Spring 2020

Working Life

John Bowman poses with a group of Nepalese vegetable farmers he worked to support through a project with the United States Agency for International Development.
John Bowman poses with a group of Nepalese vegetable farmers he worked to support through a project with the United States Agency for International Development.

John Bowman came to UW–Madison for a master’s degree in Ibero-American studies, but fate expanded the scope of his academic pursuits. By chance, he ended up rooming with two graduate students of agronomy whose “shop talk” piqued his interest in their field.

He discovered that UW is a leader in international agricultural research, with projects all over Asia, Latin America, and Africa. And he realized that combining a degree in an agricultural discipline with his expertise in Latin America could aid his quest to help people in developing countries.

Bowman found support for his plan through Luis Sequeira, now an emeritus professor of plant pathology, who gave him the chance to pursue an additional master’s degree. Later, Bowman dove even deeper into plant pathology with a doctoral degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Bowman has worked in more than 40 countries and has lived for extended periods of time in Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, Philippines, and China. He brings this experience to his current position as a program area leader for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Office of Agricultural Research and Policy. Bowman primarily designs and manages long-term international research projects in the areas of horticulture, crop protection, post-harvest loss, and food safety, but he’s also a leader on increasing USAID youth engagement in developing countries. He directs funding to programs that support young leaders who can have a lasting impact on the food security and health of communities.

In recognition of his work, Bowman received the Excellence in International Service Award from the American Phytopathological Society in August 2018 and the award for Outstanding International Horticulturist from the American Society for Horticultural Science in July 2019.

Why is engaging with young people in developing countries important?

USAID has to learn how to do development differently in the next 20 to 30 years. There are these demographic youth bulges in many poor countries in Africa and Asia, where 60% to 70% of the populations are under the age of 30. This a new trend that will continue to grow. We have to invest our development dollars to improve economic growth and alleviate poverty through targeting youth. If we don’t, we’re missing a huge swath of the target population, particularly female youth.

Our investments in agriculture development become a lot more efficient when women are heavily involved in the utilization of the donor dollars. If we can empower women in poor households and help them start up agriculture enterprises, everything goes a little bit better in improving family economics and health status. Women have that direct link to the under-age-five population because they’re most responsible for them. If we support women through aid, it’s much more likely that the health and well-being of children will be better.

In what ways do you work with young people in developing countries?

Youth in poor countries are very much isolated and vulnerable, and critical thinking is suppressed by traditions, cultural practices, or religious beliefs. We empower them to become responsible and respected members in communities with soft skills training, such as managing a loan or learning to communicate with elders in the village. They need to learn to assert themselves without causing cultural distress. We do that on top of finding them employment opportunities through agriculture and investing in training that helps them become strong young leaders. We want to make sure that investments are customized toward the youth population because youth are energetic and more likely to contribute to development solutions with innovative thinking.

You’ve worked in international agriculture in both the private and public sector. What have those experiences been like?

One thing important to point out, when you become a higher-level official in a donor agency, and essentially disseminate public funds to take care of people’s problems in other countries, you’re in a unique, privileged position. In order to disseminate funds properly, you need a broad base of experiences, with a mix of working in the public and private sectors, to make balanced decisions about where you put donated money and for what reasons.

In the private sector, you see the business side of decision-making as far as managing budgets and where money goes — making strategic decisions and placing assets and funds strategically. The bottom line of a company has to be improved by whatever actions you’re taking in corporate-social responsibility.

The public sector is more about what you’re tasked to do and can have very specific objectives when you’re in research positions. A lot of what you do in your research has to generate global or regional public good. Whatever your project is, and the outcomes, you have to benefit the well-being of people. With those kind of objectives, you have to come up with more strategic balance to make decisions about where to invest. From where I sit now, I am essentially investing U.S. taxpayer dollars to help alleviate poverty in other countries. It is quite a privilege.

Your international career has spanned almost 40 years. What’s your biggest takeaway from your work?

You have to learn to work on a team. Most of these problems in terms of fixing agriculture or health or environmental problems in developing countries, have very complex solutions, and there can be a clash of cultures when you try to pursue a solution. It’s not like you’re in a U.S. university with tunnel vision doing a deep dive in a problem like developing a pest-resistant crop. When you’re out there trying to alleviate poverty, primarily through agriculture intervention, it takes many people with different talents to solve these problems. You have to park your ego at the door because, often times, you’re working very closely with partners in developing countries trying to implement solutions with your funding or aid, and you have to give them an equal say because they are an equal part of the team. You may have a Ph.D. from a top school, but these folks know the local situation and what works under their conditions. They may be far less fortunate than you, but they are an equal part of the solution.


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