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Donna Flanagan shares ways UN tackles poverty

When the phone rings at Donna Flanagan’s home, it may be a call from Kenya or Uganda, as she continues her international career from her home office, now as a consultant living in Spokane across the street from her grandchildren.

Donna Flanagan
Donna Flanagan

Her encounters with people in Asia and Africa since leaving Spokane after high school and returning in retirement have made her aware that the United Nations, for which she worked eight years, is more than a building in New York City, international peacekeeping teams and Security Council decisions.

Speaking for the annual United Nation’s Day Dinner of the Spokane United Nations Association Chapter, she will tell of the 65-year-old international organization’s work through its 37 agencies to promote peace and security, international relations, social progress, improved living standards and human rights in 192 countries.

She will discuss “Engaging America in the Millennium Development Goals” at the dinner from 6 to 9 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 24, in Cataldo Hall at Gonzaga University.

“While we often hear about political issues, we do not know about the infrastructure of United Nations’ work around the world and the Millennium Development Goals to address extreme poverty,” said Donna, who hopes to help people in Spokane understand how UN activities around the world have impact on people in Spokane and how people here can have impact around the world.

As she presents each of the goals, she will describe why each is necessary, based on her personal experiences.

“While many people may think poor people, dirty water and girls forced to marry early are sad, my experience can make those needs come alive,” said Donna, hoping that those coming to the United Nations Day Dinner in Spokane will leave with ideas of what they can do.

For five years, she worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Ethiopia and Uganda, after working four years with the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Ethiopia. 

In addition, she has lived internationally in developing countries for more than 40 years, starting in the 1960s as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand.  

After graduating from Holy Names Academy in Spokane, she completed a bachelor’s degree in English literature at the University of Washington in 1963 before entering the Peace Corps.

Following studies at St. Louis University in 1966, she returned to Asia to Kuala Lampur and married.  Later she served five years as an English as a second language teacher on TV in American Samoa.

Donna began working with the United Nations after she earned a master’s degree in international education at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

From 1986 to 1989, she worked with the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Ethiopia.

From 1989 to 1994, she worked with the World Health Organization’s Global Program on AIDS in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then in Entebbe, Uganda. 

In Ethiopia, Donna developed health promotion activities and training programs for health professionals, teachers, students, journalists and women. 

In Uganda, she prepared resources for youth, rural communities, religious leaders and women of childbearing age.

Then for 15 years, she worked in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos with Family Health International, an educational and research organization that has offices and programs in more than 70 countries, addressing primarily reproductive health, HIV and AIDS prevention and control, and nutrition.

Since retiring to Spokane in 2005, she has been a consultant with United Nations and Family Health International programs in Asia and the Pacific, but more recently focusing on Africa.

“For example, I recently consulted by phone with a program in Kenya for truck drivers who cross borders and visit sex workers at truck stops,” said Donna, who serves on the board of the Spokane AIDS Network.

In Spokane, she finds many international-minded people concerned about poverty, water and disease abroad.

“People here are aware of our wealth in contrast to the poverty around the world,” Donna said.

For her, the UN’s millennium development goals address key issues of the world and offer people in this area opportunities of places to put their time and efforts.

“We as individuals can push to achieve the millennium development goals that have been agreed to by many nations,” Donna said, adding that she will offer suggestions in her talk at the dinner.

One suggestion is for people to join organizations like the United Nations Association, which she said will soon be joined with the United Nations Foundation. 

The $1 billion Ted Turner advanced to the United Nations—embarrassed that the United States had not paid its dues for many years—created the foundation rather than being returned to him after the United States paid.

The United Nations Association will merge into the foundation, gaining energy and funding to help inform people in the United States about UN programs.

We need to find ways to help young people be informed about the history of the organization and current programs,” she said.

“There are so many things we need to do and can do in the world.  The UN is a valuable tool addressing issues that affect people.  I believe in its work,” Donna said.

From living abroad, she knows that everything American is not necessarily “the best,” because she saw excellent education systems in Asia and “fantastic” maternal and child care in Africa.

“Some Americans believe that if it’s not American, it’s no good,” she noted, pointing out that people in each country love their own countries and cultures. 

“Not everyone wants to cross U.S. borders illegally.  They come to find jobs lost in their homelands, so they can support their families.  It’s not easy to come to the U.S. now, and the U.S. is not welcoming,” she said.

Practicing Buddhist meditation after her years in Asia, Donna said she was drawn to that faith because “it’s nonjudgmental about people and behaviors.”

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