Marissa Lemargie tends to take things in on a global scale. An interest in other cultures and societies led to an anthropology degree at Washington State University in 1999. A master’s degree in international development from the London School of Economics and Political Science followed.
Lemargie is now employed by USAID as an international cooperation specialist for Colombia and Paraguay in Washington, D.C. Already, the 26-year-old Ephrata native has traveled to Africa and South America on humanitarian missions. Recent plans called for her to visit Paraguay in August 2004, and Colombia in September.
Like her older brother, Kyle (’98 Polit. Sci.), who works for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., she was attracted to WSU by the Honors College. In a capstone course in anthropology, professor Linda Stone shared her experiences teaching Peace Corp volunteers and with development in third-world countries. “That course . . . opened up ideas for me,” Lemargie says. She began looking at how access to resources, particularly education and healthcare, profoundly affect people in the world’s poorest countries.
In graduate school she was drawn into a specialization in complex humanitarian emergencies that included looking at how to get aid in to disaster areas, psychological trauma in conflict, the plight of child soldiers, and refugee movements. She began looking at how marginalized groups pulled together to leverage crucial resources and basic services from the state, and how oftentimes the state found this type of ethnic nationalism threatening to its position. Her research led to a dissertation on the Kurds in Turkey.
Lemargie moved from London to Washington, D.C., in 2000, and began working as a full-time volunteer at the human rights organization Amnesty International USA. She was part of an NGO (non-governmental organization) coalition team that helped draft legislation that later became law prohibiting unregistered diamonds from entering the U.S. She explained how guerillas in Sierra Leone financed their rebellion with the sale of diamonds mined by villagers forced into servitude. The fighting continued through 2002.
After nearly a year with Amnesty International, Lemargie got her government career break when she was awarded a Presidential Management Fellowship with the U.S. Department of State, one of only 400 picked annually in a program designed to attract top graduate students as Civil Service employees. Over a two-year period, she was placed in three rotations within the federal government to “get a taste and flavor of the different jobs.”
She began work the day before September 11, 2001, and spent her first year focusing on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. Later, she served six weeks as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations for the Committee on Program Coordination. She was a member of a panel representing 30 countries. Delegates were charged with coming to consensus on “what our goals were in the world for education and health care,” she says, and “how to prioritize different activities for funding.”
In her second year, Lemargie was posted to Niger, the poorest Muslim country in Africa, as political officer for the American Embassy in Niamey. There she focused on human rights, child labor, people sold against their will into the slave or prostitution industry, and socioeconomic development. It proved to be one of the most challenging and most inspiring of her assignments with the State Department. She was particularly impressed with the charisma of the women in Niger and had the honor of meeting the only female mayor in the country.
Her third rotation was in the USAID’s Latin American-Caribbean Bureau in Washington, D.C. She was assigned to the democracy, governance, and human rights area and received an award for her efforts to address trafficking in persons in Latin America. Now a permanent civil servant with USAID, Lemargie works on humanitarian assistance for Colombia and Paraguay. With an annual budget of $120 million, the Colombia development program focuses on “basic democratic reform, internally displaced persons, and alternative development,” she says. Despite being one of the longest-standing democracies in South America, Colombia has been in a civil war for 40 years.
“We are trying to improve the state’s presence throughout the country,” Lemargie says, “to assure the people that they have access to government services and some sense of security.”
Discussions are currently underway between the government of Colombia and the paramilitaries to negotiate a peace agreement. Lemargie is enthusiastic about what is being accomplished in the debates around the issue in the nation’s capital. Regarding her role in helping to prepare senior official for these issues, she says, “I feel like I am finally getting into a position where I am able to influence some of the discussion.”