Former US disaster chief says White House 'credibility' key to international crisis response

Jeremy Konyndyk, the former director of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. Photo by: Eric Bridiers / U.S. Mission Geneva / CC BY-ND

It tends not to get a lot of attention, but “process management” at the White House — and a strong National Security Council staff — are what allow the U.S. government to lead effective international response efforts when unforeseen disasters erupt in unexpected places, according to Jeremy Konyndyk, the former director of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.

“That bureaucracy does not work together well organically, and it doesn’t work together automatically. It has to be pushed, and it has to be organized into a workable structure, and that can only come from the White House and the National Security Council,” Konyndyk, who directed disaster efforts under President Barack Obama, said at the National Press Club Wednesday.

At the peak of the Ebola virus outbreak, for example, the U.S. government was supporting more than 10,000 people on the ground — many of them humanitarian workers — responding to the crisis. The White House mobilized its foreign disaster team to pull in different parts of the U.S. government and align them under a common operational framework.

“Having a functional process management at the White House and a strong National Security Council staff — as unsexy as that is, until maybe the last couple of weeks — is super, super important, and frankly it will determine success or failure,” Konyndyk said.

On Monday, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, resigned after it was revealed that he misled administration officials about conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Trump’s potential replacement for Flynn, retired Vice Adm. Robert Harward, is likely to replace a large portion of the NSC’s staff, according to Foreign Policy.

Konyndyk also noted that in disaster response efforts such as the Ebola outbreak, the credibility of the U.S. government — and of the U.S. president — is paramount.

“When [President Obama] stood up at the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] in September 2014 and laid out a comprehensive strategy for how the U.S. would mobilize to defeat Ebola, that was inherently taken seriously, not just in the U.S., but by the world,” Konyndyk said.

“The credibility of President Obama in putting his presidency, in part, on the line for this, the credibility of U.S. technical and scientific institutions ... that is really, really important. I think we take it for granted, but we probably shouldn’t,” Konyndyk said.

Trump repeatedly criticized President Obama’s handling of the Ebola outbreak — particularly the president’s decision not to implement a travel ban against the three most-affected countries in West Africa.

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    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.