By Laura Billings Coleman
Lane Bunkers (B.A. ’85) lives just a few miles from his desk at the Kenyan headquarters of Catholic Relief Services, but some days he takes his life into his hands during his commute through the streets of Nairobi, where one of the developing world’s fastest-growing economies is on a collision course with famously aggressive drivers, flash floods, iPhone-toting pedestrians, and flying matatus: public minibuses that weave in and out of traffic, rarely tapping the brakes or using a turn signal.
“And, God forbid, if there’s a road accident or even a minor fenderbender, all bets are off until the traffic police show up to document who was at fault,” says Bunkers. “The scary thing is, I have adapted to this way of driving.”
Being able to dive right into local customs, language, and treacherous traffic has served Bunkers well over nearly 30 years as an international development professional with postings that have ranged from Caribbean islands to former Eastern Bloc capitals. Now based in east Africa, where he serves as the country representative for Catholic Relief Services’ multifront work in Kenya and Somalia, Bunkers oversees 125 staffers and a $25 million annual budget invested in everything from delivering water and food aid to drought-stricken regions, to improving educational outcomes for malnourished children.
Bunkers at the inauguration of a rural project in Isiolo County in Kenya
“My parents still joke about how I would nag them endlessly to take me someplace interesting,” says Bunkers, who credits some of his wanderlust to Weekly Reader, the student periodical that opened his eyes to the world beyond his hometown of Pipestone, Minnesota. “But I always knew I wanted to see what the big world was like outside of my little bubble.”
One of seven kids raised in a German-Catholic family, Bunkers says his parents modeled a strong sense of service to others, bringing hot dish wherever it was needed, and helping to resettle the first Vietnamese refugee family to arrive in “our little corner of Lake Wobegon.” Deeply involved in student leadership at the University of Minnesota, where he served on the 1984 Homecoming committee, Bunkers admits he wasn’t finding much purpose in a series of corporate public relations gigs after graduation. So he made a major course correction and accepted a two-year Peace Corps assignment in Costa Rica, where he worked on microfinancing and business development. “Within weeks, I felt I had found a vocation,” he says. “I realized that I needed a mission that I could believe in to do my best work.”
Hooked on international development work, Bunkers returned to the states for a master’s degree in international management from Thunderbird School of Global Management in Phoenix, and then networked his way into a variety of international consulting positions, including cross-cultural training sessions to prepare new Peace Corps volunteers in Sofia, Bulgaria and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. “If you see values as good or bad, or think there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things, and that the way we do things in the United States is the only right way . . . well, you’re going to be in for a difficult time,” he remembers telling new recruits. “I think some of the divisions that we see in the U.S. today are in some way a result of that kind of thinking.”
That open-minded world view has allowed Bunkers and his wife, Kelley, an international child protection and social welfare consultant, to make themselves at home in communities from El Salvador to Ethiopia over his last 17 years with Catholic Relief Services, the humanitarian relief agency with operations in 120 countries. With a mission of bringing compassionate care to the “poorest of the poor,” Bunkers says mobilizing large-scale responses to humanitarian crises requires not just a desire to help those in need, but also business strategy and clear thinking. “It’s an industry just as any other, so there are moments when we are somewhat divorced from the human emotion of the work and treat it more like an intellectual exercise,” he says.
Seeing conditions that no person should have to live in “never gets easier,” he admits, but those uncomfortable feelings “serve as a motivator to do better.”
Bunkers with his family on the equator.
Raising three children overseas has made many of the professional challenges Bunkers encounters in humanitarian aid deeply personal. “A visit to the emergency room can be unnerving in any country,” he says, noting that access to medical care has been the biggest trade-off to living overseas. To compensate, he and his wife “learned to scout out the emergency room options” in advance for their active, accident-prone kids.
Based in Kenya since 2014, Bunkers’ responsibilities as country representative have ranged from welcoming Pope Francis when he visited a rescue home for trafficked children that was named for him, to managing security plans to protect staff members from the street violence that rose up in the wake of Kenya’s contested presidential election last October.
“He’s also been great at forging good relationships with the local partners that we work through and making them feel valued,” says friend and colleague David Orth-Moore, senior advisor for Africa at CRS, who credits Bunkers with successfully positioning the agency to secure $64 million in new aid to provide care to children orphaned by poverty, malnourishment, and HIV, which affects an estimated 1.6 million Kenyans. “Lane is a great leader, humble, with a sense of humor, and his heart is in it.”
While business headlines have been heralding Kenya’s growing economy and its upgrade to “middle class” status, extreme income equality means that many of the country’s most persistent challenges remain. “Climate change is also having a drastic effect on this country,” Bunkers says. “We’re getting good rains right now, but after two years of drought, that doesn’t put you back where you need to be.” In fact, CRS estimates that more than 30 million people in East Africa are facing chronic hunger, with many of them entirely dependent on food aid until the 2018 harvest.
Though a recent poll from the International Rescue Committee found that fewer than 15 percent of Americans were aware of this growing famine crisis, Bunkers says he’s encouraged to see that the next generation of millennials are more engaged in global issues and offers this advice to new graduates gearing up to make the world a little better: “Learn a language, figure out which principles are nonnegotiable for you, and don’t be afraid to try new things.”
Laura Billings Coleman is a longtime Twin Cities writer and editor. She lives in St. Paul.
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