By Kris Kitto - 09/07/11 03:59 PM EDT
While many Washingtonians headed to the beach, a bipartisan group of congressional staffers spent part of their August recess in Cameroon, helping the African nation distribute millions of mosquito nets in an organized effort to prevent malaria. They were joined by Hollywood star Mandy Moore, an ambassador for global health organization PSI. The seven aides took the trip under the sponsorship of the United Nations Foundation, the Nothing But Nets campaign and The Humpty Dumpty Institute.
In separate interviews, The Hill spoke with two of the aides and Moore on their experience. Below are excerpts of the conversations with Michael Shank, communications director and senior policy adviser to Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.); Steven Shearer, chief of staff to Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.); and Moore.
Shank and Shearer
SS: My boss has always been interested in global health intervention … He’s been on a CARE trip to Ethiopia and has also been to Haiti. And I, out of the blue, received this invitation, and it was something that dovetailed with my boss’s interests.
Q: What did you do while in Cameroon?
MS: I think what this trip afforded in a very short time is a pretty diverse array of meetings. It was emotionally diverse to go from the decorum of the prime minister meetings to something as basic and devastating as being in the presence of kids who have no parents. We helped set up nets on their beds. To have those extremes really left a wide-ranging impression of the dynamics of the issue and response.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you experienced while there?
MS: We stopped by the first lady’s hospital, Chantal Biya. It’s always a bit unnerving to be taken through a hospital, because you’re entering private space … so you’re up close with people who are enduring excruciating pain. We were in one room with a 3-year-old who had anemia. She was softly crying, and her mom was trying to comfort her. That left a big impression on me.
Q: You mentioned you met with Philémon Yang, Cameroon’s prime minister. What did you say to him?
MS: It was largely ceremonial. The question I wanted to ask — the government of Cameroon is giving a couple million dollars to what sounds like an $8 million project. Had the moment been right — and it wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to do — I just wanted to ask them why they’re not giving more and to encourage them to reach into the government pockets to provide more, but certainly that wasn’t in my place.
Q: What lessons are you bringing back to Capitol Hill with you?
SS: Number one, the need — on a wide variety of health considerations in the continent of Africa. Number two, certain reforms in the way our aid is administered that can make it a lot more effective for the same amount of money and effort.
Q: The group was an interesting mix: Republican staffers, Democratic staffers and Mandy Moore. How did it come about?
SS: All staff [delegations] are an even mix of Republicans and Democrats, so that was very natural. Having Mandy Moore and other [nongovernmental organization] reps as a part of this made it a little different … While we were over there, you would never know who’s a Republican and who’s a Democrat, and it was a very collegial experience.
MS: Mandy is clearly a committed celebrity, which was great. Cameroonians took her very seriously.
Q: What do your bosses think about the trip and work?
SS: Aaron Schock is always interested in the insights I bring back from my trips, and we speak very frankly about what’s going right and what’s going wrong and what needs to be done, looking for an enlightened way to help that country to make positive change.
MS: Honda is chair of the House Ethiopia caucus, which I only mention because it is always a struggle in Congress among both parties to raise the flag on all things Africa. The Middle East and Central Asia are often the priority … Any time staff can fact-find, my boss always finds it helpful.
Q: How did you get interested in this issue?
I took a trip maybe three years ago to Southern Sudan with PSI. I was incredibly moved, and I was moved by the stats, and just what a gigantic threat [malaria] was on such a global level, and I decided to take it from there and got involved in it on a much bigger level.
I had been [yearning] and searching for something to do. I’m so lucky to get to do what I do, but it’s not the end-all be-all for me. I felt really out of balance in my life.
Q: Why did you decide to go with a congressional staff delegation? What was that like?
I liked it in particular because the questions that they asked were a little bit more pointed. I was surprised by the questions that they asked. The staffers have some tougher questions, and it was interesting to see the questions that the government answered and the questions that the government skipped over a bit.
I also started to understand the fact that the economy, theirs and ours — they’re linked. They’re the people who are going to be buying our goods, using our technology, and without the basic building block of public health, it’s not going to happen, they’re not going to have a chance.
Q: How do you translate this experience to your work in Hollywood? Does it inform any of your movie roles or musical work?
Absolutely. It sort of shifts the entire perspective of who you are and what you do, and I carry around these experiences every day, maybe even unaware of it to a certain degree.
It affects the things I want to do, the music I write. It affects the things I want to be a part of … On a silly level, I know that my strength is using the people I know that I can reach in a timely manner to help close this gap in particular, use the resources I have.
Q: Did you get recognized while there?
I only think because of the [nets] campaign there [in which she appears]. I’m not sure that the music or movies have traveled over there. They had this gala the second-to-last night that we were there. It was sort of this big cultural event. They had dancers and a choir from the college there. They were so sweet to include me in the messaging any way they could, but I was like, “It’s not about me, it’s about malaria!”
These dancers literally had “Mandy Moore” written on their stomachs in white paint. I was so embarrassed.
I think it was the fact that someone from Hollywood and a delegation from the U.S. Congress came to visit them that impressed them. The congressional staffers were the reason, by the way, that we had a police escort. It was not me.