Celebrating 40 Years of Hubert H. Humphrey Fellows Supporting Economic Development and Good Governance

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Alumni of the Humphrey Fellow program pose for a photo at a conference in South Africa, which kicked off the celebration of the 40th year of the program.
Alumni of the State Department's Humphrey Fellowship Program pose for a photo at a conference in South Africa, which kicked off the celebration of the 40th year of the program.

Celebrating 40 Years of Hubert H. Humphrey Fellows Supporting Economic Development and Good Governance

Anniversaries are not just about celebrating the years past, they are also about taking inventory of what has been accomplished and planning future goals together. This year’s 40th anniversary of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program is no exception.

Founded in 1978 in honor of the late Vice President, the Humphrey Program provides a year of professional enrichment and leadership development in the United States for mid-career professionals from countries across the developing world. 

Nearly 6,000 Humphrey Fellows and alumni are working to improve their communities in 162 countries. To mark the program’s 40-year milestone, more than 100 alumni from across Sub-Saharan Africa came together to strengthen their network during the “African Humphrey Voices: Building a Better Future for Our Continent” Conference, held September 14-16, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa. At the Johannesburg conference, alumni amply demonstrated that their time in the United States created impact across multiple sectors in their home countries.

Monitoring Human Rights in South Africa

Thandiwe Matthews, a Humphrey alumna who today is an attorney and PhD researcher with the South African Human Rights Commission, spoke at a reception at the U.S. Consulate General in Johannesburg.

As a 2015-2016 Humphrey Fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School, Thandiwe Matthews researched global human rights monitoring methods, particularly in the realm of reducing inequalities. She credits the Humphrey Fellowship with helping her secure a professional affiliation at Human Rights Watch in New York, where she worked closely with the Deputy Executive Director.

“Upon my return, I was able to apply the knowledge I gained through taking human rights courses at the University of Minnesota and my experience at Human Rights Watch to assist the South African Human Rights Commission to develop tools to monitor the advancement of human rights in South Africa,” she said. Since that time, Matthews has worked tirelessly to highlight issues of racial and income inequality and has used her position at the Human Rights Commission to raise the importance of defending human rights in South Africa.

‘Magic Bags’ Counter Crop Losses in Eastern and Southern Africa

Kenyan Humphrey alumna Jean Njiru studied at Cornell University in 2005-06 and today continues her collaboration with U.S. institutions as a Supply Chain Network Manager with Purdue University. Njiru develops the supply chain for the Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bags in Eastern and Southern Africa, with a focus in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, and Malawi.

A “PICS bag” is a hermetic grain storage technology that is low-cost, effective and enables smallholder farmers to store grain for long period without use of insecticides. The PICS project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and implemented by Purdue University, is working with Africa’s private sector to ensure the availability of PICS technology at the local level where farmers, particularly women, can access it. Njiru had the opportunity to discuss her work in this area during a session on agriculture and rural development at the alumni conference.

I negotiated a major agreement between Purdue University and Bell Industries- a company I worked for at the time. The agreement allowed Bell Industries to produce and distribute [the] bags in Kenya,” she said. “The confidence gained at the Humphrey program enabled me to engage Purdue University on the agreement.”

Farmers refer to PICS bags as the magic bags,” she continued. “Thirty percent of harvested grain is often lost in post-harvest storage. Even with use of pesticides farmers still incur some level of loss. The bags have contributed to food security as farmers can store grain throughout the year without fear of insect damage. Farmers improve their income as the bags give them flexibility to store grain and sell when prices are high. Farmers eat healthier food free of chemicals.”

“In a nutshell, the (Humphrey) program broadened my horizon. The exposure through the professional affiliation and other program activities, and the confidence built during the program are keys to many doors.” Njiru concluded that the conference gave alumni a renewed opportunity to inspire one another adding, “The conference was a new motivation to take some action.”

Matthews and Njiru are just two of many African Humphrey alumni who are determined to create positive change worthy of Humphrey’s legacy. During the conference, alumni participated in sessions focused on topics crucial to U.S. foreign policy such as global health, education policy, sustainable economic development, and good governance.

Networking and Mentorship

In addition to alumni networking, the conference also featured keynote speakers, including former Ambassador to Senegal Harriet Elam-Thomas and a special video message from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador Matthew Harrington.

“I encourage you to mentor those who come after you. Please reach back and give a helping hand to the next generation of leaders across the continent,” Ambassador Harrington said in a video address to the Fellows.

With so many stories of alumni success from the “African Humphrey Voices: Building a Better Future for Our Continent” conference, the program’s 40th anniversary celebration is off to a strong start. Join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #Humphrey40 and learn more about the Humphrey Program by visiting http://www.humphreyfellowship.org/.

About the Author: Anthony Koliha is the Director of the Office of Global Educational Programs in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.