It All Comes Back to Women’s Financial Autonomy: a Conversation with Hunger Fellow Alum Tammy Palmer

Tammy PalmerAlums, Updates

Above: Tammy Palmer receives the 2011 Alum Hunger Leadership Award from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah; Tammy Palmer with the 12th Class of Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellows at orientation in October, 2023.

Continuing our series of stories of Hunger Center alums, we talked with Tammy Palmer. Tammy was a member of the very first class of Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellows from 2001 to 2003. Among her accolades she has been recognized with the Hunger Center’s Alum Leadership Award and the U.S. Department of State Meritorious Honor Award.

Tammy Palmer grew up in South Carolina with deep multi-generational family roots and a passion for women’s economic development. “My own life, my mother’s life, my grandparents’ life, [showed that] women who were independent were the ones who were able to exercise autonomy about their financial circumstances,” she explains. Gender equity is a lens through which she has approached all her life’s subsequent work.

Tammy studied economics at Williams College and earned a Master’s in Public Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, where she was awarded the Sasakawa Fellowship for international development. She was drawn to the Hunger Center’s newly-established Leland Fellowship for the chance to work with USAID.1

When she first encountered the other fellows in the very first class she was struck by the energy, curiosity, and diversity of perspectives represented across the cohort. “When I say diverse, I mean every way in which you could approach food security was represented in that first class,” she recalls. “Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, folks who were not going to put themselves on any political spectrum, journalists, people entrenched in policy work, academia….”

“Everyone there was absolutely unequivocally a leader,” she recalls, “and used to being the loudest voice in the room. I don’t know how we coexisted, but somehow we did. I think it’s because we were so curious to hear what the next person was going to say, the next point in the conversation.”

The diversity of perspectives in the cohort was complemented by the diversity of experiences that the fellows had at their placements. “You were able to compare what one’s perspective is at a bilateral institution versus a multilateral, versus a nonprofit,” she remembers. “It’s so instructive and important for folks early on in their career, as they’re thinking about where they want to be after this.”

Tammy’s placement with USAID took her to Kampala, Uganda, where planned, administered, and reported on food security indicators, and to Washington, D.C., where she helped to develop a regional food security policy for the organization’s Africa bureau.

She particularly remembers a trip the cohort took to Rome2 to meet with Ambassador Tony Hall and the UN agencies. “There was this entrée we had as fellows at the international level,” she recollects. “We took it very seriously. We felt like we were ambassadors of the program, and getting as much from every meeting and discussion that we had [as possible]. It showed me the investment that the fellowship had in each of the fellows.”


1st Class of Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellows in Washington, D.C.


Following her time as a fellow she worked with local NGOs in East Africa before returning to USAID as a career foreign service officer in 2007. After working in Afghanistan and Peru, Tammy relocated to Monrovia, Liberia, with her husband and eight-month-old son. Liberia was still emerging from its second civil war (1999-2003) and had just been reclassified as a family posting; her family was the first to relocate there after the reclassification.

Tammy’s work in Liberia focused on helping the nation reform its economic governance institutions. Her portfolio included the civil service agency, land commission, planning ministry, and working with the ministry of finance to design, administer, and implement and their multi-year budget.

Throughout her posting, her guiding principle was centering local partners as key decision-makers on projects. One of her proudest achievements was creating a mechanism so that U.S. aid could be allocated through pooled funding arrangements supported by a consortium of international donors. This streamlined approach helped to revitalize the Liberian economy while avoiding added restrictions and requirements from multiple international funding sources. For her work in Liberia, Tammy was recognized by the U.S. Department of State with a Meritorious Honor Award for outstanding leadership on “enabling country-owned approaches to better governance in fragile states.”

After her tenure with USAID, Tammy served as Vice President of Africa Programs for the Jane Goodall Institute. How does great ape conservation tie back to women’s economic development? It’s quite simple, she explains: “you don’t have primate welfare if you have communities that are failing. You don’t have healthy communities if half of the population is unable to exercise decision-making at the household level.”

Tammy’s close working relationship with the institute’s country directors resulted in a successful community development model for chimpanzee rehabilitation which has become a model for working with local governments to link economic development with environmental affairs. “You’re not separating [environmental outcomes] out; you’re incorporating them into what the community values and wants as part of its wellbeing.”

While many National and International Hunger Fellow alums lead careers focused exclusively on either U.S. or global food security, it’s not uncommon for alums with international experience to find themselves working in the domestic sphere and vice versa. At the time of our interview Tammy was finishing work with the South Carolina Housing Finance Development Authority, where she found her background and experience in economics was just as applicable. “The principles should hold true,” Tammy reflects, “if they’re real principles, domestically as well as internationally. And they do.”

Tammy reflects on her experience in the Leland Fellowship fondly, not least for sparking some of the closest and most lasting friendships of her life. She’s also been an engaged alum, most recently presenting and moderating discussions at the 12th Class of Leland Fellows’ orientation, along with several members of her “pathfinder” cohort from twenty years prior.

When asked what advice she has for current and prospective Hunger Fellows, she encourages them to keep focused on their North star.  “You’re not going to solve everything, especially in these two years,” she counsels. “But pointing yourself in this direction is important for recognizing and nurturing that appetite within yourself. You’re already making a difference by saying, ‘I am opening myself up to this vantage point. I’m opening myself up to these experiences. I am deferring income that I might have earned in another avenue.’ That is important.”

“The battle is not for the swift, it’s for those who have endurance. So endure.”


  1. At the time, prospective Leland Fellows applied to directly placements with specific host organizations. []
  2. Rome is the headquarters of key multilateral institutions focused on global food security, including UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). []

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