Q&A with Sharon Van Pelt, Vice President and Senior Director of Creative’s CIT Division
By Michael J. Zamba
December 7, 2021
An international development veteran with 30-plus years of service, Sharon Van Pelt joined Creative on Dec. 8 as the Vice President and Senior Director of the Communities in Transition Division. Prior to Creative, she worked at Chemonics for 10 years. Van Pelt has been a staff member or consultant in other organizations, including as principal governance adviser for the German GIZ and U.N. Development Programme, among others. While a Foreign Service Officer with USAID, Van Pelt earned the USAID Meritorious Honor Award for advancing policy dialogue on decentralization and transparency during the Guatemala peace process.
The following are excerpts of an interview with Van Pelt.
Question: The Communities in Transition Division spans a wide range of topics from elections and governance to stabilization and political transitions. Do you see a connection among them?
Van Pelt: Absolutely. I think it’s part of a continuum. When you have a country or a region in conflict, going in and doing development is not possible in many cases. So stabilization is critical to help people have some basic sense of order, structure and safety. Political transitions, then, will come in when the conflict has ended or ending and consider how do we build peace, because just ending the fighting is not peace. So, how do we build real peace in the political transition? And then how do we build upon that foundation for greater development in the future? Thus, I definitely see it as something that’s completely interrelated.
Question: You have an extensive experience in governance. How do you make it relevant to people who are not in a development industry?
Van Pelt: For me development is completely relevant because in the end what we’re talking about are people. And people trying to make a better life for themselves and for their children. And I think if we can come together and understand each other on that, then we can understand each other on anything.
Question: What is the biggest challenge or challenges that development implementers need to address when focusing on governance?
Van Pelt: When focusing on governance, I believe that international development practitioners really need to think more about the politics rather than just the technical. The technicalities of governance aren’t as hard. We know certain things things work or tend to work better for decentralization, governance processes, etc. But it’s contextualizing those things that actually is the hardest part. You can’t take something that works in Nigeria and say this is now going to work in Peru. It very much is understanding the local context, the relationships and helping people find their own solutions based on what they want to do, their boundaries, their ways of organizing their society and their structure of governance, considering good practices.
Question: Creative has earned a reputation for working in conflict and post-conflict areas. How do you see development implementers working in conflict and post-conflict areas in the near future?
Van Pelt: I believe that in the near future for conflict and post-conflict settings it’s going to be increasingly challenging for implementers. We have seen a good deal of democratic backsliding over the past decade or so — and growing authoritarianism. We have powerful influences from Russia and China. And that is complicating the work that we do, including a lot of misinformation that affects how people view democracy and governance. So, it’s going to be a challenge, and as I mentioned before, not just a technical one; it’s also political. We need to consider how to use technology, and evidence, and information in the best way to help people understand the possibilities of democracy and good governance, so they develop it in the way that they choose within their own contexts. We must consider how to support people to believe in democratic principles, which perhaps which have not served them well yet. And that’s, I think, the greatest challenge that we’re going to have, having democracy really deliver for people.
Question: With more than 30 years of experience, do you have a particular experience that you would describe as the most rewarding?
Van Pelt: My most rewarding field experience was working in the peace process and subsequent peace-building efforts in Guatemala [in the mid-to-late-1990s]. I’ve been to many countries and I am fortunate to have worked in about 35 or 40, but in Guatemala I spent a lot of time. And I was able to be involved intimately in the implementing the peace accords, which not a lot of international development people get to do. During the time I was there, I worked on everything from policy and legislation for inclusion of indigenous peoples to working at the most basic community level with mayors and community members to effect change, to strengthen local governance, to get access to basic services to people, and that was an incredibly rewarding experience.
Question: What is your advice for women who want to start a career in development?
Van Pelt: When I started out in international development, there weren’t very many women, particularly in governance. I think people forget that, and being a woman in international developmental still has its challenges. When I first started specifically in the governance field, I was the only woman many times at meetings of hundreds of male mayors and other leaders. That has changed, but not enough. It is also important to think about the way we work. We assume people can travel at the drop of a hat or work at the office long hours. A lot of people are parents, single working moms like me, and those models just don’t work anymore; we need more flexibility, support, and understanding. So, I really think that we have to advocate as women for a change in the way that we do business and the support that we get to do it.