Exclusive interview: Mark Green on why he is an 'optimist' about USAID

Mark Green, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Patrick O'Connor / USAID

WASHINGTON — Mark Green, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, believes that under the right circumstances, the end of a foreign assistance program can be cause for a “massive celebration.”

Since he was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in August, President Donald Trump’s pick to lead U.S. global development efforts has made clear that he sees the role of U.S. foreign assistance as working itself out of a job.

“My philosophy is that the purpose of all of this is to end the need for its existence,” Green told Devex in one of his first extended interviews since taking office. “I think that I’m more focused on building the capacity of our partners and also incentivizing reform in our partners, such that they can lead themselves.”

Green takes office at a pivotal moment for U.S.-led development efforts. A former ambassador to Tanzania and ex-leader of several U.S. development NGOs, Green is something of a known quantity. Still, the development community is grappling with the consequences of what appear to be radically different policy views and priorities coming out of the White House he now serves.

Speaking with Devex, Green said he would focus on procurement reform, “strategic transitions” for countries to wean themselves off U.S. assistance, new ways to measure country capacity, and technological innovation. The USAID chief now faces the challenge of doing that in service to a president who has proposed cutting billions of dollars from U.S. foreign assistance, and at a time when humanitarian needs vastly outpace funding.

This is part one of our exclusive interview with Green, which focuses on his vision for USAID. Part two will delve into how Green’s own views about development intersect with the Trump administration’s plans and priorities. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

We’ve heard development professionals say for a long time that foreign aid’s purpose is to put itself out of business, but they usually follow that with an implied, “but not yet.” How sharp of a focus are you going to put on transitioning out of programs, transitioning out of countries, and what will be the process to guide that?

You will hear me refer back to it all the time, because I am bringing it up at nearly every discussion we have. It really does drive the way I look at the world and the work that we do. In practical terms, it means a number of things.

I’m interested in looking at the country’s capacity to test, the country’s capacity to distribute, the country’s capacity to treat. Measuring some of those capacity elements I think is very, very important.

We’re starting to think about what we’re calling strategic transitions. What these are not: these are not leaving Moscow, because the enabling environment is such that we can’t operate. That’s not what we’re talking about, obviously. What we’re talking about is where our partner countries have progressed to a point where the relationship can change. It’s not that we won’t be there. We will. It will be a new phase in the relationship. So looking at what that new phase looks like. Where are countries in a place where we should have those conversations about a changed relationship, the next phase in the relationship?

In practical terms, internally, it’s crafting models for strategic transitions, although every country will be very, very different for obvious reasons. Secondly, I think the more interesting part of the process is beginning to look at how we measure that. We measure a lot of things. I helped to craft the [Millennium Challenge Corp.], and we have those famous indicators and scorecards. But how do we measure the capacity of a country in various areas? For example, when I first came back to Washington from overseas, I did a fair bit of work on malaria. I was at Malaria No More, where we were advocating around funding, we were advocating around bed-net delivery in those programs — very, very important. But I’m also interested in looking at the country’s capacity to test, the country’s capacity to distribute, the country’s capacity to treat. Measuring some of those capacity elements I think is very, very important.

Also I think it’s looking at a country’s broad-based policies and helping to incentivize the right priorities. What I used to say as ambassador was, “look, I’m not saying we’ve got all the answers. Maybe we made all the mistakes, and maybe as a friend you don’t have to repeat some of the mistakes that we’ve made.” I always found that people looked at that and said, “yeah, that works for us.” It’s having those conversations and talking to our partners and saying, “look, this is what we have learned is necessary for a more prosperous future. Let us help you take on some of those things.”

The model you’re describing sounds like it was shaped by the experience of the MCC, which you played an instrumental role in creating. At its inception, MCC was imagined as an idea that would revolutionize the U.S. development enterprise. Do you foresee a possibility for MCC and USAID to work more closely together, or for aspects of the MCC model to bleed into USAID’s work?

Here at USAID, we would argue that that’s already taking place. In recent years, our greater emphasis on measurement and monitoring and evaluation I would say was inspired by some of the lessons learned from the MCC. I do think we need to coordinate closely and align closely. I will be once again sitting on the board of the MCC. It’s like [an] old home. That will make me the longest-serving board member ever. I’ve done the statutory maximum as a private sector member.

When we get to a phase where there’s a transition in a relationship, that should be an extraordinarily good story. That should be a massive celebration.

One of the features of MCC that I don’t think gets enough play — I’ve attended several compact closings, I was in the Philippines, El Salvador, Morocco, and I’ve been to several other countries right after a compact closing — what always struck me was that it was not a bad news story. The story wasn’t, “U.S. stops money flowing to Morocco.” It was instead celebrating what was accomplished during the program. MCC’s virtue is that it’s extraordinarily selective — and must be. USAID works in some of the toughest places of all. So if and when we get to a phase where there’s a transition in a relationship, that should be an extraordinarily good story. That should be a massive celebration.

That’s what I want to get to. The transitions that we are looking at, I hope and believe will all be very good news stories. They will all be about a new phase in the relationship. That’s really what we’re working on here. I’m not quite three weeks on the job, but we’ve got a number of very talented people working on this. I’m excited. I think it’s going to be a great aspect of America’s relationship with the world.

You’ve talked procurement — the ways USAID spends its money — as an area where you want to achieve greater effectiveness and efficiency. What kinds of things do you have in mind when it comes to procurement reform, and what’s going to guide that inquiry?

Again, three weeks into the job, we are on the cusp of looking at procurement reform. It’s important to me, because I want to make sure that we are tapping into all the creativity, all the innovation that is out there in the community. And community I define very broadly — the business community, traditional development community, contractors, nonprofits, all of that. I want to make sure that we spur competition. I want to make sure that we are constantly looking at good ideas.

USAID chief 'angry' about agency's largest health project and committed procurement reform

In response to a Devex report, Mark Green said he is “angry” that USAID’s largest-ever contract, a health supply chain project that coordinates lifesaving commodities, is performing well below expectations — and that it has increased his resolve to review how the agency spends its money.

One of the things that I’ve seen in recent years [has been] lots of stories about really cool things that small NGOs that are brand new are working on. I hear stories about veterans, recent members of the military, who have served in conflict zones and then go back because they want to help the people that they have seen, and they have put together innovative ideas. I want to spur that. I want to really foster that sense of best efforts in competition.

I want to make sure the way that we do procurement enables competition across the board, so that this becomes an agency that is able to work with the little guy, as well as the big guy. I am inspired by what I see in the development community, and I want to make sure that we continue to foster that. I think it’s good for the agency. I think it’s good for the world when we can tap into it.

My pictures on the bookshelf, the second one down, that weird mustachioed guy was me 30-plus years ago in the little place where [my wife] Sue and I taught. In that little village, in 1987-88, we had one wind-up television in the whole village. We’d walk down to the school, and it was a little box, and you’d lift up the receiver and you’d wind it and you’d say, “operator, give me 662-Kisumu.” And you’d put the phone down, and you’d sit outside under a mango tree, and the phone would ring and they’d say your call’s gone through. I tried to call my dad the first week I was there back in Green Bay, not a chance in the world.

I went back there for the elections of 2001. Johnnie Carson was ambassador at the time — that’s one of the reasons Johnnie and I know each other so well. Johnnie let me go back to my school — I was a congressman at the time. I couldn’t let them know I was coming, but I could go.

If we tap into the unlimited potential of the next generation of young people all around the world, then we’re going to be ok.

I went there, and I remember asking a young boy that I ran into, and I said, “do you remember [so-and-so], a former student of mine, and he said yes.” And I said, “can you go and get him?” And he pulled out his cellphone and called him. And I thought, my god, what happened to the village I knew? Now I get phone calls from these people, from the village.

We see the promise of technology changing everything. My students had never seen a building more than two stories high. I was in Western Kenya — Nairobi was London to them. Now, they’re connected. They know what they have. They know what they don’t have. They were asking good questions. All of this is extraordinary.

Admiral [Timothy] Ziemer and I went to Zanzibar when I was ambassador to look at how 53 health workers around the islands of Zanzibar were using SMS messaging to forward on malaria test results — not so long after those kids had the windup telephone. What we want to do in our procurement is make sure we’re tapping into all of that. What are the latest applications? Going to Google and [Managing Director of Jigsaw at Google] Scott Carpenter and asking them about what the latest possibilities are, but also tapping into the SMS applications way beyond my understanding. All of that — I want to make sure that our offerings, our procurement provide for.

That sounds like doing more, not less.

I’m in this because I believe in the power of what we can do. I’m an idealist, and I’m an optimist, but I think that the future’s unlimited. If we tap into the unlimited potential of the next generation of young people all around the world, then we’re going to be ok. I’m a romantic when it comes to that, but that’s why I’m here.

What's the future of U.S. aid and development policy under the Trump administration? Read Devex news and analysis and subscribe to The Development Newswire.

About the author

  • 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.