Peace Corps chief nomination met with widespread approval, relief

Josephine Olsen has been nominated to be the director of the Peace Corps. Photo by: University of Maryland, Baltimore

The announcement of nominee Josephine Olsen to lead the Peace Corps has been met with sighs of relief and applause throughout the global development and social work communities.

The White House announced last Wednesday that Olsen, currently a visiting professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, will be the administration’s nominee for Peace Corps director. Olsen is no stranger to the Peace Corps, having served as a volunteer herself in Tunisia from 1966 to 1968, followed by decades in a variety of roles — including holding most every level of leadership position for the agency: Country director, regional director, deputy director, and acting director.

Trump nominates Josephine Olsen as Peace Corps chief

President Donald Trump nominated Josephine Olsen to be director of the Peace Corps on Wednesday. Olsen has held numerous positions with the agency since she first served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia 50 years ago.

Immediately following the announcement of her nomination last week, members of the global development community took to Twitter to laud the pick, saying Olsen’s skills and background would be crucial to leading the Peace Corps forward.

Last week also saw Sean Cairncross, deputy assistant to the president and senior adviser to the White House chief of staff, become the administration’s nominee to the top job at the Millenium Challenge Corporation. Cairncross’ lack of development or foreign policy experience has thus far resulted in a mixed response, while Olsen’s nomination appears to enjoy unanimous support due to her extensive background in the industry.

“The social work community is very pleased and rather surprised that the Trump administration is making such a great appointment of someone who will be very able to carry out the leadership of an independent organization that will do the whole country proud,” said Richard Barth, dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who has worked with Olsen during the past eight years of her visiting professorship.

Olsen is an energetic, positive leader, Barth noted. During her time teaching in Baltimore, Olsen created an online training program for professionals embarking on work overseas. He expects she will carry her passions for intercultural competencies and risk management, two of the issues she became an important resource for at the university, back with her to the Peace Corps.

The future Peace Corp chief is also passionate about ensuring that those who develop skills through service for the agency have additional opportunities to contribute internationally following their years of volunteering.

Between her stints with the Peace Corps, Olsen took on several other positions within global development institutions. From 1997 to 2002 Olsen was a senior vice president at the Academy for Educational Development, a major United States Agency for International Development implementing partner, where she worked with ICT adviser colleague Glenn Strachan.

“Jody was an amazing leader, very patient, very interested in your opinion, very supportive of the people I saw who worked for her,” said Strachan, now chief information and technology officer for health care nonprofit Jhpiego. “She was incredibly intelligent and really cared about the work she did, and I know she loved the Peace Corps.”

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This, according to former Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet, is perhaps the most important quality in a leader of the organization. In an exit interview with Devex in January 2017, Hessler-Radelet, who spent seven years leading the most ambitious reform agenda the agency has ever seen, told Devex that success as the agency’s leader is mainly about passion for the work.

“I think that the most important thing is that the director loves the mission and loves the volunteers,” Hessler-Radelet said, adding that being a returned Peace Corps volunteer — though not a requirement of success — is helpful in order to better understand the overall experience.

Olsen will step into the role at yet another pivotal time for the agency. Trump proposed a $12 million cut to the Peace Corps’ roughly $400 million budget in his 2018 budget request. In August last year, the agency announced that it was gradually eliminating 200 of its roughly 900 U.S.-based positions, a move that Peace Corps Acting Director Sheila Crowley said was made in response to the president’s budget proposal.

Those who have worked with her are confident Olsen will tackle the challenges of supporting the agency’s mission under budget constraints as “a warm and understanding leader who will listen to her leaders but also to the volunteers in the field,” Strachan said.

“She knows what needs to be done going forward, having already held an executive position at Peace Corps,” he added.

Olsen’s nomination must still await confirmation by the U.S. Senate, but University of Maryland’s Barth isn’t worried: “I know her Senate confirmation was unanimous last time in her role and I expect that it will be again,” he told Devex.

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

About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.