Westmont Magazine An Economist Confronts Challenges in the Congo
Michael ’84 and Kris Sellars ’85 Trueblood knew the statistics about poverty in the Congo. But it still shocked them to see scores of undernourished people, many missing limbs and needing medical attention, when they arrived in Kinshasa last summer. As an economist with USAID, Michael works on economic issues ranging from mining to national health accounts.
Faced with almost overwhelming needs and challenges, he hopes to achieve one goal in particular: helping the government set up an automatic payment system for employees. Some of the corruption in the country stems from the failure to pay government workers regularly; they then make up taxes and penalties to support themselves. “In the past few years, the government has made progress toward developing and living by a budget,” Michael says. “But it has few financial controls or electronic accounting systems.”
Michael lists projects he’d like to pursue: repaving roads to reconnect the country; collecting garbage to create jobs and clean up streets; establishing a vocational school to train plumbers and electricians. He hopes to do some planning for future initiatives like these before he leaves in 2012.
An economics and business major at Westmont, Michael was the first of his family to graduate from a four-year college. He got interested in foreign affairs traveling with the summer-long International Business Institute (IBI). An internship in the Africa branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) during a Washington, D.C., semester led to a full-time job. “The Ethiopian famine occurred about this time and made a lasting impression on me,” he says.
“I’d always been interested in hunger-related issues, and I’ve since done a lot of research in this area.” He worked at USDA for several years before earning a doctorate in agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota. He had hoped to get a job with USAID after getting his degree, but the agency froze all positions. He returned to USDA and did economic research on global food security, trade issues and Russian agriculture, finally joining USAID in 2009.
Kris double majored in political science and economics and business and also participated in IBI. She earned a master’s degree in public administration at USC and worked for years as a senior analyst for the Government Accountability Office, reviewing programs and doing research in the area of worker protection.
In Kinshasa, she has a job in the State Department’s facilities office. “I can’t tell a wrench from a hammer, but I can review processes and improve them,” she says. She helped reduce a five-month backlog of work orders to three weeks. Kris works three-fourths time to spend more time with their three children, who are 13, 11 and 8 and attend the American School of Kinshasa. “It’s hard to teach your values to your children when you’re gone 12 hours a day,” she says. “This is a better lifestyle.”
The Truebloods live in a compound with seven other families and 20 children. “In a city with no entertainment, we create our own,” Kris says. Growing up in Taiwan inspired her to provide an international experience for her children; they hope to spend the next 10 years overseas.
In 2008, crop failures and rising oil prices created a spike in food costs that worries Michael. “It has set back the progress we were making in ending hunger,” he says. “We need to invest in more agricultural research to increase crop yields and help countries like the Congo grow more food.”