Auburn native named U.S. ambassador to Gambia


Pamela White, an Auburn native and graduate of Edward Little High School and the University of Maine, has been appointed by President Barack Obama as ambassador to Gambia.

She will be the first University of Maine alum to be appointed to an ambassadorship, according to the University’s Alumni Association. She is also the second woman ever from Maine to serve as a U.S. ambassador. (The late Margaret Joy Tibbetts, who served as ambassador to Norway under Lyndon Johnson, was the first.)

White will be sworn in at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

“They nominate an ambassador from USAID once every four or five years,” said White on Monday, “so it’s quite an honor.”

White was born in Lewiston in 1948 and grew up in Auburn. She graduated from Edward Little in 1967 and from the University of Maine at Orono in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

White’s public service career spans more than 35 years. From 1971 to 1973, White served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. In 1978, she joined the U.S. Agency for International Development, where she worked as a community liaison officer in Burkino Faso. She subsequently served as deputy executive officer in Senegal and Haiti, and from 1989 to 1998, she was the executive officer in Haitian, Egyptian and South African Missions.

White has worked in Washington, D.C., where she was USAID’s deputy director for East Africa from 1999 to 2001, and in Mali, where she served as the organization’s deputy and mission director.

During her time in Mali, according to a statement released by the U.S. State Department, White’s leadership was “credited with major improvements in the lives of the Malian people. During her tenure, the number of girls in primary school tripled (and) the number of elected women leaders increased by 200 percent.” For her work, “she was awarded the highest decoration given to foreigners” by the Malian government, the Ordre National de Mali, the statement said.

Following her work in Mali, White was appointed as USAID’s mission director for Tanzania in 2005, and then for Liberia in 2008. Last Tuesday, after learning of her appointment as ambassador to The Gambia, a Monrovian daily newspaper published an editorial entitled “In Praise of Pamela White,” lauding her years of service in Liberia, particularly her work in improving that country’s educational system. “Miss White, during her time in Liberia, was the personification of her country’s aid for international development,” the editorial read. “There was a time when American aid workers were referred to as ‘The Ugly American.’ Pamela came and took the ugliness away from the American faces.”

It went on to suggest that perhaps, “we ought to name a training institute or library after Pamela White.”

On Monday, White was enthusiastic and excited about her new role. “We’re not only a tolerant nation, but a giving nation,” she said. The Gambia, which takes its name from the Gambia River, is a West African nation smaller than the state of Connecticut. The country has a population of about 1.8 million, and the per capita GDP is roughly $1,300. The country has a majority Muslim population.

“We need to make sure that the world knows that we can be, and should be, working with tolerant Muslim nations. And the Gambia is certainly a tolerant nation,” White said. She also spoke about the role of American aid projects in the developing world.

In January, White attained the rank of career minister, the highest rank within the Foreign Service.  

The Senate confirmed White’s appointment on Sept. 29, and on Wednesday she will be sworn in by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Very unusual,” said White about Clinton’s presence at the ceremony. She also said that the head of USAID, Dr. Rajiv Shah, had asked to make a speech at the swearing-in.

White has received a master’s degree in international development from the School for Intetrnational Training in Brattleboro, Vt., and she is a graduate of the international development program at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C. In 2007, she was awarded the University of Maine’s Bernard Lown Alumni Humanitarian Award, which recognizes dedication to the creation of a benevolent, peaceful society and perpetuation of a caring, nurturing civilization.

White is married to Steven Cowper, a member of the Foreign Service. She has two sons, Patrick and Kristopher, who live in Washington, D.C. She is the daughter of Richard and Muriel Murphy of Auburn.