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Biden Eyes Humanitarian Experts to Lead U.S. Agency for International Development

The next USAID chief will grapple with a pandemic, galloping food insecurity, and allegations of chronic mismanagement under Trump.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Biden announces his foreign-policy and national security team.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden introduces key foreign-policy and national security nominees and appointments at an event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24. Mark Makela/Getty Images

A former senior United Nations executive and food security expert is among several people in the running to lead to the U.S. Agency for International Development under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, according to people familiar with the matter. 

Ertharin Cousin, a former executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, tops the narrowing list of people favored to take the helm of the leading U.S. aid agency. 

A former senior United Nations executive and food security expert is among several people in the running to lead to the U.S. Agency for International Development under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, according to people familiar with the matter. 

Ertharin Cousin, a former executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, tops the narrowing list of people favored to take the helm of the leading U.S. aid agency. 

Other names that have been floated for the job in Democratic foreign-policy circles include Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a nonprofit group; Frederick Barton, a former senior U.N. envoy and U.S. diplomat in the Obama administration; and Jeremy Konyndyk, a seasoned humanitarian expert who was a senior USAID official during the Obama administration and is a member of the Biden transition’s teams for the State Department and Department of Health and Human Services. 

Experts in Biden foreign-policy circles cautioned that no final decision has yet been made for who will take the helm of USAID under Biden. The president-elect has yet to announce a nominee, and his transition team declined to comment when approached for this story. 

When reached for comment, Cousin said she did not know if she was shortlisted for the job but said she is a strong supporter of the president-elect and “made it very clear that I would be able to serve” if called to do so. Barton also said he had not been contacted about being under consideration for the top USAID job. Neither Konyndyk nor Schrayer offered comment. 

Whomever Biden ultimately picks to lead USAID will have their work cut out for them. The global coronavirus pandemic has strained already limited resources to deal with spiraling humanitarian crises and heightened health risks for U.S. aid officials and other humanitarian aid organizations across the world. 

In Washington, the next administrator will inherit an agency that has buckled under controversy, allegations of mismanagement, and leadership vacancies in the latter half of the Trump administration. Several political appointees came under fire for anti-LGBT and Islamophobic remarks; others have been accused of mismanaging programs meant to prevent conflict in the world’s most fragile countries and promote democratic transitions.

Even in the midst of a global pandemic that has strained international aid programs, the agency has been without a full-fledged leader for over seven months, following the departure of Administrator Mark Green in April. 

Earlier this month, the White House abruptly ousted USAID’s second-highest-ranking official, Deputy Administrator Bonnie Glick. Current and former officials said she was fired to pave the way for Trump’s acting USAID chief, John Barsa, to remain de facto leader of the agency and get around federal vacancy laws that limit the time appointees can serve in senior posts in an acting capacity without Senate confirmation. Barsa is now acting deputy administrator, performing the duties of the acting administrator.

Barsa recently joined a growing number of President Donald Trump’s political appointees to test positive for COVID-19. He reportedly often failed to wear a mask at work.

The U.S. aid agency has been a prime destination for anti-abortion advocates popular with the Trump administration’s evangelical base. In the past four years, they have steered foreign aid to Christian communities in the Middle East and beyond, and pushed back at efforts at the United Nations and other international agencies to promote access to sexual and reproductive health care services.

Current and former USAID officials said the leadership vacancies and controversy sown by some Trump political appointees have hampered the agency’s effectiveness and sapped employee morale. 

Seasoned humanitarian experts familiar with the Biden transition team’s thinking, who spoke on condition of anonymity, hailed all four possible candidates as strong contenders for the job given their decades of experience and expertise.

Cousin has shown an instinct for picking the winning horse out of the gate, backing both Barack Obama and Biden in the early stages of their respective presidential primaries before it was clear they would win the Democratic nomination. 

An expert on food security, Cousin served as U.S. ambassador to the Rome-based U.N. agencies for food and agriculture from 2009 to 2012, and then as executive director for the World Food Program from 2012 to 2017. Since stepping down from her role at the World Food Program, Cousin has served as a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, at the university’s Center on Food Security and the Environment, and as a distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a think tank.

Konyndyk, currently a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, served as the director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance from 2013 to 2017 and was involved in the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He has been involved with the Biden campaign’s transition and is a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Schrayer, a seasoned political strategist with close contacts across the political spectrum on Capitol Hill, heads the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, an organization that supports U.S. diplomacy and development abroad. She serves on USAID’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid and prior to that worked as national political director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for over a decade. 

Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman for Kansas and secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton who has worked with Schrayer at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, said she is a strong candidate for the job, particularly given her relationships on Capitol Hill.

Her big asset … is this exceptionally close relationship [she has] to dozens and dozens of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, he said. The congressional role is so important, especially as it relates to the appropriations of money for these aid programs, and she probably knows that process better than anybody I know.

Barton is an academic and former senior diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state for conflict and stabilization operations and U.S. envoy to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations under Obama. He also served as deputy high commissioner at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1999 to 2001 and founding director of USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives from 1994 to 1999. He is currently a lecturer on international affairs at Princeton University.

Update, Nov. 30, 2020: This article was updated to include comment from former Rep. Dan Glickman.

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

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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