Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Fall/Winter 2012 (November 16, 2012)

Weissberg Lecturer Helping Millions Around the World

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November 16, 2012
By Hilary Dickinson

The earthquakes in Haiti and Indonesia, the famines in Ethiopia and Somalia, and the revolution in Libya. Over the years, Adam Koons’76 has responded to these disasters and more as part of his role with International Relief & Development, one of the largest nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations in the world.

“We can’t do every single disaster and emergency, but it’s almost a better question to ask what are the ones we haven’t been able to respond to,” says Koons, who gave the annual Weissberg Human Rights lecture on campus in September.

The former anthropology major has spent more than 30 years doing humanitarian work, and spent two decades living overseas. Now, he is the director of relief and humanitarian assistance for IRD, based in Arlington, Va.

“We don’t help people one at a time,” Koons says. “When we do projects and programs, it’s hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands or millions of people at a time, and that appealed to me.”

Magazine 2012 6Hailing from a sleepy commuter suburb of New Jersey, Koons was attracted to Beloit because of its similarities to his suburban high school. Both he describes as small, liberal, progressive, and relaxed.

At Beloit, he found it stimulating being around people from different parts of the country and people of different ethnicities for the first time.

“I credit Beloit for a lot of what I do now because it allowed me to study what I wanted, which was anthropology, but with a large dose of integrated studies,” Koons says. “Beloit did not compartmentalize or isolate disciplines and topics from each other, and that taught me to look broadly and pull things from different sciences and different ways of thinking and fit them all together according to what’s needed at the moment, which is exactly what I do now.”

Over the course of his career, Koons has worked at such agencies as the U.S. Agency for International Development, CARE International, and Save the Children, as well as serving as a staff member on Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Commission on World Hunger.

His current job at IRD is the longest position he’s held at one organization—eight years—which he says is uncommon in a field where people switch countries or agencies constantly.

That is not to say Koons stays put. In fact, he spends 40 to 50 percent of his time traveling to disaster-stricken countries like Pakistan and Indonesia to aid in recovery.

Koons’s field trips range anywhere from three weeks to two or three months. Though his family used to live with him in countries such as Haiti, Sudan, and Kenya, they now stay in Maryland.

“It’s hard, but they understand,” Koons said of how his family feels about his extended trips. “(They) lived with me overseas and know really well what I do and respect it.”

Leaving his family for months at a time is just one of the many difficult aspects of his job. Other challenges include arriving in the middle of a major disaster and figuring out what is the most important thing to do given the limited resources, people, and money.

“We can never do 100 percent or even 50 percent of what we want to do, so what we do is provide help in a certain way but deny it in another way because we make decisions based on very limited resources,” Koons says.

Another dilemma is being in the position to help but not being able to reach the people that need it. The local government, rebels, or geography may be preventing it, or it might simply be too dangerous.

With a career in humanitarian work, Koons has also witnessed many heartrending situations.

“One of the most significant and recent was when we were in southern Ethiopian villages last year talking to people whom we were giving water, and some of the village elders told us we saved their lives,” he says.

Koons learns something from each disaster, but the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti was the one that impacted him the most.

Before the earthquake hit in 2010, Koons lived in the Caribbean country for four years, during which time he realized Haiti was not a particularly collaborative society. All that changed after the earthquake.

“When we got there they were already pulling each other out of the rubble,” Koons says. “We always consider ourselves as the first responders, but I realized that the Haitians themselves were the first responders. We came as quickly as we could, but we came and found them helping themselves. That was really a revolution.”

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