Numbers That Count

“Numbers have life; they’re not just symbols on paper.” – Shakuntala Devi

To a layperson, SIL LEAD board member Samantha Custer’s work as the director of Policy Analysis at AidData may seem a bit esoteric—involving, as it does, reams of data and endless number-crunching. But Samantha’s analysis functions as a sort of GPS for aid work, ensuring that when policymakers and relief organizations seek to address global problems, they can do so with precision.

Samantha Custer was born in St. Asaph, Whales – the second-smallest city in Britain. When Samantha was four years old, her family emigrated to Connecticut.

This childhood experience gave Samantha a global perspective, and in high school she was highly involved with social-justice related clubs. A trip to Belize to work at a summer camp for underprivileged children strengthened her interest, and her post-secondary and graduate studies gave her the tools she needed to dive into international development, where she has remained for the past eighteen years.

Samantha’s work has taken her all over the world, serving a wide variety of communities. But the common thread has always been an interest in helping the most vulnerable and marginalized of people groups. She does that now by ensuring that those with power are in a position to identify where the greatest needs are in order to target resources effectively. For example, AidData is currently working intensely with government officials and donors on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa, to best target resources to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS and reach their development goals.

 Samantha Custer   speaks at the Brookings Institution   on February 21, 2018.

Samantha Custer speaks at the Brookings Institution on February 21, 2018.

Samantha came to SIL LEAD after having been involved with SIL International in Southeast Asia. There she helped to start the precursor to SIL LEAD, in recognition that working with isolated, rural communities involves a complex mix of interrelated issues around language and the ability of people to advocate for themselves. Those who speak the national language and are closer to an urban center often have more clout with national leaders—but the opposite is true for speakers of minority languages, especially those who live in more remote communities.

“Working [in Southeast Asia],” Samantha says, “I saw what vulnerability and exclusion look like in practice. And I had the opportunity to work with national leaders to help them identify, and channel resources to, pockets of people who are being left behind… The real appeal for me [in working with SIL LEAD] is the ability to come alongside and share knowledge from my current work with AidData, so SIL LEAD can be even more effective. From the outside looking in, I can advise SIL LEAD on similar challenges, lessons learned, and best practices that other groups are experiencing that would be relevant.’”

Samantha is grateful as well for what SIL LEAD brings to the table.

“In the world of international development,” she says, “you have people in all different seats on the bus. What I appreciate about SIL LEAD is its great proximity to, and an unwavering focus on, a specific vulnerable community that is not an abstraction, but a reality. They’re building relationships with local people, listening first to understand what communities want and what value they can add, and then focusing on how to bring outside resources to further these community-driven priorities. This is more unique than we might think. To be both internationally concerned, and simultaneously involved in rural communities in a very plugged in way.”

The problems we face are global, and sometimes it takes number-crunching to see exactly how they play out in the lives of individuals and communities. SIL LEAD is grateful to have Samantha Custer’s larger perspective as we seek to enable and empower communities around the world.