Gary Newton ’72 has lived all over the world, from Bangladesh to Egypt to Namibia, moving every four years as a Foreign Service officer. Yet it wasn’t until Newton returned to his home country, settling in Washington, D.C., that he had trouble falling asleep.
His sleeplessness was due not to the change in surroundings but to the task before him. As the U.S. government’s first special advisor for orphans and vulnerable children, Newton, 61, is charged with protecting the world’s youngest and most at risk. “When I first started this job, I had the worst insomnia I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “When you look at what you’ve taken on … I almost felt guilty sleeping.”
Now, nearly three years later, Newton is not only working to improve life for children around the globe but also is reshaping how people approach the challenge. “We’re doing what we can to change the way people think about vulnerable children,” he said.
Poverty, he and his team say, is what puts children most at risk for living on the street, being trafficked, and suffering violence, sexual abuse, or child marriage. But aid groups tend to focus on orphans, a category that includes some children who are not vulnerable and excludes others who are. Allocating resources to alleviate poverty, Newton says, is a more effective way to help the needy.
As a Foreign Service officer in Namibia in 2005, Gary Newton posed with traditional dancers who performed at the opening of a U.S. government-funded HIV/AIDS counseling and testing center.
Newton points to examples like a girl named Urmila, who lives in Kathmandu, Nepal. When her family moved to the city, they found they couldn’t afford to live. Forced to work full time in a carpet factory with her parents, Urmila had to drop out of school. She was in second grade.
Or Valarmathi, a woman in conflict-ridden Sri Lanka whose husband left the family when her youngest of three children was just 11 days old. Without an income, the mother could not afford to raise the baby and sent him to a children’s home. She was only allowed to see him once a month, and the home was a violent place.
And then there are the children of Namibia, another of Newton’s Foreign Service postings, where AIDS has orphaned thousands and left others in abject poverty, he said. Some are mistreated and exploited by the same people who purport to have rescued them. “It’s the supreme injustice to a child,” Newton said.
And it’s rampant.
According to Newton’s team’s most recent annual report to Congress, submitted in December, several hundred million children in developing countries face risk factors that make them vulnerable: they’re underweight, not in school, sexually abused, working in hazardous conditions, fighting as child soldiers, living on the streets.
Myriad U.S. government agencies have long worked to improve conditions for these vulnerable children, but until recently no one focused explicitly on coordinating the patchwork of programs.
That’s where Newton and his team come in. It’s their job to coordinate the efforts of nearly two dozen programs meant to improve international child welfare in more than 100 countries—programs with a total budget of more than $2.5 billion. Ensuring that those programs complement—not replicate—one another means increasing the effectiveness of the programs and helping more children.
While the objective is so large and entangled in bureaucracy that it can seem abstract, Newton has a way of making it tangible. Take a recent meeting when his colleagues got bogged down in the minutiae of a project, for example. “[There are] children who are suffering as we have this meeting,” he said calmly, “children who are being harmed now.”
In his understated way he reminded the group of the urgency of its task.
Newton’s entry into international aid work was equally unassuming. A native of Needham, Mass., he jumped into the international life when, fresh out of Colby with a major in sociology, he applied for the Peace Corps on what he recalls as “a lark.” Assigned to Niger, he had to consult an encyclopedia to learn it was not the same place as Nigeria. His departure for West Africa at the age of 24 was the second time Newton ventured out of New England; the first was a family trip to Québec.
And though Newton’s time in the Peace Corps did not end well—sick with malaria, dysentery, and hepatitis, he left after a year rather than serving the typical two—he was hooked. “I think it was the Peace Corps experience for me, like many people with USAID,” Newton said, referring to his employer, the U.S. Agency for International Development, “[that taught me] I could travel, I could live overseas, I liked living outside the States. That’s when it all started.”
Gary Newton ’72, the U.S. government’s special advisor for orphans and vulnerable children, at USAID headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Over the next decade Newton earned his teaching credentials, traveled to the Middle East for an educational company, and worked for a Red Cross blood bank (ironically, he was ineligible to donate blood after his run-ins with diseases in Africa). He enrolled in a master’s in public health program at Columbia but took a leave of absence to pursue a maternal health management project with the Ford Foundation. At 31, after completing his degree at Columbia, Newton landed a job with Engender Health, a reproductive health organization funded by USAID. The position was in Bangladesh.
By that point Newton had married, and he and his wife, Joan, had an infant son. So the couple, living in New York City, sat down to discuss two questions that would turn out to be vital to their future. Should they bring their baby to a developing country? And was Joan willing to give up her job as a social worker at a community health center to pursue a life overseas?
“There was no hand wringing,” said Joan Newton, who met her husband at Columbia’s International House when he was studying for his public health degree and she was earning her Ph.D. in psychiatric social work. “We knew this was something both Gary and I wanted to do.”
Her support, Newton says, is what made his career possible. “The most important thing in this particular life and career is to have a partner who is as gung-ho, if not more gung-ho, than you are about leading an international life,” said Newton.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, the couple’s home for four years, Newton’s USAID contacts encouraged him to apply to become a Foreign Service officer. It’s a competitive process and one that’s separate from but similar to the State Department’s Foreign Service. (USAID is an independent federal agency, not part of the U.S. Department of State.) At 37—the average age of officers who entered the service that year, Newton said—he officially became a diplomat. “When you join the USAID Foreign Service, you have to sign a piece of paper that says you will serve wherever you are told to go,” Newton said. His first assignment? Malawi.
At that post and ones that would follow, Newton oversaw various on-the-ground initiatives: increasing access to clean water and expanding the local health workforce, among others. Like all Foreign Service officers, his mission was to assess the country’s needs and design projects to meet them. How he accomplished that goal was largely up to him.
From Malawi the Newtons went to Kenya for four years, then to Egypt. The couple returned to the States in 2000, living in Washington, D.C., while their son attended college. But once he graduated—he’s now a lawyer in Washington—the Newtons were off again, this time to Namibia.
It was in Namibia that Newton found himself particularly moved by the plight of children.
Largely because of HIV/AIDS—about 13 percent of adults in Namibia are infected, according to 2009 estimates by the UN—many children have lost one or both parents. Newton was struck by the many children who didn’t have enough to eat or couldn’t afford to go to school; some were abused or neglected by the families that took them in.
“[They are] totally innocent,” Newton said. “They’re just getting started in life. … I found myself thinking about the pain they must suffer.” At the same time, he said, “I saw how much could be done for these children with just a little bit of assistance and how hugely important and meaningful it was to them.”
“Deep, chronic poverty is a more powerful and reliable predictor of a child’s vulnerability,” Newton said. With this in mind, it’s more effective to support families and infrastructures that keep families out of poverty than it is to prop up orphanages.
The issue is complicated, yet it resonates with most everyone, said Newton’s colleague Gillian Huebner-Utterwulghe, the team’s child protection advisor. “The thing that we have on our side,” she said, “is that you can’t really talk with any human being with a pulse about what’s going on and not sense that they care.”
Newton cares. After the Haiti earthquake he traveled to Port-au-Prince to help coordinate relief efforts for children. Because there weren’t enough beds, food, or water, a limited number of relief workers were allowed into the country, said Huebner-Utterwulghe. “They let Gary in knowing that he would sleep on the floor of the embassy,” she said, “which is what he did.”
Most days, though, Newton is far from what Foreign Service officers call “the field.” He talks of retiring later this year, after 30 years with his “USAID family,” and he focuses some of his energy on setting his team up for success after his departure. After a life spent helping the disadvantaged, he knows just how fortunate he has been. “We consider ourselves immensely lucky,” Newton said, “to have been born into a country that offers this career as an option.”