Thursday, October 30, 2014

Black Paris Profiles™ II: Erma Manoncourt - Part 1

Part 1 of this Black Paris Profile™ features Dr. Erma Manoncourt and her devotion to public service through international development organizations.

Dr. Erma Manoncourt
Image courtesy of Dr. Manoncourt

Erma Manoncourt is a social-behavioral scientist and owner of M & D Consulting, Inc. With advanced degrees in clinic social work and public health, she designs, develops and evaluates programs and interventions that promote health and well-being for individuals, families, and communities. She also trains public health and international development professionals in techniques and methods that can be used to change societal attitudes, individual behaviors, and social practices and norms.

Erma’s work focuses primarily on populations living in low and middle-income countries. She often finds herself crisscrossing continents as she implements projects that tackle childhood obesity, domestic violence, poor nutrition and sanitation, and other social problems. Paris has been her home base since 1990, though she spent a number of years away when she worked for the United Nations. She resumed full-time residence here in 2011.

The civil disobedience and Black Power movements of the mid-60’s served as the backdrop of Erma’s undergraduate education and she attributes her study of psychology and history in this environment as formative of her desire to understand

why people do the things they do, believe what they do and what must be different for them to change...

After completing college, she decided she wanted to work with local communities in the U.S. to effect social change. So she pursued advanced degrees to strengthen her skills in understanding human and social behavior. Over time, she was drawn to international work, which was fueled in part by the love for travel that she developed at an early age. She nurtured a desire to work in public health in developing countries – always with the aim of understanding others to promote positive change.

Beginning with an opportunity to train Peace Corps volunteers in Togo in the mid-1980s, Erma has accumulated 15 years of experience working in sub-Saharan Africa (nations served include Benin, Mali, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Zaire [now DRC], Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda and Sudan).

Her Peace Corps experience led her to challenge her perception of herself and come to terms with her African heritage and working in numerous countries helped her to better understand the wide diversity that exists on the continent. Part of this diversity stems from the influence of European colonizers. Erma notes that one can immediately distinguish a country that was colonized by the French versus the British or Germans – in addition to what European language may also be an official language, the approach to bureaucracy, the private sector, architecture, etc. is different.

Since those initial days of working in sub-Saharan Africa, Erma has adapted her approach to work to suit the needs of different cultures and organizations in Asia, Central Asia/Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

Erma was working in Rwanda at the time of the genocide and returned almost 20 years later. I asked her to talk about her experiences there:

In 1994 I went to Rwanda as member of a 3-person team of public health consultants whose task was to evaluate a family planning program of a large American Non-Government Organization (NGO), which was located in a district outside of Kigali. Our arrival was one week before the genocide started and I remained in-country two weeks after it started. I was finally evacuated with the help of the Belgian government, CARE and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Rwanda and UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) once I and my colleagues escaped across the border to Tanzania. To this day, my first-hand experience has led me to have immense respect for the work of these two non-governmental organizations and UN agency. I will never forget their staff’s dedication and commitment to helping others during this traumatic period, even if meant putting their own lives in danger.

Flier for Paris’ Mémorial de la Shoah exposition on the Rwanda Genocide
© Discover Paris!

In 2012, I returned for the first time in 20 years, again as a consultant. My task was to assist a United Nations country office in reframing its country program focus and strategies and to co-facilitate a staff retreat that focused on how to effectively address organizational change that would affect the structure, staffing and work processes. In both instances, I was dealing with aspects of attitude and behavior change.

Over the 20 years that lapsed, a transformation had taken place... Rwanda is now a country on the move – its vibrancy and energy today is a direct contrast to the fear and rage that I experienced earlier. It was a surprise to find that the country had changed its official language from French to English. A low-functioning health system that struggled with an AIDS epidemic in the 80’s has been improved - health services are now more efficient and available to local communities all over the country and the system is responsive to community needs and concerns.

I was also struck by the cleanliness of the streets, the bustling businesses and the computer stores throughout Kigali, just to name a few things. In the 1990’s I remember Kigali as a quaint, but very poor city that reflected the country’s low development status. Today, Rwanda is set to become a middle-income country as it experiences an economic boom and serves as a regional power broker in Africa.

Next week, Part 2 of this profile will feature Erma's work at UNICEF and her life in Paris.


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