Rebuilding the Underdeveloped World
Issue   |   Fri, 11/07/2014 - 01:14
Photo courtesy of Abbey Gardner
Gardner's current focus is on the outbreak of Ebola

Most students study world events from a safe distance. Abbey Gardner ’89, however, has the habit of being exactly where history is being made. From a visit to the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era, to the halls of the Latvian parliament during the nation’s struggle for independence, to earthquake-shattered Haiti, Gardner has both witnessed and taken part in the changing world of international affairs. Today, she works with Special Advisor to the United Nations Secretary General Paul Farmer to improve aid to developing countries.

A Transformative Four Years
Gardner’s experience at Amherst began with a link to an important historical moment. Her application essay, about her experience visiting the Soviet Union in the summer of 1984, landed on the desk of Amherst Russian professor Stanley Rabinowitz.

“Stanley wrote me back this long, personal note about the Russian department, [how] I should consider majoring in Russian,” Gardner said. “I was just blown away by the time he took and the personal attention, and that just made my decision that I absolutely wanted to come to Amherst and major in Russian.”

Indeed, Gardner did end up majoring in Russian. Over her four years at Amherst, Gardner developed close friendships with the professors in the department.

“They all ended up staying mentors to me after college, helping me figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” Gardner said.

Rabinowitz remembered Gardner as being “very outgoing and bubbly and vivacious.”

“She is the best kind of student you can find: open to new experience, receptive to whatever you give, curious, intelligent,” he said. “She was really interested in the subject matter, and got excited about it.”

She was equally enthusiastic about engagements outside the classroom.

“Whether it was club rugby, a political protest or a study group for Russian comps — Abbey was the first to join, worked the hardest and always assumed the best positive outcome,” said Sarah Sanford ‘89, one of Gardner’s good friends.

The ’80s were a particularly exciting time to be studying Russian, Rabinowitz said. By 1985, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had begun the programs of political restructuring known as glasnost and perestroika, marking a major turning point in Russian history.

“My time studying Russian at Amherst were the years of complete upheaval in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union,” Gardner said. “When I look back and think that was the time I was able to study with Stanley Rabinowitz and [political science professor] William Taubman and [Russian professors] Jane Taubman and Stephanie Sandler, in this tiny little intimate Russian department … it was an extraordinary time to be there.”

Although Gardner’s area of study was relevant to world news at the time, she did not see the Russian major as preparation for a career in international affairs. For her, Russian was a pursuit of passion.

“It was a purely liberal arts endeavor. There was nothing career-oriented about it at all, because in those days, there weren’t too many jobs for people who were Russian area experts or spoke Russian, so I did it, you know, with no thought that it would ever lead to any career in the future,” Gardner said. “But those classes … I just soaked them in, and they were just incredible.”

Both socially and academically, Gardner fit in well at Amherst. Her best friends at the college were from James Dormitory, her first-year residence hall. According to Gardner, after nearly 25 years, they are still her closest friends.

Another of Gardner’s friends from her first year, Margaret Stohl ‘89, said, “I can’t remember a single person who didn’t like her. She was a people person, and she’s still that way.”

A Time of “Awakening”
After graduating in 1989, Gardner lived for one year in Riga, the capital of Latvia, which was then a part of the Soviet Union. While there, she taught English to a group of Latvian factory workers and wrote for the Russian-language anti-Soviet newspaper Atmoda (Latvian for “awakening”). As a reporter for Atmoda in 1990, Gardner witnessed Latvia declare its independence from the Soviet Union.

“I had a press pass for writing for this newspaper, so I was able to be in the room inside the Latvian Parliament when they voted to secede from the Soviet Union,” Gardner said. “I was in the building when the Soviet troops marched in. It was one of these historic, unbelievable moments that I was fortunate enough to be a part of and witness after I had been studying Soviet politics at Amherst.”

After returning to the United States, Gardner earned a master’s degree in Russian Area Studies from Georgetown University, studying ethnic politics in the Baltic republics as they regained independence.

By 1991, the Soviet Union itself had fallen. Gardner now found that her knowledge of Russian language, politics and culture was suddenly far more in demand than it had been in 1989, as nonprofits and private companies alike raced to establish a presence in a more open Russia. While completing her master’s, Gardner worked for the Open Society Institute, a nonprofit run by liberal philanthropist George Soros that ran a program reforming the social sciences in the newly independent Baltic republics. It was at this job that she met her eventual husband Patrick Dolan, who also worked for the nonprofit. The two married in 1999.

Some of Gardner’s most influential work was with the International Science Foundation program, which gave away around $100 million to scientists working in non-weapons fields who had lost their Soviet funding in 1991.

This work was important, Gardner said, because “not only were they doing world-class scientific research, but those were really the intellectual liberal thinkers in the former Soviet Union, and they were in desperate shape at that point because nobody cared about them anymore. Everyone was supporting weapons scientists, and basic scientists were getting left out in the cold. So we supported them for several years.”

By 1995, she became Soros’ Regional Director for Russia, overseeing a $100 million-per-year operation in the former Soviet Union.

“We supported a network of foundations in Eastern Europe. I was the person in New York who supported them strategically as they developed their program plans and budget, and I linked them up with resources,” Gardner said. “We ran programs that spanned from early childhood education to higher education to rule of law programs, economic development, job training for returning soldiers.”

International Impact
The next step in Gardner’s career happened almost by chance. While working for an Open Society Institute program responding to a tuberculosis outbreak in Russia, Gardner met a young Harvard professor named Paul Farmer, whom she describes as “a hero, inspiration and close friend.” When Soros adopted Farmer’s proposal for focusing on the multi-drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, the outbreak was quickly contained, and Farmer was propelled to international prestige.

Gardner stayed in touch with Farmer as she made her next career move, working for the University of Miami medical school to set up a global health training program. In 2009, Farmer, now the United Nations Special Envoy to Haiti, was recruited by Bill Clinton for a mission focused on improving political and economic conditions in Haiti. Farmer asked Gardner to join him on that mission.

In January 2010, a powerful and deadly earthquake struck Haiti.

“Our entire mission changed overnight. What we ended up doing was tracking the aid to Haiti,” Gardner said. “We tracked how much the donors pledged, which was in the billions, and how much they actually dispersed. We found that in the emergency phase of the response to the earthquake, less than one percent of over two billion dollars went through the government of Haiti.”

Gardner, working with Farmer, decided to draw attention to this problem. They worked to persuade donors that the Haitian government needed help in order to rebuild. After the Haitian mission was shut down, Gardner helped found a small U.N.-affiliated partnership called the Aid Delivery Support Initiative, which researches aid effectiveness and strategies to handle donors who refuse to work with governments of developing countries.

This issue is important, she said, “because everyone’s agreed that the best, most effective thing to do is to support public sectors, but they don’t do it.”

Jehane Sedky, who worked with Gardner at the Aid Delivery Support Initiative, recalled Gardner’s importance to Farmer’s project.

“I remember meeting Paul Farmer for the first time — he walked into the UN office with Abbey by his side and introduced her by saying ‘this is my right hand and my left hand,’” Sedky said.

Today, Gardner’s work focuses on the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

“The reason this outbreak got out of hand is because Liberia and Sierra Leone had no health systems of their own. Liberia has had three percent of its development assistance go through the government,” she said. “Contractors and N.G.O.s, as great as they might be, do not make a national health system.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Paul Farmer is the United Nations special envoy to Haiti. However, Bill Clinton was the U.N. special envoy to Haiti in 2009 and hired Farmer as his assistant. Farmer's title during the mission was deputy special envoy.