5 Hillary Clinton emails you actually should read

Thousands of Hillary Clinton's emails from her tenure as Secretary of State are now publicly available. Photo by: Simon Stratford

Hillary Clinton’s emails are a political firestorm. They are also a fascinating window into how the sausage of development policy gets made — or doesn’t — inside the world’s most powerful foreign aid engine.

The former Secretary of State has responded to an ongoing controversy about her use of a private email server during her time as the White House’s top diplomat by gradually releasing troves of work-related messages to scrutiny. Now, lawyers, political operatives and journalists are poring over them — for state secrets and behind-the-scenes clashes, character insights and insider gossip.

It takes a little more digging and more creative keyword searches to unearth the buried exchanges that raise the curtain on episodes that defined Hillary Clinton’s development legacy during her tenure at the State Department.

Clinton’s emails are often more interesting as windows into the inner-workings of her close circle of confidants and collaborators, some the biggest players in global development who jump in and out of an exclusive sphere of influence some have dubbed “Hillaryland.”

Clinton, meanwhile, drifts like an intermittent shadow over the conversations that pingpong between her staffers, advisers and friends; occasionally dipping into the back-and-forth with a terse “how can we get this done?” or “please print.”

The email dump offers only a partial, approved and sometimes redacted glimpse of the former secretary’s online correspondence. It is nonetheless peppered with U.S. foreign aid allusions that offer some intriguing insights — and prompt even more questions — about the daily struggle to “elevate” development in U.S. foreign policy, as Clinton sought to do.

Devex combed through the Clinton emails (and couldn’t help feeling a little guilty about it) to pull out five ‘must reads’ that help shade in the contours of a Clinton development legacy that continues to take shape.

1. Jeff Sachs thinks donor agencies ‘swallow’ aid funding.

In the summer of 2009 the G-8 group of major economies met in L’Aquila, Italy, and pledged $20 billion for food security and sustainable agriculture. Development economist and Columbia University Professor Jeff Sachs, in an email to Clinton’s Counselor and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills, voiced his approval, but urged that the funding commitment not get broken up and “swallowed” by multiple donor agencies, and instead flow through one or two channels. Clinton thought it wasn’t a bad idea.

From: Jeff Sachs

To: Toiv, Nora F

Sent: Fri Jul 10 20:52:06 2009

Subject: Congratulations!

Dear Nora,

Please pass along the following message to Cheryl. Thanks,

Jeff Sachs                                            

Dear Cheryl,

Congratulations on the launch of the $20b G8 initiative. This will stand as a historic success of President Obama and Secretary Clinton. Please do convey my personal congratulations and gratitude to Secretary Clinton if you have a moment to do so. I know what a key role you personally played in bringing this to fruition.

I would like to suggest one overarching strategy for success.

Please do push hard on the donors (USAID included!) to pool the donor resources into one, at most two, multilateral funding streams. Certainly the World Bank should be the main spigot, and IFAD possibly a second. By pooling the resources, we'll cut down BY YEARS on the delays, donor negotiations, further talk, report writing, expert trips, etc., etc., which are now the biggest single threat to success of the initiative.

I look forward to a few minutes by phone or in person to offer some tips coming from long years of experience in this sphere. This can be a real historic path-breaker, if its not swallowed in the agencies!

Warm regards and kudos! Jeff Sachs        

From: H [mailto:HDR22@clintonemail.com]

Sent: Sunday, July 19, 2009 6:43 AM

To: Mills, Cheryl D

Cc: H2

Subject: Re: Congratulations!

Can we implement his suggestion about pooling donors?

2. Dr. Freud, U.S. aid branding and Richard Holbrooke’s headwear.

To brand, or not to brand U.S. foreign aid? That was the question for Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. During the devastating floods in Pakistan in 2010, Holbrooke’s choice to wear a USAID-branded baseball hat apparently sparked some local commentary, which fed back to the special representative and led to some questions about how visible U.S. insignia should be. Vali Nasr, Holbrooke’s senior adviser at the time, first drew attention to the hat frenzy.

The following exchange took place on Sept. 16, 2010.

Nasr: “Seems like Pakistani press is taking particular interest in RCH baseball cap.”

Holbrooke: “Does that have deeper meaning, Dr Freud?”

Nasr: “I don't know but there seems to be a lot of commentary about your cap; does it say something like a ‘gift from the US?"

From: Holbrooke, Richard

To: Nasr, S Vali R

Cc: Ruggiero, Frank J; Feldman, Daniel F; McHale, Judith A; Singh, Vikram J; Sullivan, Jacob J; Shah, Rajiv (AID/A); Bommer, Ashley F                                        

Sent: Thu Sep 16 15:21:28 2010

Subject: Re: Baseball cap

Vali--per your query, the cap I wore says “USAID from the People of the United States” and on the back "DART". It was practically the only sign, however temporary, that there was a US civilian effort in Sindh. So it got some media attention, which was good.

Every other country's aid here, even Iran's, is better branded than us. Only our helicopters are visible. China's field hospital (which I drove by in Thatta) Turkey, Saudi Arabia (I visited their refugee camp, where they are building a mosque), Australia (field hospital in multan), Switzerland, UK, etc. While we hide and the NGO partners refuse to admit that we fund them.

In addition, our employees are prevented from spending time in the affected areas, which they can visit only under very stringent conditions and heavy security imposed by RSOs. For example, the fabled AID DART team can hardly get out of [Islamabad] and relies primarily on reports from [NGOs], a notably unreliable method.

We are going to try to change this. It won't be easy.

The aid branding issue comes up again in Clinton’s email, this time in response to an NGO group’s op-ed in the Washington Post. In response to a series of attacks against NGO employees in Pakistan, Sam Worthington, president and CEO of InterAction, an NGO consortium, argued, “In an environment where we are often soft targets for militants, drawing attention to our connection to the U.S. government makes us even more vulnerable.” His piece got Clinton’s attention — and the attention of her Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale.

Clinton’s first message to McHale is fully redacted. Here is the subsequent exchange.

From: McHale, Judith A [mailto:McHaleJA@state.gov]

To: H

Sent: Sun Oct 10 09:07:53 2010

Subject: Re: InterAction op-ed on branding in Pakistan

I agree. As you know I believe passionately that it is not in our national interests to continue to provide billions of dollars in aid and assistance without the very people we are helping knowing we are the ones providing the assistance. Some of our research in Pakistan indicates that many people believe the assistancee is coming from China and of course the Chinese do nothing to correct the record.

I asked INR to provide me with an assessment of the current situation after the floods to determine the impact of our assistance. I have also asked them to work with the IC to give us an accurate and unbiased assessment of the security risks involved. I aksed for it a couple of weeks ago so hopefully they will have something we can use now which might be helpful in drafting a response.

In terms of the security arguments he makes, it is worth noting that the incidents he references are situations where the attacks occured in places where there was NO USG branding. The reality is that the terrorists attack any group or institution which might impede their ability to prevail.

I had already planned a USAID/State meeting to address this issue this week. I'll try to get everyone together today or tomorrow and will report back to you.

From: H [mailto:HDR22@clintonemail.com]

To: McHale, Judith A

Sent: Sun Oct 10 10:48:22 2010

Subject: Re: InterAction op-ed on branding in Pakistan

Thx--I love working w you--I feel sometimes we were separated at birth! Onward!                

From: McHale, Judith A [mailto:McHaleJA@state.gov]

Sent: Sunday, October 10, 2010 11:12 AM

To: H

Subject: Re: InterAction op-ed on branding in Pakistan                                

Thx. I feel the same way! Just got off a call with usaid, srap and my team. We are drafting a response. I think we need something firm, accurate and rapid. Still deciding who will sign and whether it will be an op ed or letter to the editor. I want to be sure we avoid a public battle with the ngo community on this issue. UsAID is recommending that Raj meet with Worthington and read him the riot act for the op ed.

Will forward the draft before we send.

BTW, USAID confirmed that there was no USG branding in the attacks Worthington references. Jm

3. Commercial farming not the answer for Africa’s smallholders?

Food security is a key issue in Hillary Clinton’s development legacy, though it’s also emerged as an area where President Obama is looking to put his own stamp on U.S. relations with the developing world. Obama’s Feed the Future initiative invests in countries’ food security priorities, while the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition taps partnerships with private actors to bring commercial investment to African agriculture. Large-scale commercial farming isn’t without its detractors, some of whom cautioned against a commercial farming emphasis.

Matthew Stremlau formerly served on the secretary’s policy planning staff.

Original Message

From: Stremlau, Matthew H

To: Mills, Cheryl D; Lurie, Mike D

Cc: Plowden, Marisa L

Sent: Wed Aug 12 08:11:40 2009

Subject: RE: Heads up on comm farming etc.

I would be careful with the commercial farming. Many African leaders support it because it's good for their cronies. Paul Collier has been one of the most vocal supporters of commercial farming - mostly because of the success of Brazil. Our USAID colleagues are much less supportive because historically it doesn't have as much benefit for the poor as working directly with rural farmers. I think the best way to frame this issue is to say: we support small holder farmers and that's what our programs will emphasize; but, if we see an opportunity for commercial farms to also help achieve our goal of lifting 100 million out of hunger and poverty, then we will support it. In general, commercial farms usually benefit those who are above the poverty line - not those below it.

4. Abortion: The third rail of development policy too.

Federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the nonprofit reproductive health organization, is a wedge issue that threatens to derail this year’s U.S. budget process. Concerns about funding abortion have also derailed aid legislation, whether or not the bills had anything controversial about them. The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act of 2010 would have committed the United States to combating forced child marriages abroad. Republican lawmakers shot it down, raising concerns about cost — and worries that funds could be used to pay for abortions.

The following message to Hillary Clinton is from Melanne Verveer, the former U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues and long-time Clinton ally.

From: PVerveer

To: H

Sent: Sat Dec 18 13:21:45 2010

Subject: child marriage defeat

The defeat of the Child Marriage bill, I fear, is a harbinger of what's to come. After passing the Senate unanimously, there was every expectation that it would fly through the House on suspension. How this too became an abortion issue is truly distressing. We have our work more than cut out for us.

5. The USAID chief headache.

For almost a year the Obama administration operated without a confirmed USAID administrator, a situation many decried as detrimental to the agency and its mission. Clinton’s emails confirm what we already knew: The confirmation process was a headache, complete with high hopes, false starts and long delays. The following exchange involved Hillary Clinton, Jan Piercy, senior adviser at Enclude and former U.S. executive director at the World Bank, and Sally Osberg, president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation. The exchange ends with a message from Clinton to Deputy Chief of Staff Huma Abedin, reading simply, “Pls print.”

Names are redacted from the emails, but the timing suggests the messages could refer to global health luminary Paul Farmer, who, in May 2009, was reported to be under consideration as a potential USAID chief. If Farmer is the subject of these emails, then they suggest he was considering another role, “reporting directly to Hillary,” before the administration began vetting him as the USAID administrator to be. They also suggest Clinton had a lot of pull when it came to selecting the nominee. A few months later reports surfaced that Farmer was out of contention for the post, and it wasn’t until November 2009 that Obama nominated Rajiv Shah.

From: Sally Osberg

Sent: Monday, May 18, 2009 8:32 PM

To: Jan Piercy

Subject: [redacted]                        

Hi Jan,

[paragraph redacted]

I also write to share that I spoke with [redacted] this morning—he'd called early last week, but we finally connected today. A real honor to be one of the folks [redacted] Is seeking out for counsel—and one I don't take lightly! As you undoubtedly know, he's been offered a new role in the Obama administration, reporting directly to Hillary, would oversee [redacted]. Of course, I encouraged him to do it (as have most of his students, and others). In our conversation, he referenced your talking to one another at the Skoll Forum, your describing the opportunity posed by Hillary's leadership—which would open space for an alliance of visionary leaders to advance a new development paradigm for engaging with the world.

As I thought about what I said to [redacted] drawing upon my admiration for what another great social entrepreneur, John Gardner, contributed in his role as Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of HEW, which gave him a major hand in designing the Great Society and ushering in that great wave of civil rights legislation—I also wondered about you: specifically, your World Bank leadership role, and how you were able to leverage your entrepreneurial instincts and clear commitment to seeing investments translate into on-the-ground change while navigating a very large bureaucracy.

[Redacted] expects to be in DC by Thursday, and my gut tells me he is on his way to accepting this extraordinary challenge, with the goal of reshaping aid policy so that it serves those the U.S. most needs as allies—those billions of women, men and children the world over whose hearts and minds can be won if they can eat, care for and support their families, find real reason to hope. My hope, to be perfectly clear!, is that you will be a friend to [redacted] as he navigates a system he has challenged and finds ways to drive meaningful, sustainable change. I don't really know, but my sense is that your hand is already at work here. I also shared with him that you were working on the possibility of Hillary's speaking at next year's Skoll Forum; he immediately said that Hillary, he and you should go together. How amazing would that be???!!!

Finally, [redacted] connected with [redacted] over Elizabeth Bagley's upcoming visit to the Bay Area; [redacted] and I will meet with her when she's out here—if you have any guidance, I'd welcome it: I'm sure you know her and have a sense of what some possible connections might be.


Sally Osberg

Original Message

From: Jan Piercy

To: H

Sent: Mon May 18 20:47:27 2009

Subject: FW: [redacted]


The email below from Sally Osberg, President of the Skoll Foundation reminds me that right after the Skoll Forum in Oxford, I wrote Cheryl indicating your interest in meeting with Jeff Skoll. I sent another email on this and a couple of other meetings I think important (Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen) but have never heard anything from her. I really do think it would be valuable for you to meet Jeff Skoll, and to talk with Jacqueline about Pakistan, in particular, but Acumen more generally. Perhaps I should go through the public-private partnerships office?

Re [redacted] if AID still isn't done, if he'd come in, you might consider whether he should be asked to undertake AID — he'd need a very good managerial #2 so he didn't get bogged down, but he was your first archetype of the kind of "moral authority" and leadership you wanted, and people would certainly perceive him to have been "worth the wait".

Good luck with all you're juggling. This has to be a particularly demanding week, in a string of them.


From: H hrod17@clintonemail.com

Sent: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 8:14 AM

To: ‘abedinh.state.gov'

Subject: FW: [redacted]

Pls print.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.

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