Dr. Edward Rackley '84

According to Edward Rackley ’84, curiosity can take a person far. Over thirty years ago, it led him to board a plane for an unknown land with an unfamiliar name. That simple act changed him forever, and he hasn’t looked back. 

That transatlantic flight was the first step in a long career working for Nobel prize-winning relief agencies, U.N. peacekeeping missions, cutting-edge war trauma projects, and field-based conflict research groups in dozens of warzones across four continents. Today Rackley designs, delivers, and evaluates aid projects for victims of all forms of atrocity and abuse, from modern slavery and violent extremism in the Sahel, to survivors of sexual violence and child soldiers in the DR Congo. 

Originally from Alabama, Rackley grew up in a world that was comfortable but insulated. “Alabama was a great place to grow up, but once I came to Episcopal and got some distance, I saw how rewarding taking big leaps into the unknown could be,” he said. While at The High School, Rackley began to cultivate a spirit of volunteerism thanks to his teachers and fellow Old Boys. “Volunteerism was a big part of EHS community and culture,” Rackley remembered. “Looking back on it now, putting others before yourself was the core of the rat system.” Many teachers were role models in different ways, but Rackley credits longtime EHS German teacher Steve Six for encouraging him to think differently about life on the Hill. “To be an American today carries privileges and opportunities we can’t always see, but visit any developing country and it becomes immediately clear. Even the elites don’t have access to the basic services — health, education, safety, justice, and rule of law — that we take for granted,” Rackley expressed. As to why he has dedicated so much of his life to helping others, he added: “An unequal world is an unstable world. My job is to help fragile states and societies recovering from conflict to develop the resilience and systems needed to become equal partners on the global playing field.”

Rackley joined the Peace Corps after leaving the University of Richmond in 1988, setting out for the Republic of Zaire in central Africa. “I didn’t even know the correct pronunciation of the country,” Rackley says of his naivete in those early days. “But the more I learned, I knew it was my dream destination: no English spoken, no McDonald’s, no parking lots… clearly not America. I couldn’t believe my luck.”

In a remote savannah village 500 kilometers from the nearest town, Rackley’s job was to introduce disease-resistant varieties of cassava, rice, maize, and beans to local farmers, mostly women. “I learned infinitely more from that experience than I imparted,” he recalls. Neighbors taught him to build his own bow and arrows, hunt game and trap fish, and raise bees using local techniques. It was a complete immersion. He learned three local languages in three years, which passed in the blink of an eye. In the distant capital, Kinshasa, the national government was crumbling, and discontent was everywhere. A nationwide outburst of violent unrest forced US government staff, including the Peace Corps, to evacuate in 1991. The country descended into full-blown war in 1996, a conflict that continues today.

While it was devastating to leave the country under such circumstances, Rackley knew it was not yet time to go home. Through contacts, he joined Doctors Without Borders in Somalia in the early days of that country’s long civil war. He spent the year setting up field hospitals and emergency feeding centers across the south, staying through Operation Restore Hope, the troubled U.S. military intervention captured in the film “Black Hawk Down.” In nearby South Sudan, years of conflict and drought had created widespread hunger and famine, an older dynamic similar to that of Somalia. Rackley joined the UN World Food Programme, whose aircraft were dropping bags of grain by the metric tonne into pockets of civilians that were locked inside the war. Working on the ground, he helped negotiate access with rebel leaders, organized the drop zones, and called in the planes. He oversaw food distributions to families before moving to the next famine area. Two years later, he helped establish the first medical aid centers in southern Rwanda in the wake of the 1994 genocide.

Later that year, Rackley returned to the U.S. to get his Ph.D. in philosophy from the New School for Social Research in New York. “At that point, I had so much PTSD and burnout that I had to walk away,” he explained, relating some of his experiences. “At 27 years old, I’d been kidnapped, survived three plane crashes, and had colleagues murdered right in front of me, all because we were strangers in someone else’s war. Dumb luck had kept me alive.”

Philosophy was another adventure, and helped Rackley process these early wartime experiences. His doctoral dissertation unpacked the moral logic of humanitarian intervention, the Western ideal that distant suffering and atrocity present us with a moral burden, the imperative to act. Rackley’s studies taught him that moral hindsight is 20/20, especially when considering inaction before atrocity during the Holocaust. His dissertation questioned why humanitarians intervene in today’s wars to save lives with food and medicine, which does nothing to stop the killing.

After Rackley’s academic studies, he reunited with Doctors Without Borders, working on policy and strategy, running conflict mortality surveys, and documenting survivor experiences for advocacy campaigns. He watched the organization accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 with mixed feelings, fully aware that its work could not stop or prevent atrocities. In the ensuing years, he migrated towards larger, more political institutions: overseeing British government aid in the Darfur crisis in the mid- 2000s, designing large disarmament programs for the World Bank, or evaluating the conflict work of different U.N. agencies. “I was happier as a freelancer, instead of flying the flag of a single institution,” he expressed.

Rackley continues his work advising donor governments and aid agencies operating in conflict, but his newest adventure as a husband and father is one he never thought possible. “I’d always considered the idea of a wife and kids as impossible given my life choices, so I feel even more fortunate,” he shared. “And like every parent, I’m guilty of wanting my daughter to follow my footsteps, but the best I can do is just be her cheerleader.” The world will always be unstable, but family can make it bearable, Rackley said in closing.