Green’s departure at USAID sparks debate about successor

John Barsa, USAID assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean. Photo by: REUTERS / Adriano Machado

WASHINGTON — The White House announced Tuesday that John Barsa, currently the assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, will serve as acting administrator of USAID after Mark Green departs on April 10.

“This is not the time for instability in leadership at the top.”

— Conor Savoy, executive director, Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network

Devex first reported that Barsa was likely to be the Trump administration's pick for the position — news that bucked convention by elevating an assistant administrator into the agency’s top job, instead of the existing deputy administrator, Bonnie Glick.

Prior to the White House announcement, Devex learned of an effort to push back against the decision to appoint Barsa, involving what one source described as “prominent outside development leaders” who were lobbying for Glick to take over instead.

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“This is not the time for instability in leadership at the top. They should name the deputy administrator as the acting administrator. It will strengthen AID’s hand,” said Conor Savoy, executive director at the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, before the official announcement.

Savoy added that it remains unclear what the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak will be in low-income countries, and that with USAID poised to lead a potential response in these areas, the agency will need clear leadership.

None of the communications from Green or from the State Department about his impending departure have described a transition plan. The statement from the White House was the first communication of the Trump administration's decision.

Barsa was sworn in as USAID’s assistant administrator in June 2019 but has been affiliated with the Trump administration since the election. He was a member of Trump’s Department of Homeland Security “landing team,” tasked with coordinating the incoming administration’s approach to taking over the responsibilities of federal agencies.

In the 1990s, Barsa served as senior legislative assistant and press secretary for Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, a Republican congressman from Florida, who has been heavily involved in Latin American policy issues. Like Díaz-Balart, Barsa is Cuban-American, his father fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime as a refugee.

Barsa has alternated between government service — including at the Department of Homeland Security and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — and working as a lobbyist. At his own firm, Barsa Strategies, Barsa provided lobbying and government relations services to firms working in the homeland security and national security sectors.

On Monday, after Green announced his plans to step down, U.S. aid advocates called for the agency to be led by someone who can maintain bipartisan support for U.S. development programs. While the outgoing administrator has been lauded for his ability to find supporters on both sides of the aisle, Barsa appears to cut a more partisan profile.

Older posts from his personal Twitter feed include harsh criticisms of Democratic lawmakers, including a 2009 insinuation that every House Democrat is “a brainless socialist toad.”

Update, March 17, 2020: This article has been updated to include a White House announcement naming John Barsa as USAID’s acting administrator.

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.