'We need a strong WHO,' says Trump's former USAID chief

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The WHO headquarters, pictured during the World Health Assembly following the coronavirus outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: Denis Balibouse / Reuters

BURLINGTON, Vt. — The former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development told Devex he was disappointed to see the agency left off the White House Coronavirus Task Force, which President Donald Trump assembled in late January.

Q&A: Mark Green on character-driven leadership

Devex Pro subscribers can read the full conversation with Mark Green about the pandemic, U.S. global health engagement, and the country's withdrawal from WHO.

Mark Green, who now leads the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Washington, announced his resignation from USAID less than two months later, on March 16. His position has since been filled by an acting administrator, John Barsa, who has overseen a tumultuous period in the agency’s history.

In addition to the massive disruption to USAID’s programs caused by COVID-19, the agency has been subjected to restrictions on the kinds of health commodities it can provide to other countries — which reportedly hindered its ability to disburse funding — and USAID has emerged as a favored destination for controversial political appointees from the White House.

Some of those appointments have drawn letters of protest from USAID staff members, as well as demands that people with histories of discriminatory positions or statements be fired.

“Any time that we leave a vacancy or we pull away, we have to be certain that we are not strengthening the hand of rival powers.”

— Mark Green, executive director, McCain Institute for International Leadership

Asked earlier this month about those appointments, Barsa told Devex he had “no comment about specific appointees,” but he said USAID has “long ensured that we hold all of our employees, regardless of hiring category, to the highest legal, moral, and ethical standards that USAID has always had."

Green, who was generally well regarded for mitigating tensions between career and political staffers, declined to weigh in on the flurry of appointments that have followed his departure, describing himself as “one step removed from it.”

“What I can say is I had a great team, and they were all mission-driven. I think they served America well. I think they served our partner countries well. I think they served the president well,” he said in an interview.

When Green stepped down from his post in April, President Trump’s campaign against the World Health Organization was still in its opening stages. Trump announced a funding freeze on U.S. contributions to the organization on April 14, four days after Green departed, and on July 6 the administration submitted its formal intent to withdraw from WHO, a move that would go into effect on the same day next year.

Asked whether he thinks withdrawal from WHO represents an evidence-based decision on the part of the Trump administration, Green told Devex he believes that “there is broad recognition — not just here in the US, but elsewhere — that we need to build institutions capable of leading us in the future, that WHO needs to be strengthened. But all of those things, I think, are better dealt with in calmer times.”

“We need leadership that is fact-facing. And we need leadership that can rally people at home and abroad to work together to take on great causes and challenges.”

— Mark Green, executive director, McCain Institute for International Leadership

Green added: “If for no other reason, the fact that we can provide support to WHO, who will provide health care professionals and assistance in places where we don't want to put Americans because it's unsafe or insecure — that's in our interest. And so we need a strong WHO. Can we boost it? Yes.”

During his tenure at USAID, Green frequently justified U.S. global engagement in terms of countering China’s influence in low- and middle-income countries, and he made the same argument with respect to U.S. involvement in WHO.

“I don't want to yield any territory to China in multilateral organizations or in global leadership,” he said, adding that he thinks Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who sent the WHO withdrawal notification letter to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres — “has really stepped up America's strategic approach in terms of leadership roles in the U.N. family and the multilateral organizations.”

“Any time that we leave a vacancy or we pull away, we have to be certain that we are not strengthening the hand of rival powers,” Green said.

Green described the McCain Institute’s mission as “advancing effective, character-driven leadership in the world,” based on the late Sen. John McCain’s beliefs that “America must lead” and that “our leadership has to be principled, values-based, and we have to be that shining city on a hill.”

What Mark Green hopes to leave behind at USAID

USAID employees held a virtual send-off for Mark Green in April. As the administrator stepped down, he reflects on managing Trump administration politics, negotiating budgets, and preparing the agency for the other biggest challenge of this generation.

He added: “That kind of leadership is the very kind of leadership that we need to guide the world in these tumultuous times. We need leadership that is cleareyed. We need leadership that is fact-facing. And we need leadership that can rally people at home and abroad to work together to take on great causes and challenges.”

Asked about his decision to align himself with one of President Trump’s most vocal Republican critics immediately after leaving the administration, Green said he has known Cindy McCain, who chairs the institute’s board of trustees, for a long time and was close to her late husband.

“I believe that leadership is at the heart of the great challenges that we face these days. Whether it be taking on authoritarianism as it is on the rise in some parts of the world or leadership that ask tough questions in foreign policy, I believe that American leadership is essential, and coming to the McCain Institute gives me an opportunity to dedicate myself to that cause,” Green said.

“So it's not about where I have been. It's about where I hope to go and where I hope America will go,” he said.

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.