Outgoing USAID Chief Says Pandemic Underscores Importance of Foreign Aid

In an interview, Mark Green says this is no time to be slashing assistance to the developing world or global health.

USAID Administrator Mark Green speaks in Ecuador.
USAID Administrator Mark Green speaks in Ecuador.
U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green speaks at the Najas Palace in Quito, Ecuador, on May 15, 2019. Cristina Vega/AFP via Getty Images

On April 10, U.S. President Donald Trump’s top foreign aid official stepped down from his post in a long-planned departure, saying the coronavirus pandemic shows how critical U.S. assistance to global health organizations has become, especially in the developing world. 

On April 10, U.S. President Donald Trump’s top foreign aid official stepped down from his post in a long-planned departure, saying the coronavirus pandemic shows how critical U.S. assistance to global health organizations has become, especially in the developing world. 

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Mark Green, the outgoing administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), raised alarms about how refugees and displaced populations will be affected by the pandemic and reflected on the Trump administration’s repeated attempts to cut funding for foreign aid. 

“Less resources mean we can do less. It’s not magic, right? It’s not a mystery,” he said. “It’s a reminder to us, the challenges that we see, that the investments that we make, particularly health infrastructure investments, may not have immediate tangible payoffs, but they are an essential part of a long-term strategy.” 

With Green’s departure, some in the aid community fear for USAID’s future, particularly as it grapples with how to respond to the second- and third-order knock-on effects from a pandemic that has infected more than 1.9 million people, killed over 119,000, and brought the global economy to its knees. While the virus has ravaged developed countries, many experts fear that the world’s least developed countries—where USAID conducts its most important humanitarian work—will be next. 

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Green said he was worried most about how the pandemic would impact people displaced by conflict worldwide. “We have 71 million or so people displaced around the world in nearly every corner of the world. People are in motion. People are vulnerable. And so, I think they are particularly vulnerable to some of the challenges from COVID-19,” he said. “Finding ways to be able to reach out and help those communities will be an essential part of not just getting the outbreak under control but ending the pandemic.”

Green was something of an anomaly in the Trump administration. For over two and a half years, he managed the multibillion-dollar foreign aid agency without the level of scandal or political drama that came to dominate other agencies. He outlasted a secretary of state, defense secretary, and multiple national security advisors, along with a raft of other top administration officials who were sacked or resigned amid scandal and controversy. 

He took over an agency that, at least on paper, looked like a prime target for the cadre of anti-establishment populist insurgents that helped propel Trump to the White House; “America First” seemed entirely at odds with the long-standing U.S. practice of delivering billions of dollars in aid to foreign countries. 

To the surprise of many veteran foreign aid experts, USAID has emerged relatively unscathed—at least compared with other federal agencies that were dragged into scandals or even the president’s impeachment trial. Green oversaw a reorganization of the agency to streamline its bureaucracies—a stark contrast to the State Department’s fumbling attempts to enact its own reforms—and bipartisan pushback in Congress fended off yearly proposals to substantially slash USAID’s budget. 

All the while, Green pulled off the increasingly rare feat of maintaining good ties with both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill without drawing the ire of a famously mercurial and combative president. Green, a former Wisconsin Republican congressman and U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, was no stranger to the world of international aid when he was tapped to be Trump’s USAID chief. 

He also balanced ties between the aid community—chock-full of Trump critics—and powerful figures in the administration who repeatedly tried to gut funding for diplomacy and foreign aid, according to six current and former USAID officials. 

“He protected and fought really hard for USAID budgets internally,” said Nicole Widdersheim, a former National Security Council staffer and USAID official.

“Honestly I think, compared to what the baseline expectations were for what would happen to USAID under a Trump administration, what Mark’s been able to achieve was really a best-case scenario,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former senior USAID official under President Barack Obama now at the Center for Global Development. 

Green, who had been in the job since August 2017, did not offer any rebukes or veiled swipes at the president during the interview. He said the pandemic underscored the importance of U.S. foreign aid for global health programs—though the Trump administration proposed cuts to global health programs in its federal budget proposal released this year. 

“I think the crisis that we’re all facing right now should serve as a reminder that these kinds of investments are important—not just for our partners, they’re important for us,” Green said. 

Green’s tenure at USAID had its rocky and politically perilous moments. The administration tried to pare down U.S. foreign aid through bureaucratic maneuvering when the aid cuts were rejected by Congress. USAID also caught criticism from international aid organizations focused on women’s rights for its hard-line stance on sexual and reproductive health, arguing that the administration’s anti-abortion stances hampered international efforts to improve women’s health, particularly in developing countries. Senior administration officials have rejected these criticisms. 

USAID also faced political pressure and a controversy in 2018, when Vice President Mike Pence’s office pressured the agency to divert aid funds to Christian minorities in Iraq. USAID staffers felt that the administration’s efforts to influence apolitical procurement processes could violate constitutional restrictions on favoring one religion over another and could also inflame sectarian tensions in Iraq, as ProPublica reported

One top career USAID official, Maria Longi, was reportedly removed from her post following pressure from Pence’s office. The move angered many rank-and-file USAID officers, who felt she was being unfairly scapegoated, according to several current and former USAID officials.

Green declined to comment on Longi’s case but lauded the work USAID had done in Iraq. “I would never comment on internal personnel matters of this agency,” he said. “What I can say is I’m a big fan of the work that we’re doing in places like northern Iraq. And I think that we have crafted tools and initiatives that are helping very vulnerable communities respond and rebuild after suffering the worst kinds of assaults and discrimination and persecution by violent extremists, most notably ISIS.”

Some of the administration’s sharpest critics still offered praise for Green as he departed his post, including Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has publicly sparred with Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the past. “Faced by an Administration that has relentlessly sought to cut foreign development and humanitarian relief programs it incorrectly views as charity, I sincerely appreciated Administrator Green’s commitment to defending programs and funds that are proven to advance U.S. national security, help lift up the world’s most impoverished, and build resilient and prosperous communities that in turn promote global stability,” Menendez said in a statement after Green’s departure was announced. 

Green will become the new president of Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership, named after late Republican Sen. John McCain. The former president of the institute, Kurt Volker, was Trump’s special envoy for Ukraine and stepped down following the impeachment investigation. 

Trump has appointed John Barsa, a well-connected Trump appointee in USAID overseeing Latin American issues, as acting head of the agency with Green’s departure. The move surprised some at USAID; Green’s deputy, Bonnie Glick, was passed over for the job of acting administrator in favor of Barsa in a break with tradition. 

Green said he had no idea who might replace him as head of USAID after Barsa and had no conversations on that topic with the White House.

He praised Barsa as a “quick study.” He also offered a piece of advice for his successor: “The advice I have is that we have a great team of professionals, and we should trust them and do everything we can to enhance their work and opportunities.”

Three people are in the running to replace Green as head of the agency, according to several current and former officials familiar with the matter. This includes Jim Richardson, Pompeo’s former chief of staff during his time in Congress, as Devex first reported. Richardson, who served at USAID earlier in the Trump administration, is now director of U.S. foreign assistance resources at the State Department. Former Republican Rep. Ed Royce, the former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is also in the running for the job, as is Florida Republican Rep. Ted Yoho. “The congressman has expressed interest in the position and thrown his name into the running for USAID administrator,” a spokesman for Yoho told Foreign Policy. The White House did not immediately respond to request for comment on the next USAID administrator nominee. 

The outgoing USAID chief also dismissed the fears that the agency wouldn’t be able to handle the coronavirus crisis once he left. “I don’t worry about USAID’s ability to respond,” Green said. He cited the agency’s newly established task force to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, which is led by Ken Staley, a doctor and veteran policy official who served as the administration’s global malaria coordinator beginning in 2018. 

Other veteran USAID officials said the agency needed a new full-fledged administrator as soon as possible, as fears mount over how the international aid agency can manage humanitarian crises and conflicts in the midst of a pandemic.

They said Green’s push to reform USAID, including streamlining its bureaucracy and better aligning its budget and policy shops, would help the agency better respond to the current crisis. 

“It’s kind of rewiring the circuit board to make sure it works better and more efficiently, and that is not sexy,” Konyndyk said. “Often the biggest frustrations are these kind of stupid structural or administration holdover structures that don’t make any sense anymore but are impossible to fix because no one ever wants to invest the political capital in fixing them.

“I have a lot of respect for the fact that with the tenure [Green] had, he tried to focus on actually making the agency run better. Not everybody comes in and tries to do that.”

The administrator position—which requires presidential nomination and Senate confirmation—now joins a raft of other key senior posts in the administration that are filled by lower-level officials in an acting capacity. “Timely and comprehensive nominations have been a challenge for this administration,” said Lester Munson, a former senior Senate staffer and USAID official now at the BGR Group, a government relations firm.

“It’s critically important that USAID have leadership right now and strong leadership and that it be given the authority and power to take off and do what it can do very well,” said Gayle Smith, a former USAID chief under Obama and head of the ONE Campaign, a global health advocacy organization. “On the one hand, it’s challenging that there’s no confirmed administrator. On the other hand, this agency knows how to deal with complex crises.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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