continue its funding to our core, but the Latin American missions, almost unanimously, as I recall, also bought into it.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in anthropology, University of Chicago 1956–1960
MA in anthropology, University of Chicago 1960–1964
PhD in anthropology, University of California, Berkeley 1964–1972
Joined the Foreign Service 1975
Islamabad, Pakistan—Program Office, Social Science Specialist (PSC) 1975–1979
Dhaka, Bangladesh—Research/Evaluation Rural Development Officer 1979–1984
Washington, DC—Senior Project Officer, DESFIL 1985–1989
Kathmandu, Nepal—Agriculture Development Project Officer/Deputy Office Chief 1989–1993
Lima, Peru—Deputy Director of Alternative Development Program 1998–2002