Volume 11, Number 2, 2002

Alumni Profile

A continuing concern for developing countries

Sometime in the 1960s, Edmund Cain Jr., AS '68, stood on a picket line protesting a country club's refusal to allow Jews to become members.

It was a time when civil rights and the war in Vietnam brought conflict to the streets and campuses and a time when young people listened as Bob Dylan asked, "How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?"

Cain, like many students of his day, believed the way to change the world was to get involved, and he turned that commitment into his life's work.

Even before he graduated from the University, Cain was a devotee of the United Nations. After he earned a master's degree from the Lila Wallace School of Public Affairs at the University of Oregon, he moved to New York City to become a career officer in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), devoting his life to fighting poverty across the globe. In 1996, he was instrumental in creating the United Nations' emergency response division and became its first director.

Last year, after 30 years with UNDP, Cain resigned to join the prestigious Carter Center, a nonprofit public policy center founded in Atlanta by Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. As director of the center's global development initiative, he says he hopes to carry his work to the next level by helping other societies take control of their futures.

In February, Cain moderated a development cooperation forum hosted by the center. Its mission was to identify the barriers that were keeping nations from achieving the United Nations' millennium development goals agreed to by 189 countries in September 2000. The goals call for cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015, providing education, improving health care and preserving the environment.

When he spoke at the two-day conference, he told participants that when he served in Kabal, Afghanistan, 20 years ago "...nothing caused me greater anguish than witnessing the inability of the international community...to effectively address the human suffering and abject poverty that country faced."

Politics, he said, created a "dysfunctional development environment and the world today is paying the price for lost opportunities to educate children, to empower women, to respect the cultural heritage and to offer alternative livelihoods...."

Cain says he can't remember when he didn't feel passionately about the plight of those struggling for survival. He credits his family with starting him on the road he has traveled throughout his life.

Edmund Cain Sr. was a professor of education and associate director of the UD Foreign Language Institutes when he agreed to act as adviser in education to a major UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) project in Latin America. The family moved to Santiago, Chile, where they lived from 1961-62.

"Both my parents, and particularly my mother, were very engaged in social issues," Cain says. His mother, Virginia, who received a master's degree in education from UD in 1963, was a women's rights activist, a member of the League of Women Voters and the Democratic Party and served as chair of the Nevada Democratic party.

What Cain saw in South America changed him forever, he says. "It was pre-Allende Chile. The poverty and social unrest left a lasting impression.... Our travels throughout South America revealed that the 'Leave it to Beaver' world that I had grown up with was not the same world other children were experiencing," he says.

In 1972, Cain went to work for the UNDP, serving as a desk officer for Indonesia and the Philippines for a year before he was promoted to assistant resident representative and sent to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

Six years later, he served in Afghanistan. "During my assignment, there were three coups, several assassinations, including the assassination of the U.S. ambassador, tremendous social upheaval and, ultimately, invasion by a foreign power," Cain says.

But, what caused him the most anguish, he says, was that despite the human suffering and abject poverty the nation faced, politics kept the world and the United Nations from doing anything to help.

"Buffeted between competing paradigms for development, the United Nations' role was to follow a 'no policy' policy. That meant no position on education, no position on health, no position on governance. And, the United Nations was not alone," he says.

So, although Cain was devastated by the magnitude of what happened on Sept. 11, he says he wasn't surprised that it happened or that the terrorists were being harbored in Afghanistan. One of his regrets, he says, is that since his frustrating experience in Afghanistan 25 years ago, powerful nations haven't done what needed to be done in order to bring Afghanistan into the post-Cold War world.

"There are 1.2 billion people on this planet who live on less than a dollar a day. Their security issues are 'Am I going to eat today?' When people lose all hope and have no possibilities for the future, it's very easy to capture their hearts and minds," he says.

In 1989, Cain was named U.N. resident coordinator and UNDP representative in Turkey. A few months after he assumed his new post, Iraq invaded Kuwait and seized control of that country.

The invasion triggered Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, a U.S.-led coalition of air and ground troops whose mission was to drive the Iraqis out.

By March 1991, Saddam Hussein was defeated. Thinking the regime and its military were weakened by the defeat, Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq attacked the Iraqi army. But, Hussein's forces quickly crushed the rebellion.

Fearing repercussions, more than a million refugees headed toward the mountains of Iran and Turkey, Cain says. As more and more crossed the borders, conditions deteriorated. Soon, there was no food, shelter or water, and temperatures plunged far below freezing each night. Press reports indicated as many as 3 million people were fleeing, with the Iraqi army still in pursuit.

Cain says that by April 2 of 1991, more than 300,000 Kurdish refugees were in southeastern Turkey and another 100,000 along the Turkish/Iraqi border. Eight-hundred to a thousand people, mostly the very young and the very old, were dying each day.

The United Nations passed resolution 688 on April 5, 1991, asking member states to assist the Kurds, and President George H. Bush ordered the United States European Forces to provide immediate relief assistance.

Cain's office set up convoy transit points to move the refugees back into Iraq and supply them with food, fuel, medical supplies and electricity. But, conflicts between United Nations' security efforts and U.N. humanitarian activities, as well as a lack of a central authority at the crisis site, hampered the operation, he says.

A later assessment of the U.N.'s humanitarian efforts during the Gulf crisis reinforced Cain's recommendation that there be an emergency response unit at each U.N. installation and that the director of the unit be in charge of U.N. humanitarian operations in his or her area.

In 1996, the UNDP Emergency Response Division was created to coordinate all crisis activities at U.N. facilities around the world, and Cain became its first director.

He was stationed in Egypt from 1998-2001, when terrorist attacks in the Middle East began diminishing inroads to peace. Cain says he doesn't see a resolution to hostilities in the Middle East without real changes in the economic and cultural lives of the people there.

It was with that in mind that Cain accepted the directorship of the Carter Center's global development initiative.

"The Carter Center is committed to empowering these countries. President Carter wants action and not just discussion. He believes that the threats posed by the failure to aggressively address global poverty are the greatest moral challenge of our time and an obstacle to a safe and secure world. If any good comes of Sept. 11, it is that both the public and officials must recognize that neglect of these issues is a controlling factor in the conditions that nurture fanaticism," he says.

Shortly after the February forum, Cain accompanied Carter to an international conference on financing for development, held in Monterray, Mexico. Leaders of the developed world were asked to commit the financial resources and debt relief needed to achieve millennium development goals, and underdeveloped countries were asked to take bold steps to reduce corruption and use foreign aid more effectively.

It's Cain's job to track progress in achieving the development goals, country by country. First, he helps each nation shape comprehensive strategies, then he monitors their achievements and the actions of donor countries. Through forums, he lets the international community know what works and what doesn't.

Cain lives in Atlanta with his wife, Nil. His daughter, Tammy, is an associate counsel for the FBI, and his son, Edmund Cain IV, is an attorney in Las Vegas.

And, if it isn't enough that his heart, mind and career remain true to the '60s, Cain says, "I still drive a Volkswagen Beetle--albeit, the new model."

--Barbara Garrison