Solana Beach: Former World Bank manager focuses her expertise on empowering Iraqi women to rebuild a new Iraq
By Arthur Lightbourn
The way Mary Oakes Smith views the world is this: “There are good people everywhere, you just have to find them and reinforce them.”
And that, in fact, is what she has been doing throughout her entire working life — for 30 years as an “on the ground” development project manager with the World Bank in Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa and Iran, and now, in her second career, as the founder and president of the Iraqi Women’s Fellowship Foundation (IWFF).
The nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based foundation provides fellowships for Iraqi women, who are currently faculty members or graduate students at universities in Iraq, to advance their studies in engineering and applied sciences, from petroleum to environmental, at U.S. universities so they can return to Iraq as leaders in the rebuilding of their war-torn country.
We interviewed Smith in her “get-away” condo in Solana Beach just prior to her return to Washington, D.C.
Smith, 69, is a trim, Katherine Hepburn-style woman with silver-gray hair and light blue eyes who looks as if she would be equally comfortable participating in development conferences in Washington, London and Paris or monitoring the allocation of aid in a construction hut in Brazil’s Amazon jungle.
Nowadays, however, her focus is on Iraq — and her personal commitment is to the empowerment of Iraqi women, who were marginalized under Saddam Hussein and suffered through seven years of war and occupation. Smith is working to help them become leaders in the vital fields of engineering and applied sciences as Iraq rises from the ashes of war.
Smith was born Mary Oakes Skinner in Philadelphia. Her father, James M. Skinner Jr., was president of radio-pioneering Philco (originally the Philadelphia Battery Company) Corporation from 1956 to 1961. She described her mother as a “professional volunteer who … became the head of the Association of Junior Leagues and later became very much involved with rehabilitation of the handicapped.”
After graduating from Smith College in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Mary Oakes began her career as a trainee in international development at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where she remained for three years. She married international trade lawyer Harrell Smith in 1966 and, in 1969, joined the World Bank where she remained for 30 years, earning her master’s degree in management science from MIT in 1977, and retiring in 1999.
“All of this,” she said, “was a byproduct of the fact that my parents believed in international travel as a form of education. We, as a family, traveled from the time I was 6 years old every summer. And it just became part of me.”
As for her career with the World Bank, she said: “I wouldn’t have missed a day of it. I absolutely thrived on it. I loved working overseas, working on the ground in operations, working with people, understanding their needs and trying to figure out the best way forward. And once you’ve had that kind of association with the World Bank, you don’t discontinue it.”
The World Bank, created in 1944, headquartered in Washington, D.C., and owned by 186 member countries, provides low-interest loans, interest-free credits and grants to developing countries to reduce poverty through investments in education, health, infrastructure and modernization of a country’s financial sector, agriculture and natural resources.
Often, Smith said, World Bank retirees launch foundations or join organizations to continue the work of helping in whatever ways they can.
In 2004-05, while consulting on a U.S. Trade and Development-funded feasibility study for the Women’s Information, Communication and Technology Center (ICT), she became aware of the plight of Iraqi women. She later led a Women’s Learning Network team to UNESCO’s conference for the Revitalization of Higher Education in Iraq.
In 2008, she incorporated the Iraqi Women’s Fellowship Foundation as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit. And, in 2009-10, with $435,000 in seed funding from the State Department, she launched a pilot program for three Iraqi women faculty members from three Iraqi universities to become visiting scholars at Stanford, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego.
The first group of Iraqi women have returned to Iraq as stipulated by the program and are actively engaged in upgrading research in communications engineering, supporting a GIS/GPS (Geologic Information System/Global Positioning System) project to develop Iraq’s electrical control centers, leading in the establishment of solar energy research at Iraqi universities; and developing Internet and security systems for government and businesses.
A second group of three Iraqi women are now studying at Caltech, UCSD and Smith College.
AMIDEAST/Iraq, an NGO that handles Fulbright fellowships in Iraq, administers the IWFF’s program in Iraq.
“Historically,” Smith said, “Iraqi women were among the most educated in the Arab world and had long traditions of equality and very established professional careers and were considered first rate … But, the role of Iraqi women declined and was reversed during the last half of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Women were denied access to senior positions in any profession and universities were denied contact with the external world.”
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, hundreds of Iraqi intellectuals and academics were among those killed in the subsequent sectarian violence.
Also, the country suffered a brain drain of the professionals who fled Iraq.
As a result, Smith said, Iraq currently lacks the skills and leadership, particularly in the fields of engineering and the sciences, that are vital to the rebuilding of the country.
Women comprise 52 percent of Iraq’s population.
“Having regained equal rights to education, full participation in the workplace, and having been granted a 25 percent quota of parliamentary seats,” she added, “Iraqi women are in a position to play a vital role in the development of their country.”
IWFF is seeking additional government (both U.S. and Iraqi) support, and private donor funding to carry out its plan to bring a total of 50 Iraqi women to study at U.S. universities over a five-year-period. Additional information is available at the IWFF Website: www.iwffoundation.org.
Name: Mary Oakes Smith
Distinction: After serving 30 years as a project manager with the World Bank, Mary Oakes Smith is the founder and president of the Iraqi Women’s Fellowship Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that provides fellowships for Iraqi women to study engineering and applied sciences at U.S. universities and return to Iraq to help in that country’s reconstruction.
Resident of: Solana Beach and Washington, D.C.
Born: Philadelphia, Pa.
Education: B.A. in political science, Smith College, 1963; master’s in management science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (MIT), 1977.
Family: She and her husband, retired international trade lawyer Harrell Smith, have been married 44 years. They have two grown children, Caroline and Harrell, and two grandchildren.
Interests: Travel, gardening and historical houses
Favorite getaways: Solana Beach and their 70-acre historic 1768 farm in Virginia
Favorite film: “Casablanca,” the 1942 classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
Recent reading: “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000,” by Lee Kuan Yew
Philosophy: “There are good people everywhere, you just have to find them and reinforce them.”
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