Interview by iF Publisher Cynthia L. Blandford
As the Publisher and CFO of International Focus (iF) Magazine, it is an honor and pleasure to interview Ms. Paige Alexander, CEO of The Carter Center. Paige Alexander joined The Carter Center as Chief Executive Officer in June 2020.
Alexander has had a distinguished global development career, with over two decades of experience spanning the government and nonprofit sectors. She has held senior leadership positions at two regional bureaus of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), covering missions and development programs in 25 countries.
Between 1993 and 2001, Alexander held several roles in USAID’s Bureau for Europe and the Newly Independent States Task Force, including deputy assistant administrator, chief of staff, director for the Democracy and Governance Office, deputy director of the Bosnia Task Force, and country desk officer. After leaving for 10 years to work in a leadership role in the nonprofit sector, Alexander returned to USAID in 2011 in the Senate-confirmed position of assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia; in 2015, she was again confirmed to lead the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Bureau, overseeing 1,000 employees, programs in 12 countries, and more than $1.4 billion in annual funding.
Between her assignments with USAID, Alexander was senior vice president of IREX and European founder/president of IREX/Europe (2001-2010), an international civil society, democracy, and education nonprofit organization. From 2017 until her appointment to The Carter Center, she served as executive director of the European Cooperative for Rural Development (EUCORD) in Brussels and Amsterdam, working to bring market-led solutions to marginalized farmers in Africa to sustainably improve the livelihoods of families and communities.
Earlier, Alexander was associate director of Project Liberty at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (1992-1993) and a consultant to institutions including the C.S. Mott Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Open Society Institute in Prague. She has served on many global boards and committees, including the advisory boards for World Learning and IREX. Alexander currently serves on the boards of the Romanian-American Foundation, the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, the ADL Southeast Region, and as a member of several human rights organizations.
Please share with us your background and how you believe your experiences and other high level positions prepared you for this prominent position as CEO of The Carter Center.
I have had the good fortune to work overseas with a donor, in academia, in public service with the U.S. government, and with an implementing nonprofit organization during my career. To now lead an organization that encompasses every aspect of these important parts of my life is such an honor. President Carter described his motivations by saying, “I have one life and one chance to make it count for something. …I need to do whatever I can, wherever I can, whenever I can, for as long as I can, with whatever I have, to try to make a difference.” I feel the same way. He and I had a chance to talk about what motivates both of us and why this work is so meaningful to him. And I had the opportunity to share with President Carter why I feel my life’s work has led to this point in time and how honored I am to have the opportunity to carry on a legacy that he and Mrs. Carter began by establishing the Center.
For more than 40 years, our work has stayed true to a fundamental commitment to foster human rights and alleviate suffering while adapting to the evolving realities of the 21st century, which tend to create challenges and offer opportunities for our work.
Please tell us about your day-to-day responsibilities as CEO of the Carter Center.
I often say the only real measure of our work is our impact on people and their lives. The Center has nearly 250 people here in Atlanta and more than 3,000 staff overseas, with over 99% of those being local to the countries where we work.
In my first interview with President Carter, I assured him that I would respect a philosophy that he learned and embraced from his high school teacher, Miss Julia Coleman: “We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.” Our decisions in recent years – such as deciding to extend our Democracy Program work to include U.S. elections – reflect that philosophy. I led our most recent Strategic Plan efforts, which call for, among many other goals, being more intentional in combining our knowledge and relationships to boost our impact on health and peace through cross-programmatic planning at the government and community levels.
Starting during the height of the pandemic was exciting. Although I could not meet the Atlanta staff and travel to our country offices to see the phenomenal work being done with our partners, I was able to focus on the drivers that lead our team of experts to do the invaluable work they do each day. With travel reopening over the last year, I feel fortunate to see firsthand what we’re doing in places like Sudan, where I visited earlier this year. That now seems fortuitously timed given the current serious conflict and civil unrest. On that visit, I was able to observe some of what we’re doing in the fight against neglected tropical diseases such as the blinding eye disease trachoma. I was also able to meet with patients suffering from lymphatic filariasis, sometimes called elephantiasis.
I feel personally connected to the people in that region and remain hopeful for a peaceful resolution so that the Sudanese can once again feel safe in their homes and communities.
Seeing this work in small villages throughout Sudan combined with regular meetings with our program leaders in Atlanta allows me to understand better how to ensure our work has the maximum impact and will be sustainable.
How has The Carter Center saved lives, influenced public policy and worked with Ministers of Health to have the greatest impact on communities?
Our collaboration with health ministries has been a critical component of realizing lasting results in all our global health work.
In Liberia, we’ve worked with the Ministry of Health to strengthen access to mental health care, and we worked with the government to help Liberia enact its first mental health law. Now we work with people who live with mental health conditions to help them become effective advocates for better policies and additional mental health resources.
Since 1986, The Carter Center has led the international campaign to eradicate Guinea worm disease, working closely with ministries of health and local communities, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and many others. When we achieve the worm’s demise, it will become only the second human disease to be eradicated, joining smallpox. None of our work on neglected tropical diseases would be possible without our relationships with health ministries across Africa, Hispaniola, and Latin America. These partnerships have enabled us to gain the access, knowledge, and trust needed to eliminate debilitating diseases that affect the most vulnerable populations.
Ms. Alexander, I was amazed to see the strength of The Carter Center’s work in recent election observations in various countries, projects to strengthen rule of law and access to justice, efforts to thwart corruption and advance citizen oversight of government in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, forums to strengthen the voices of human rights defenders worldwide and an initiative to achieve more equitable treatment of women and girls. The Carter Center’s current peacemaking initiatives are having an impact all over the world.
Please share with our reading public how The Carter Center’s work is making a difference in the lives of people and governments where you are providing leadership.
The Carter Center is working with governments to foster peace in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, including supporting a human rights-based approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; working to find a framework for conflict transformation in Syria; reporting on the implementation of the 2015 peace agreement in Mali; and helping Colombia build peace and strengthen democracy after a long period of insurgency and unrest.
Do you believe the work of The Carter Center is furthering peace and understanding with your interactions and engagements?
Yes, we’re incredibly fortunate to work in more than 80 countries and help reduce the burden of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), which affect more than 1.6 billion people. We’re also seeing our work to reduce the stigma and increase access to mental health care in Liberia recognized as a model in other countries.
The fundamental principles established by President and Mrs. Carter of alleviating suffering and advancing human rights have extended throughout our work in both peace and health. As the Carters have earned their well-deserved retirement, we are relying on the expertise of our 3,000-person staff and the incredible legacy of neutrality and long-term commitment to countries, including the government and the citizens, to make a difference wherever we can.
I have great respect and admiration for the amazing work of The Carter Center and have had the distinct honor and privilege to have met President and Mrs. Carter a few years ago in a private meeting with former Liberia President H.E. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, during her visit to Atlanta, Georgia. The Carter Center has been a true partner with Liberia with a long-standing commitment to help rebuild Liberia after the Civil Conflict, providing help during the Ebola Crisis, and establishing various programs including Access to Information, Access to Justice, Monitoring Elections, Civil Society and Democracy and Governance, Conflict Resolution, Fighting Disease including critically needed mental healthcare training and education programs for Liberian healthcare workers. The Carter Center also has had an office in Liberia for over 10 years.
With the upcoming national elections in Liberia, do you foresee a role that The Carter Center will play in election monitoring and support, and if so, how will this work be conducted?
The Carter Center has a long history in Liberia, dating back to the civil war in 1989. The Center has played a role in all of Liberia’s elections since 1997. For the 2023 election, the Center will continue our support of a local Liberia civil society organization, LEON, in its efforts to conduct citizen observation of the electoral process. In addition, we’re exploring a possible Carter Center international election observation mission, depending on available financial resources. Liberian stakeholders have raised concern with The Carter Center about the 2023 elections and the status of Liberia’s democratic institutions and democratic society. We know the 2023 elections will be important, and we hope we can contribute to a successful outcome.
What are some past, present, and future goals of The Carter Center?
We’re sticking to the core mission to advance peace and health worldwide and focus on regions and projects where the greatest need exists. At the same time, we’re adapting these principles to meet current challenges as the world health and peace landscape has evolved.
One example is the expansion of our mental health work to meet the challenges and opportunities uncovered as a result of the pandemic and the impact it has had on children and families across the globe.
And we decided a few years ago, with President Carter fully on board, to leverage our global democracy experience to meet some of the challenges of free and fair elections in the United States.
The Carter Center is ready to meet the future by honoring our existing commitments, promoting innovation and growth, meeting technology opportunities, and fostering thriving employees. We’ve also seen some terrific opportunities for cross-programmatic work that incorporates our expertise and relationships in the peace and health arenas to maximize our impact.
Finally, is there anything else you would like to add?
Atlanta has a wonderfully diverse community and a unique connection to the world in the health, government, academic, private, and nonprofit sectors. We’re stronger when we’re intentional about working together to understand our collective goals so that we can have a more significant impact in the communities we’re reaching.
As we bring to conclusion our interview today, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the iF Magazine family is sending well-wishes to the former U.S. President Jimmy Carter as he decided to remain home with his family to receive hospice care. The Republic of Liberia is indebted to both the former President and Mrs. Carter for their dedication to the government and people of Liberia, and for this we are forever grateful and thankful.
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