What Mark Green hopes to leave behind at USAID

Mark Green, the outgoing USAID administrator. Photo by: Richard Nyberg / USAID / CC BY-NC

WASHINGTON — Mark Green did not plan on leaving the U.S. Agency for International Development in the middle of a global health crisis — his decision to resign as USAID administrator was made well before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Green told Devex on Friday.

The outgoing USAID chief also did not expect to spend his final week in office working from home, holding remote meetings with his soon-to-be-former colleagues and finalizing the legal establishment of some of his reorganization plans from a distance.

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“This is bittersweet, obviously,” Green said.

As the USAID chief steps down, the agency finds itself drawn into a global scramble for personal protective equipment, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordering a “pause” on USAID’s shipment of medical supplies to other countries to shore up America’s COVID-19 response first.

Green acknowledged that USAID is following that directive, but, he said, “you will continue to see us playing our leading humanitarian role — that's for certain.”

“I'm very proud of that new spirit of collaboration. … It's going to help ensure that our programming is cutting edge and state of the art for some years to come.”

— Mark Green, outgoing administrator, USAID

He also pointed to the “billions that we've already invested in enhancing global health capacity in so many countries” and noted that when Ebola crossed from the Democratic Republic of the Congo into Uganda last summer, the Ministry of Health was able to isolate cases, pursue contact tracing, and eliminate the disease using tools “that we helped create and support.” Green described that episode as “one of the undercovered success stories of recent years in global health.”

Green said that the global disaster declaration he signed last week will allow USAID to continue to use its International Disaster Assistance resources in support of COVID-19 relief. On Friday, he added, he would be formalizing a plan to grant USAID’s foreign service nationals greater authority over program implementation — “to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, we don't miss a beat in the work that we do, despite all of the obvious challenges that COVID presents.”

“I'm very confident in the framework that we've put in place,” he said.

While the COVID-19 crisis has consumed governments, international organizations, and other health and development priorities, Green said he remains hopeful that the internal reforms he spearheaded at USAID will have staying power. Foremost among them is “a reposturing of how we go about constructing our programs and building our partnerships,” he said.

“We're an agency of collaboration more than simply public-private partnership. We work with outside organizations — for-profit, nonprofit, community-based, faith-based — in program design to bring in new forces of innovation,” Green said.

“I'm very proud of that new spirit of collaboration, and I think it's going to help ensure that our programming is cutting edge and state of the art for some years to come,” he added.

He said he hopes a second legacy item will be better positioning the agency with respect to what he considers the greatest challenge of this generation: “dealing with the record numbers of displaced families all around the world.”

“We are working to make sure that we have the tools, the structures, and the personnel to be able to respond to and handle these very large, sweeping crises,” Green said.

A significant piece of the outgoing administrator’s reorganization was to restructure the agency’s humanitarian assistance offices by merging the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance and the Office of Food for Peace under a new Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, led by a higher-level associate administrator for relief, resilience, and response.

“If we're not able to help some of the families who are trapped in these situations, I worry that 10 years from now, we're going to have a whole generation that will be extraordinarily vulnerable to the worst kinds of exploitative forces,” Green said, adding that over the course of his tenure, the issue of forced displacement has come to “dominate” his thinking.

Since he took office in August 2017, Green has faced what has been characterized as “total budget dysfunction,” with the White House repeatedly proposing massive cuts to USAID’s funding, which the U.S. Congress has, time and again, rejected.

Green said that his approach has been “to provide transparency and accountability and metrics in our work so that we earn not only the financial support — hopefully from all parties in the budgeting process — but that we also earn the flexibility that we need to make those dollars go further.”

USAID’s new country road maps, which track nations along a spectrum of “self-reliance” and aim to evaluate USAID’s programs for contributing to their progress, offer a tangible tool for providing that transparent explanation, Green said.

“We measure every country using objective metrics so that even where either parts of the administration or parts of the Congress may disagree with any particular allocation, they can be confident that we're not making it up, that it's not based upon subjective feelings or political motivations, but based upon sound development logic,” he said.

“It's incumbent upon us ... to point out the pitfalls of the authoritarian approach to development, which has the advantage of being able to provide money upfront ... but leads to the debt trap.”

— Mark Green, outgoing administrator, USAID

Green said he thinks USAID is already seeing some results from that approach in terms of securing greater funding flexibility, but he joked that his successor, acting Administrator John Barsa, will likely see more of the benefit than Green ever did.

The budget was not the only issue to create tension between USAID’s development mission and the White House’s political interests. In one high-profile example, Green experienced intense pressure from Vice President Mike Pence to direct more of the agency’s funding to religious groups in areas liberated from the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Asked how he navigated those interests, Green described it as less an “intentional calibrated strategy” and more of “an instinctive feel that I have.”

“Everybody who works on this mission, whether it be the vice president of the United States, people here at USAID, or implementing partners, they're drawn here by a mission. They believe in a purpose. And so I think the key has been understanding how their motivations, what's in their heart, fits within our capabilities and things that we do,” Green said.

“We have deep, broad bipartisan support, and we've had support from people like Vice President Pence. I'm very proud of that. I think it's good for the work that we do,” he added.

On other issues, such as China’s role in global development, Green similarly embraced the political nature of USAID’s development mission. Under his leadership, the agency offered much more overt criticism of China’s style of development finance, which Green described as “the authoritarian approach.”

“My approach is to point out what it is that we — America — offers, which is the chance and the tools for countries to lead their own future, to become truly self-reliant and independent,” Green said.

“I think it's incumbent upon us, if we believe in that mission, to point out the pitfalls of the authoritarian approach to development, which has the advantage of being able to provide money upfront, if you will, but leads to the debt trap, leads to dependence. And so it's the antithesis of our purpose,” he added.

There is no choice but to talk about the role of China, Russia, and — in some cases — Turkey and Iran, Green said, “because I do think if we're going to be honest with our partners about what it takes to fully achieve their aspirations, we have to talk about the consequences of the alternative model.”

After he steps down from USAID on Friday, Green will take over as executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a Washington-based think tank.

He said he believes that when the world emerges on the other side of the public health crisis brought on by COVID-19, there will be a need to strengthen leadership that can accelerate recovery and economic growth and “rebuild key relationships.”

“That's something that I want to dedicate myself to and something that I believe in very, very strongly,” Green 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.