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A Career in Crisis

When the United States reaches out to countries in turmoil, the hand often belongs to Eric Schwartz ’79.

In 2005, Eric Schwartz found himself in the Indonesian province of Aceh, staring up at an offshore electric plant a hundred feet high and several hundred feet long. The massive structure would have been impressive in any setting, but this one seemed to defy logic. Both Schwartz and the power plant were about a mile inland.

The plant, which had been anchored off the Aceh coast in December 2004, had been ripped from its moorings and swept two kilometers into the remote province by the most catastrophic tsunami in recorded history. An estimated 230,000 people died on December 26, 2004, over 30,000 in Sri Lanka alone.

In the chaotic aftermath of the Asian tsunami, the United Nations called on former President Bill Clinton to be special envoy for the international relief effort. Clinton chose Schwartz as his second in command to help manage the post-crisis, longer-term recovery effort. Schwartz had served under Clinton as a special assistant on Multilateral and Humanitarian affairs with the National Security Council (NSC).

After graduating from Binghamton with a degree in political science, Schwartz earned a master’s from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy followed by a law degree from NYU. What followed were a series of intense, high-profile international relations posts, usually with a focus on human rights, refugee relief and peacekeeping. Under Clinton, he spearheaded the U.S. humanitarian response to a broad range of international events that caused human suffering, be they war, famine or natural disaster.

The tsunami response was an example of the kind of work Schwartz is uniquely qualified to handle. Here was an immensely complicated international recovery effort complete with warring rebel factions, hundreds of thousands dead, half a million displaced and billions of dollars in international aid waiting to be funneled to the people who needed it most. President Clinton provided the international leadership necessary to bring attention to the crisis and donor support for recovery, and Schwartz was the one working day-in and day-out to coordinate this huge effort.   

A colleague of Schwartz calls it “herding cats.” You’re trying to coordinate relief efforts between hundreds of government organizations, non-governmental organizations, international non-profits, religious aid workers and more. At the same time, you have to work within the foreign government and aid system to make sure that the money and supplies are getting to the right people at the right time. With boundless energy and a profound sense of duty, Schwartz turns out to be an excellent cat herder.  

Currently, Schwartz is the executive director of the Connect U.S. Fund, a powerful grant-making organization that supports non-governmental organizations (NGOs) advocating for issues such as human rights, nuclear nonproliferation, climate change and increased civil-military aid.

Want to follow in Schwartz’s footsteps? It all starts at the Binghamton University Department of Political Science.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08