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The Passing of Dominica’s Former Ambassador to Italy and to the UN’s FAO, IFAD and WFP Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin

The Passing of Dominica’s Former Ambassador to Italy and to the UN’s FAO, IFAD and WFP Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin

By

Gabriel J. Christian, Esq.

Ambassador Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin Dominica’s Former Permanent Representative at the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO)

 

 

On July 15, 2020, Dominica’s former Ambassador to the Republic of Italy and to the United Nation’s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and World Food Programme (WFP), Ambassador Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin, was buried in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington D.C. Her daughter Alessandra delivered the eulogy, and remarks and prayers were made by the presiding Roman Catholic priest and a few friends. Her son McDonald followed by Zoom from Costa Rica, unable to make it to his mother’s funeral due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel. Ambassador Benjamin was laid to rest next to her husband, Dominica’s late Ambassador to the United States and to Italy, Dr. McDonald Benjamin. Above the grave, the Commonwealth of Dominica’s flag fluttered atop the headstone in the warm summer breeze, in silent tribute to the life of service to our island by two distinguished public servants reunited in death.

 

Ambassador Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin was born in Dortmund, Germany on 4th February 1936 and died in Alexandria, Virginia on 10th July, 2020.  Her parents were Ewald and Maria Sichmann. She underwent tremendous hardships as a small child during World War II that were greatly magnified by her family’s stance against the Nazi government, but thanks to the courage and strength of her parents and of her beloved grandmother, Hannelore Benjamin persisted and was able to graduate in tax and finance studies and obtain employment at a bank, thereby helping her family during the hardship years immediately following the war.  She was a dreamer and an adventurer, and with the small savings she had accumulated, she crossed the Atlantic by boat in 1961 to the United States, and travelled across to Los Angeles.

 

It was there that she met McDonald Benjamin, a young scholar born in Coulibistrie, Dominica, who was completing his PhD in Business Administration at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the couple fell in love. It was a time of heightened racial tensions in the United States, and yet both Angela and McDonald Benjamin looked beyond their different origins to see the goodness and love inside each other. They got married on February 28, 1963 in Washington, D.C., thereby realizing their dream exactly six months before Martin Luther King would proclaim unforgettably from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that: “I have a dream…”

 

Their first child, McDonald Benjamin Jr., was born in January 1964, and three months later the small family moved to Panama for a year and then on to Rome, Italy, where their second child, Sandra “Alessandra” Benjamin, was born in February 1966. McDonald Benjamin had a distinguished career at FAO, helping to establish the FAO-World Bank Cooperative Programme, taking a secondment to Barbados in 1971 to work with Sir Arthur Lewis in establishing the Caribbean Development Bank, and returning to Rome to help establish the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in 1974, where he served as a Director for Projects until his retirement in 1986.  An article on Dr. McDonald Benjamin’s work is linked here: https://rebuilddominica.org/2018/01/15/a-bio-note-on-dr-mcdonald-benjamin-a-family-legacy-of-service/

 

During this time, Angela Benjamin not only raised her children McDonald Jr. and Sandra as a devoted mother, and developed her tremendous artistic talent in ancient Persian porcelain painting, but also dedicated herself to serving the poor, first as Treasurer and then as President of the United Nations Women’s Guild (UNWG). During her tenure with the UNWG, with her dynamism, creativity and drive, she increased the resources of the organization 40-fold and applied them to countless projects for poor children around the world, including for children with skin burns in Brazil, malnourished indigenous children in Panama, operations to restore vision to children in Bangladesh, Braille machines for vision-impaired children in the Sahel Zone in Africa, and projects for indigenous Carib children in Dominica, among many, many others.

 

After his retirement from the United Nations in 1986, McDonald Benjamin was invited by Dame Eugenia Charles to become Dominica’s Ambassador to the United States, to Italy, and to the UN agencies based in Rome: FAO, IFAD and the World Food Programme. Dame Charles was, moreover, so inspired by Angela Benjamin’s work and her love of Dominica that she appointed Angela Benjamin as Dominica’s Alternate Permanent Representative to FAO, IFAD and the UN, even though she was a German citizen.

 

The couple worked together tirelessly as a team to bring projects, investments and tourism to Dominica, volunteering their time, their homes in Italy and the US, and their cars for free, and running the Embassies in Rome and Washington on shoestring budgets, while bringing in over US$25 million in new grants and projects to Dominica, especially for Dominica’s farmers, over their years of service. For example, during her time at the FAO, Ambassador Benjamin fought hard to protect Dominica’s banana growers, sought investments in passion fruit and promoted coconut rehabilitation on Dominica with a mind to starting a coconut water bottling industry on the island. Their efforts to support Dominica in Washington DC earned them admiring coverage in an article in the Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1988/12/29/embassy-is-family-affair/6145673c-0836-44ff-9e77-4638e1168c80/

 

When Ambassador McDonald Benjamin passed away in October 1989, Angela Benjamin continued his work as Ambassador to Italy and as Permanent Representative to the UN Agencies in Rome, and was even offered the Ambassadorship to the United States but declined, feeling that she could serve Dominica better by concentrating her hard work in Rome, although thanks to her extensive contacts in Washington DC she also supported Dominica’s Prime Ministers on their official visits to the US, and she was an active member of the Dominican community in Washington DC.  Ambassador Angela Benjamin would go on to serve the people of Dominica under five different Prime Ministers before submitting her resignation in 2011 at the age of 75.

 

Ambassador Angela Benjamin was a sincere and stalwart supporter of the DC area Dominican community via the Dominica Association of Washington, D.C. in the 1980s and 1990s. In one memorable meeting to prepare for the 1989 Dominica Independence Day Breakfast at the Organization of American States Hall of Nations, she was skeptical of a promotional video sent to our association by the National Development Corporation. The video showed some local middle-aged women jiggling their waists at a village street fête. She wagged her finger at me and said sternly, “Gabriel, I don’t want you to show that video of our women. It is not nice. It is not serious. Let us show the world our women working in a laboratory, a shop, some industry, doing something productive.” That remark remains with me some thirty-one years later, because it was emblematic of Ambassador Benjamin’s sense of gravitas. She was kind, yet stern, sincere and possessed of a disciplined focus on ways in which she could help Dominica prosper. Her focus was not only on agriculture, as in 1988-1989, she worked with the Dominica Association of Washington, D.C. on a project to provide linen to the Princess Margaret Hospital via a partnership with Partners for the Americas. https://www.partners.net/what-we-do.

 

Ambassador Benjamin was a close friend of the late Prime Minister Dame Mary Eugenia Charles, through whom I got to know her. Often, to save Dominica’s treasury from paying expensive Washington D.C. area hotel expenses, Prime Minister Charles would stay at Ambassador Benjamin’s home in Alexandria, Virginia. In one late night visit during the late 1980s with then Dominica Association President Simpson “Sizzo” Gregoire and myself, Prime Minister Charles and the Ambassador sat on the edge of a bed, encouraging us to gather Dominicans in the cause of national development. It is of note that Dr. Thomson Fontaine, then an economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), found pleasure in discussing development projects and seeking collaboration with Ambassador Benjamin as well. The memory of those two honorable, passionate, and stalwart defenders of Dominica’s good name and development priorities are burnt indelibly in my memory.  It was therefore only fitting and proper that the bronze plaque on the headstone above Ambassador Benjamin’s late husband’s grave read: “Ambassador Benjamin devoted his life to eradicating poverty and hunger in the Third World.” Such a fitting epitaph equally applies to his late wife, Dominica’s distinguished Ambassador Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin.

 

The Benjamin’s had two children, McDonald Benjamin Jr., and Alessandra Benjamin. McDonald Jr., or “Mac”, has had a distinguished career at the World Bank, serving in a managerial capacity in various assignments in Africa and Latin America. He holds a PhD in Economics from Georgetown University and a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University.  Mac Benjamin last served as the World Bank’s Country Manager for the Dominican Republic, after serving as Sector Manager for Social Development in Latin America, and Deputy Director for several countries in Africa, as well as in earlier service assignments in Asia. Alessandra Benjamin is a creative and performing artists, known for her acting roles in The Haunting (1999), Shuffle (2011) and On the Edge (2002). Earlier, based in Germany, she led several national and global advertising campaigns and won awards as Art Director for the multinational advertising agencies Young and Rubicam and for J. Walter Thompson. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts (BFA), with a special emphasis on graphic design, from the University of Miami. Sandra, as with her deceased mother, is a strong supporter of Rebuild Dominica and recently did an article on making masks at home as part of that organization’s contribution to promoting anti-COVID 19 measures. https://rebuilddominica.org/2020/03/27/sandra-benjamin-face-mask-project/.

 

Ambassador Hannelore “Angela” Benjamin served Dominicans at home and abroad loyally and well. Her cause, focused on food security and on helping poor children, was humanity’s cause.  Those of us who knew of her efforts shall remain eternally grateful for them. After Hurricane Maria devastated Dominica in 2017, though bedridden, she made her presence felt by her monetary contributions to the relief effort, and to her final day she continued to make charitable contributions to improve the welfare of the most vulnerable.  At this time, our condolences go out to her family and friends. We shall remember her well.

 

Gabriel J. Christian, Esq.

President, Dominica Association of Washington, DC (1990-1998)

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PRESS RELEASE: East Coast Chapter Tuskegee Airmen, Inc (ECCTAI) Statement on the Murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020

Rebuild Dominica, Inc and ECCTAI President Gabriel J. Christian, Esquire stand for justice in sharing the press release below:
Photo Credit: Evan Vucci/AP – Demonstrators walk along Pennsylvania Avenue as they protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, Friday, May 29, 2020, in Washington.

A Warm Tribute to the Dominica Fire & Ambulance Service for Its Role in the COVID-19 Pandemic

The headquarters of the Dominica Fire & Ambulance Service hosted a brief but special ceremony at 0900 hours sharp on Wednesday April 22, 2020. It was in honour of the valiant first responders under the auspices of Fire Chief Josiah Dupuis. Deputy Chief Letang chaired the proceedings. Everyone was orderly, appropriately masked and maintaining social distancing.

A Salute to our First Responders: Dominica State College Professor Trudy Christian handing over plaque of appreciation to Dominica Fire & Ambulance Service Chief Josiah Dupuis. The plaque was in memory of Dominica Fire Brigade Station Officer Wendell Mckenzie Christian (1921-2011).

Organized by the Christian family of Dominica, the tribute was held in the memory of Station Officer Wendell Mckenzie Christian, LSM who served nobly from 1954-1981 in Dominica Fire Brigade; as it was called then. Dominica State College Professor, Trudy Christian, presented a commemorative plaque on behalf of the family. Her father, the late Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr. Wellsworth Morrison Christian, was the first son of Station Officer Christian.

Also in attendance, and providing introductory remarks, was leading fireman, Malcolm Christian, now seconded to the Office of Disaster Management. Retired Station Officer, Oscar Coipel, gave his personal account of the commitment & camaraderie engendered by “Papa Zafa.”

Dr. Samuel Christian offered a historical perspective: “Our father was a soldier in World War II, later a policeman at Fort Young which was then police headquarters, and ended his career in public service as a fireman at this very headquarters. He was dutiful to the Brigade till the end. He is fondly remembered by fire service veterans as one who did his duty, and shared freely of his time, knowledge sharing in fostering mentorship of younger officers.”

“Our Dad told us of the famous fires he fought such as the Hotel Paz blaze and the old Roseau Hospital fire,” continued Dr. Christian. “His most memorable story was when, as Station Officer on duty, he led fire service onto King George V Street on Carnival Monday 1963 to rescue revelers who had been burnt in the tragic carnival fire which killed Eric Shillingford, Eddie Martin and George James.”

That tragedy is vividly chronicled in the pages of ‘Death by Fire‘ by Mr. Gabriel Christian (co-authored by Justice Irving Andre in Canada) who was able to directly provide a well-received long-distance motivational message to the rank & file of the Service.

Dr. Christian touted emergency personnel as the “tip of spear” amongst frontline workers currently battling the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic. He ended by expressing a commitment on behalf of his family and the nonprofit organization he serves, Rebuild Dominica Inc., to render future assistance to the fire service. In accepting the plaque, Chief Dupuis saluted the legacy of Station Officer Christian, welcoming the continued support by fellow Dominicans at home and abroad for the fire service, police and the full spectrum of healthcare workers.

In a display of gratitude for their efforts, a pizza treat prepared by Perky’s Pizza was provided to the Fire & Ambulance Service personnel.

(Photo & Video Credits: Mjr. Francis Richards)

The Hidden Link Between Dominican Agriculture and the Famous American Agriculture Scientist Dr. George Washington Carver

As we seek to build food security on Dominica in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, a keen focus on our agriculture sector will be needed. It is necessary therefore that we gain an  understanding of how  innovative thinking and education in the past boosted our productivity.

To that end, few Dominicans know that the visionary local  planter, banker and legislator, John Baptiste “JB” Charles, corresponded with the eminent American educator, Booker T. Washington, and famous agriculture scientist, Dr. George Washington Carver.

JB Charles was focused on learning from those two African-American visionaries how best to increase crop  yield on Dominica and advance educational opportunities for locals.


The most famous local Planter, Legislator, and Banker of the 20th century John Baptiste “JB” Charles at center, his wife Mrs. Josephine Charles at left and his daughter, the future Dame Mary Eugenia Charles Prime Minister of Dominica at right. This photo was taken shortly after Eugenia Charles returned from law school in London.

Booker T. Washington was the founder of Tuskegee Institute (now university) – one of  the most storied American universities. The official website can be visited here; www.tuskegee.edu. It is at Tuskegee Institute that the famous African American fighter pilots trained during World War II — hence the name “Tuskegee Airmen”.

Booker T. Washington, the eminent African American educator and nation builder of the early 20th century who founded Tuskegee Institute.
Dr. George Washington Carver was arguably  the most prominent American agriculture scientist of the 20th century. His work on finding various uses for the  peanut and in-soil improvement  transformed U.S. agriculture in the southern part of that nation.

It is of note that in our 1996 interview for her biography, former Dominica Prime Minister Dame Eugenia Charles confirmed that her father, John Baptiste “JB” Charles,  corresponded both with Booker T. Washington and Dr. Carver.

Dr. George Washington Carver, popularly known as “the wizard of Tuskegee” and the most famous American agriculture scientist of the mid 20th century in his laboratory at the Tuskegee Institute.

JB Charles, an eminent agriculturalist himself, sent both his sons Lawrence and Rennie to study under Carver  at what was then the  Tuskegee  Institute (now Tuskegee University)  between World Wars I and II.

Lawrence and Rennie Charles later studied at Morehouse University in Atlanta and  then traveled to Edinburgh University in Scotland for medical school. Dame Charles explained that, at the end of every semester, JB Charles ensured that his sons sent him  all  their Carver lecture  materials  and books  for him to study.  JB Charles then tried implementing those best practices at his various estates such as at Copt Hall Estate in the Roseau Valley. More details can be found in “Mamo! The Life & Times of Dame Mary Eugenia Charles” (Pont Casse Press, 2010).

Today, we are compelled to address the issue of food self-sufficiency  in our community at a time when the  COVID-19 pandemic has induced economic difficulties. It is in that context that the work of Dr. Carver in food science is relevant, as he trained legions of farmers — both black and white — to enhance soil fertility and thereby increasing crop yield.

Carver lived by the ethic that “service to others is the best measure of success.” During this plague, it is good to  remember those like Carver who were beacons for progress. May our Caribbean islands — in the spirit of Carver and JB Charles — forge on with the food self-reliance mission.

Readers may enjoy what is a  very informative video documentary on Dr. George Washington Carver: a true humanitarian scientist who we seldom hear of today. (See link below.)

~ Gabriel “Gabe” Christian – President, Rebuild Dominica Inc. ~

COVID-19 and The Opportunity for Caribbean Food Security

The following article is shared from the original post on Forbes:


Five Ways That COVID-19 Has Changed What Food Insecurity Looks Like In The Caribbean

Daphne Ewing-Chow   Senior Contributor   Food & Drink

Caribbean countries are familiar with the risk that comes with a lack of food sovereignty. It has long been the case that between 80 and 90 per cent of all food consumed in the region (in the amount of about $6 billion according to the latest numbers) originates from foreign countries, creating greater uncertainty between the months of June to November when there is an elevated risk of hurricanes.

With COVID-19 the paradigm has shifted. The region is not looking at a national or regional crisis— it is faced with most far reaching global crisis in history, and unlike a natural disaster that has the potential to shut down the cargo ports of one or more Caribbean countries, the region is likely to face reduced and interrupted supplies from its primary source of food— the United States.

Here are five reasons why the lens through which we have typically looked at food insecurity in the Caribbean has changed.

The primary source of foreign exchange has temporarily dried up

Travel & Tourism is a key economic driver and foreign exchange earner in the Caribbean. In Jamaica alone, the sector accounts for 58 per cent of all foreign exchange earnings. Caribbean Economist and Advisor, Marla Dukharan predicts that in a COVID-19 worst-case scenario, the Caribbean region could lose up to 83 per cent of its tourism earnings on average— which would hurt reserves and significantly impact those countries with a high agricultural trade deficit.

According to Dr. William Warren Smith, president of the Caribbean Development Bank, “the resilience of our foreign reserves will depend on whether countries have foreign exchange buffers, the duration of the travel impact, and the export concentration in relation to travel receipts.”

But even for the less tourism-dependent countries such as Trinidad, the COVID-19 driven reduction in global oil demand will have a significant effect.

For the average country, the uncertainty of the duration of the crisis coupled with the lack of foreign exchange buffers (given the global nature of the economic shock) will have a negative impact on countries’ means of importing food.

Says Marla Dukharan, “We know that our lack of food security means we have to import, so this means we have to earn sufficient foreign currency to purchase these goods from abroad… It means we have to be competitive internationally at whatever we do, in order to continue to earn sufficient foreign currency to import enough to satisfy our growing needs and wants… It means that in a time of crisis, we are at greater risk, if shipping lines, global supply chains, exporters abroad and importers domestically, are affected.”

 

The Caribbean is facing a potential socio-economic crisis

COVID-19 has created multiple socio-economic challenges simultaneously throughout the region. According to Marla Dukharan, these include “a health crisis, sudden-stop of economic activity, volatile financial markets, weak investor confidence, capital flight, exchange rate volatility, tighter financial conditions, price shocks, lower remittance inflows, and reduced availability of traded goods.” (COVID-19 Caribbean Economic Impact Report).                        

At an individual level, layoffs and the temporary closure of non-essential services means that the population will have less disposable income. The closure of schools will result in children losing access to nutritious school meals.

Fiscally, local economies will suffer from a reduction in tourism-related tax revenues, while coronavirus containment and social support mechanisms will create greater demands on governments.

Socio-economic impacts could be compounded by increases in food prices. Heightened demand for food, reduced production, altered supply chains, transportation issues, heightened restrictions and food safety issues as well as dramatic changes in share and oil prices are all factors that could lead to food inflation.

 

Output from the United States could be impacted

Caribbean food supply is heavily reliant on imports from the United States. According to data from the International Trade Centre (ITC) the 15 nations of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) source up to 94 per cent of their food imports from the US market (2018). 94 per cent of all CARICOM imports of cereals, 90 per cent of edible fruits and nut imports, 90 per cent of imports of edible vegetables and certain roots and tubers and 91 per cent of sugars and sugar confectionary imports originate from the United States (2018).

Output from the United States is likely to be impacted by the temporary closure of various food operations as well as the shortage of labour in all areas of the supply chain including production, inputs, transportation, processing and shipping. In harvesting, for example, it is predicted that there will be fewer seasonal field workers. Within the upcoming weeks and months, as key fruits and vegetables come into season, short ripening times and perishability will be compounded by reduced labour.

 

There could be a shut down in US exports

“As workforce constraints cause a contraction in internal production, panic buyers empty supermarket shelves and import partners conserve their own food supplies, some states could reduce or temporarily discontinue food exports so as to preserve their own food security,” explains Pamela Coke-Hamilton, Director of International Trade and Commodities at UNCTAD.

“The challenge for food security is that under the circumstances, traditional food exporting countries may revisit their export strategies and internal policies towards building reserves and distribution confidence in order to maintain the food and nutrition security of their populations. Trade logistics is also under pressure,” adds Trinidadian Agricultural Economist, Omardath Maharaj.

“Social media is already buzzing with videos of panic buying, food shortages and price gouging in different parts of the world and our early reactions locally. Quarantine, trade and economic slowdown put CARICOM members— more than 18 million people, in an awkward and exposed position in those dynamics.”

 

There are reduced markets for local agricultural outputs

Quarantines, border closures, food safety concerns and temporary business closures caused by shelter in place orders have affected traditional markets for agricultural output such as food shops, restaurants, vendors, hotels and airlines.

In Jamaica, for example, the Treasure Beach Hydroponic Farmers group in St. Elizabeth, which invested just under $75 thousand on its tomato harvest, of which 95 per cent was destined for local hotels, has been donating thousands of tons of its tomatoes, including specialty cocktail tomatoes, to government quarantine facilities due to the total closure of the hospitality sector.

This could drive heightened competition among farmers to secure alternative markets for produce and could lead to exploitation, reduction in profits and underinvestment in the agriculture sector.

 

An Opportunity in Disguise?

 Agricultural Economists have argued that COVID-19 food security impacts could be a proverbial “opportunity in disguise” that could be mitigated through increased intra-regional trade.

“We don’t know when international borders will open back up for the region, so we must look within,” says Zachary Harding, Group CEO of SSL Growth Equity Limited (SSL Group) and Board Director of Caribbean Airlines Ltd. “Now is the time for breakthrough regional leadership to tear down the barriers and expedite inter-island food trade in order to be achieve some semblance of food security for our people. Caribbean Airlines and LIAT must work together to create an efficient food cargo network. What some countries need, others have in excess, and vice versa.”

Domestic markets for food also have the opportunity to become more diversified with farmers and agriculturalists finding additional outlets for supply beyond the hospitality sector.

This crisis also provides an opportunity to cut down on the 33 per cent of food that typically goes to waste.

And finally, as the region becomes more economically stable, it has an opportunity to invest in agricultural technologies that can enhance climate and crisis resilience and yields while minimising reliance on limited arable land.

Currently, the United States decides what— and whether— most of the Caribbean eats. Perhaps COVID-19 could present the greatest opportunity in history for the Caribbean to become food independent. With COVID-19, the Caribbean’s over reliance on food imports from the United States is no longer just a crisis of food security; it is a crisis of national and regional security.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR OF THIS POST

Daphne Ewing-Chow

I’m an environmental writer with a focus on food and agriculture, and commute between the Southern Caribbean (Barbados) and the Northern Caribbean (Cayman Islands).