In the 1960s, President Kennedy was looking for new approaches to foreign aid that would slow the advance of communism. Clyde Ellis saw this as an opportunity to export “the REA pattern” for starting and nurturing rural electric cooperatives.
Ellis, NRECA’s chief executive since the association’s founding in 1942, wrote to the president in January 1961 recommending co-ops as change agents that “can meet the challenges which have escaped our foreign aid efforts in the past.”
He recalled this in A Giant Step, his seminal book about rural electrification released in 1966.
Ellis pressed his case all that year, working through intermediaries that included Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. In November, he and a delegation of electric co-op managers attended an inter-American conference on cooperatives in Bogota, Colombia.
One day, they visited a mountain barrio outside the city.
“The terrible living conditions, the poverty, the utter hopeless of the people was unbelievable,” Ellis wrote. “We were told that half of the children died before adulthood; that the overall life expectancy was short.”
After the conference, Sen. Humphrey and members of the new U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) joined the NRECA delegation on a tour of other Latin American counties. In one of them, Ellis had a life-changing experience.
“Along a roadside in a country once rich in natural resources, but whose minerals had been exploited largely by outsiders, I had an experience that would leave me shaken and empty,” he wrote. “When it was over, I knew that never again would I be quite the same person.”
A farmer had tried to sell his baby to the Americans while his wife nursed the child nearby.
“Suddenly I was furious at the all the poverty and ignorance and intolerance in the world that could make such a thing possible. I wanted to cry, and I wanted to be sick. … I knew I would see the man and the mother and the child for the rest of my life.”
A few days later, Ellis’s delegation met with Kennedy at the White House and reported on what they had witnessed.
“Twice [the president] asked us what cooperatives could do to help.”
Ellis told him the people he talked with wanted managerial and technical assistance and funding and that they’d rather work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like NRECA.
Three months later, USAID asked NRECA to send a rural electrification expert to Nicaragua to complete the organization of a co-op and design a distribution system for it.
That summer (1962), NRECA sent two of its best local co-op managers to Colombia to start two more co-ops. And in early November, NRECA signed a contract with USAID to do more of the same. By the end of 1965, NRECA’s fledgling international division had sent a total of 40 rural electrification specialists to work on projects in 16 countries.
Kennedy invited the press to the USAID/NRECA contract-signing ceremony. He told the reporters in the room that rural electrification was one of the most “dramatic stories” in U.S. history, adding, “I don’t think there is any program which will help the Alliance for Progress more than this association between [NRECA] and the AID agency and the countries that are involved.”
The president said that “the results of the contract will be an improved standard of living for millions of people” in Latin America and around the world.
NRECA International has since brought lights and power to more than 160 million people worldwide, working with not only the U.S. government but the governments of host countries and other NGOs.