Curt Welling delivers 2006 Johnson Lecture

Curt Welling '75

Curt Welling '75, president and chief executive officer of AmeriCares, defined "complex humanitarian emergencies" in his lecture, "From Sudan to Tsunami: Reflections of a Recovering Investment Banker."

Three years ago, Curt Welling left a career in investment banking to become president and CEO of AmeriCares, a non-profit humanitarian aid organization.

Today, Welling, a 1975 Vanderbilt Law graduate who delivered the school's 2006 Victor S. Johnson Lecture February 7, leads an organization that delivers emergency medical supplies to areas overwhelmed with political refugees, such as Darfur, and supports long-term healthcare initiatives around the world.

In his lecture, "From Sudan to Tsunami: Reflections of a Recovering Investment Banker," Welling described the current situation in Darfur, where more 150,000 refugees, mostly women and children, live in temporary shelters across the border from Sudan, as a "complex humanitarian emergency."

"These emergencies are a point of intersection of politics, economics, law and morality," he said. "They are man-made disasters, products of actions taken by men in a variety of contexts, and a fairly sophisticated understanding of each of those vectors is required to address them."

In recent decades, according to Welling, complex humanitarian disasters have caused more deaths than any natural disaster with the single exception of disease pandemics.

While organizations such as AmeriCares can help to sustain people displaced by complex human emergencies, they cannot provide a long-term solution. "The displaced people in Western Sudan and Darfur want to go back to their pastoral lifestyle, which is simple and self-sufficient," Welling said. "There wouldn't A be any physical impediment to them doing so if their safety and security were assured. But the political conditions that would assure they could do that safely haven't been achieved."

In a shrinking world with a rapidly growing population, Welling said, "We have run out of room to ignore the problems" created by complex human emergencies, such as the situation in Darfur.

Welling points to Afghanistan, which he termed "a wellspring for terrorism," as an example of the consequences of failure. "An ocean isn't going to protect us," he said. "It's in our interest politically and economically to do something about these situations. And beyond that, it's our obligation."

Welling recalled a challenge issued by Chancellor Gordon Gee in his 2005 Commencement address. "Chancellor Gee noted that one of the greatest risks to society is fragmentation along ideological lines, because that breakdown prevents us from addressing, discussing or mentioning the complicated problems we face," Welling said.

"There are growing numbers of people for whom winning – as they see it – replaces listening," he said. "We see them everywhere. They're red, blue, pro-life, pro-choice, for or against nuclear power. They've come to dominate our political process. But closed- and narrow- and single-mindedness precludes resolution of increasingly complex problems."

To improve the outlook for constructive change, Welling urged his listeners to maintain a stance of critical, but constructive skepticism.

"We need to examine the basis of certainty, demand facts and question assumptions, assuming it's done respectfully and with civility," he concluded, "In a dynamic, rapidly changing environment, any organization that isn't aggressively self-critical is slowly dying."