Visionary leader and consensus builder, top-level manager and policymaker, skilled communicator and family advocate. These terms come to mind when colleagues describe Carmen Nazario. A career public servant, Carmen Nazario has spent the past 25 years planning, managing, and directing social service programs for children and families.
Since November 2001 she has put these skills to use directing the USAID-funded Jordan Poverty Alleviation Program (JPAP) in the Ministry of Social Development in Amman, Jordan. Her job has been to draft and help implement a national poverty reduction strategy. Launched in May 2002, the strategy creates a comprehensive social safety net program for the poor in Jordan.
Ms. Nazario came to Jordan well prepared. From 1999 to 2001, she was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Children and Families and Associate Commissioner for Child Care at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). As the second ranking official for the Administration for Children and Families, she oversaw more than 60 programs and an operating budget of more than $38 billion. Before joining HHS, she was Secretary of Health and Human Resources for the State of Delaware where she directed a staff of more than 5,000 and a budget of $900 million.
A native of Puerto Rico and the second of five children, Ms Nazario credits her parents for instilling in her a sense of civic responsibility from an early age. She also credits them for helping her develop a sense of wonder and adventure beyond the boundaries of Puerto Rico. We spoke with Ms. Nazario about her U.S. career in social work and how it has shaped her work in Jordan.
It’s been said that one enters the field of social work to help people. Why did you go into social work?
I had a very difficult time deciding what I wanted to do. I wanted to do so many things, politics, education, law, anything having to do with people that did not involve the medical field. The Government of Puerto Rico awarded one scholarship in the College of Social Sciences for a graduate to pursue a Master’s degree in social work at a university in the U.S., so I applied and was fortunate to get it, thus starting this very rewarding journey in the field of Human Services.
You’ve received numerous honors and awards for outstanding service, teamwork, exemplary leadership, and the like. What do you consider your single most important contribution to your field?
I have been blessed with many rewarding experiences, but I think bringing an individual perspective to the field, working on diversity issues and helping others understand that, not only tolerating differences, but rather embracing them, enriches us all.
How has your experience working in social services agencies in the United States prepared you for your work with the Ministry of Social Development in Jordan?
My husband, Alexis, was a U.S. Air Force pilot when I married him. We moved frequently, therefore, I never formulated long-term career plans. I realize now that every position I held prepared me for the next one. While Jordan has different circumstances and different culture, there are consistent values and principles that can be successfully applied in both places. Jordan, its government and its people, are committed to improving the quality of life for all Jordanians. Agencies wish to improve their management and customer service in order to contribute to Jordan’s competitiveness. It is a real pleasure to work with people who want to be their best.
Are there similarities in the types of social services programs you developed or oversaw in the U.S. and programs in Jordan? What are the differences?
Most programs are similar in principle, but adapted to local customs and economic circumstances. For example, cash assistance is now tied to employment in Jordan as it is in the U.S. Education is free and accessible in all areas of the country. Similarly, health services are accessible and are provided free to the poor. There are also some marked differences; for example, child care outside the home is not prevalent, there is a low percentage of women employed outside the home and adoption of children is not allowed in Islamic law.
How did you transfer your communication and organizational skills to the Jordan environment, where you are responsible for fostering good working relationships not only between your team and the Ministry of Social Development, but also with other government agencies and NGOs?
Jordanians are friendly, warm and hospitable people. It is easy to communicate with them and to foster good working relationships. I am also fortunate to work with the best team. The JPAP staff are marvelous and have paved the way for me very successfully. Cultural differences among various constituencies in Jordan are real, however, and one must always be sensitive to different needs and behavior patterns.
Poverty in Jordan has been described as “income” poverty; that is, low family income rather than unemployment. How does developing a national strategy to address this type of poverty differ from one that addresses “human” poverty, as some poverty in the United States is sometimes characterized?
Jordan is ahead of most other developing countries in terms of the usual indicators of poverty. Literacy is high, health status is high, Even remote areas have electricity and access to improved water sources. The challenges in Jordan, however, are still multiple. There is no question that more jobs in the private sector need to be developed in order to alleviate the burden on the government as the main provider of jobs.
The issue is not as simple as raising wages that might push some people who are now employed out into the ranks of the unemployed. Jordan’s Poverty Alleviation Strategy supports economic adjustments by addressing social issues, such as family planning, in order to contain population growth. Fifty seven percent of the poor in Jordan live in homes with five or more children. Large families not only reduce the value of the family’s income, but also use up the very scarce natural resources such as water and arable land. The strategy provides income supports that include those who work and are still under the poverty line, but it also addresses actions that the society must undertake if it is to make the most of its economic growth.
The U.S. Ambassador to Jordan stated that the JPAP could become a model program for other developing countries. What do you think other countries could learn from the Jordan model?
I do agree that Jordan’s strategy can be useful to other countries. The major premise of Jordan’s strategy is that poverty alleviation, if it is to be successful, must be comprehensive. It is not enough to establish fragmented programs that, although beneficial, are not sufficient to create radical change that can modify the landscape of society. An integrated effort must be made by all sectors, including most importantly, the willingness to establish priorities for resource allocation.
What advice would you offer someone developing a similar strategy or simply trying to develop a poverty alleviation program?
Get the best team possible. Jordan’s strategy would not have been successful without a marvelous, small, hard-working group of Jordanians who gave it their all to develop a successful strategy that incorporates the views of all sectors.
What has been your greatest challenge as JPAP chief of party?
Shifting from a policymaker’s role to a consultant’s role was a challenge, but a pleasant one, since the stress level from my previous job has been substantially reduced. The overriding challenge, however, has been the shift to a very small project in which I am responsible for operations, administration, policy formulation, financial reports, etc. I have had to learn many new skills, such as procurement, using the computer to greater advantage, setting up an office, etc. I love it all though, and I wouldn’t change it for the world!