WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s budget proposal signaled a deep skepticism of U.S. foreign assistance efforts and other “soft power” foreign policy tools. His pick to lead U.S. global development programs signaled the opposite.
Mark Green, Trump’s administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has worked for decades to strengthen U.S. relationships in the developing world, improve democratic institutions overseas, and ensure a leading U.S. role in fighting diseases that exact a disproportionate toll on the world’s poor, including malaria.
How, then, does a leading figure in the U.S. development community serve at the pleasure of a president who has proposed massive budget cuts to the agencies funding that community’s work?
In the first part of our exclusive interview with the U.S. Agency for International Development chief, Devex speaks with Green about his vision for the agency, where he will focus his reform efforts, and why the end of aid doesn’t have to be a bad news story.
“My background is not a secret. What I believe in, what I’ve worked on — there’s a clear record,” Green told Devex in one of his first extended interviews since taking office. “The fact that both the White House and the Secretary [of State Rex Tillerson] brought me here, I think is a sign that America will continue to play its role in the world.”
Speaking with Devex, Green shed light on his interactions with the White House and State Department so far, the assurances he has received, and the message he is bringing to U.S. development partners at home and abroad.
This is part two of our exclusive interview with Green, which focuses on how his views about development intersect with the Trump administration’s plans and priorities. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
USAID is no stranger to reform ideas. Given what you’ve seen so far, is your impression that: a) this is an agency badly in need of transformation; and b) it is an agency filled with USAID officials who are ready for that?
In my previous work with [the International Republican Institute] we were of course an implementing partner of USAID. So I certainly had a familiarity with many of the bureaus of USAID. Now having been here for three weeks, I’m even more impressed by the caliber of the people who are working here, and as much as anything, just the sense of dedication. This is a mission-driven agency. People come here for a reason, a purpose, something larger than, “I’ve just gotta show up for work today.” That’s been terribly rewarding. You can do a lot of things if you’ve got that. Beyond that, what I think we need to look at is not launching lots of new initiatives, as much as making sure we align them and use them in the right way so that we accomplish a set of purposes. For me, it’s finding ways to help countries move from recipients, to partners, to hopefully becoming fellow donors. That’s how I want to look at this. We have lots of very good tools. I want to make sure that we are using them the right way, and the right way being toward a purpose.
I am quick to point out that a large part of the agency is, not entirely unfamiliar, but it is the part with which I have less familiarity: humanitarian assistance. I’m a development assistance guy. That’s my background. We have a lot of work ahead of us right now. The world is challenging at this point in terms of the famines that we see. The humanitarian needs are extraordinary. They’re historic. In those cases, what we’re looking at [is] to make sure we’re delivering humanitarian assistance in the most effective, efficient way we can and also looking at what we can do to help countries strengthen their ability to respond to future crisis.
I think one of the great learning experiences for the agency and perhaps the entire development community was what we saw in Africa with Ebola. The work that was done in developing long-term responses in these countries to other health challenges that may emerge, I think has been a great lesson. I think it’s been a remarkable success — I hesitate to use the word, because it’s not over. It’s a work in progress, but that to me is a very important lesson that we should apply when we can. When we look at countries that are being struck by food insecurity crises, not only meeting immediate needs, but also helping them to withstand crisis in the future.
One of the stories that we talk about a lot here is Ethiopia. Ethiopia has been struck by natural disaster, drought conditions, but they are in a much better place than they were years ago to be able to respond and to prevent the worst parts of food insecurity. That’s the kind of resilience that I’m really interested in, because I would like us to try to make that a part of our humanitarian approach more broadly. Obviously humanitarian crises don’t hit solely low-income countries. But in particular with lower-income countries that don’t have the capacity, helping them to get there, I think is in their interest — and it’s in our interest.
What message are you taking with you to USAID’s partner countries? These are sophisticated political operators who have heard about the president’s budget request for this agency and I’m sure are concerned about what the future of humanitarian assistance looks like, considering the incredible need and dire situation that they’re facing.
I’m going to go and let them kick the tires. They can ask me frank questions and I’ll give them honest answers. I’m there because this matters to us — that we are going to continue to be engaged. We are the world’s leader in humanitarian assistance, and that will not change. But if there’s a nuance to the message I’m bringing, it is also that nothing is open-ended. There are no entitlements. Instead we look at these as partnerships. We want to help countries help themselves.
There are few things that have more bipartisan support than humanitarian assistance. I’m going to express that and project that, and also let them know that we care. We’re there. But that again, it is something where we expect others to do their part — other donors, but also our host country partners.
What have you heard from the White House about where the administration wants USAID to focus?
Again, three weeks on the job, I can’t tell you that I’ve had lots of long conversations…
…But a long process leading up to your nomination.
Don’t I know it.
In three weeks, I’ve had a number of conversations with Secretary Tillerson. I’ve not had issues with access at all. That’s simply not been an issue at all. The secretary, in our discussions and in group settings, has talked about assistance sort of the same way I have. I think he and I are very much in alignment. My background is not a secret. What I believe in. What I’ve worked on — there’s a clear record. The fact that both the White House and the secretary brought me here, I think is a sign that America will continue to play its role in the world.
I’ve only met President Trump once. I met him back in January before he was inaugurated, and a few days later met with the secretary. In both cases, what I said to them was: Look, these tools of development that we have in foreign assistance can actually help the administration achieve many of its strategic priorities.
Something that I pointed to that I’m very proud of — beyond just the agency, the entire development community — the work we’ve done on citizen security in the Northern Triangle. I did a tour and I went to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, went to outlying areas, met with mayors and police chiefs. I was really impressed with the work that was being done in the partnership between the U.S., Canada as well, and these local officials in helping them take steps that strengthen their governing ability — in particular their ability to provide safe places for families to live and to work and to go to school. Obviously, part of that is hoping that then they don’t have children going 1,000 miles through some of the worst conditions on the face of the earth and fleeing conflict. That is, in my view, a very positive way to achieve an outcome that everybody talks about looking at from this end.
So that was my pitch to them. If we do this right, these tools can help America’s foreign policy and strategic interest in many ways, and the fact that I’m here maybe means that they agree.
But you were pitching them more than yourself. You were pitching them on the value of U.S. foreign assistance to achieve these goals. And to be frank, the president’s budget request has raised serious concerns in the development community about whether he considers development to be a core component of U.S. foreign policy. In your discussions, is there anything you can say that reassured you that the administration does feel that way, or that you will have, as the director of U.S. development efforts, the latitude to maintain these programs and to make the decisions that will secure their future?
I’m very confident that I’ll have the latitude to do so, because all of my conversations have been about the things that we can do. All of them. I do take the budget — budgets, plural — as a directive for all of us to find ways to be more effective and more efficient, to prioritize — and that’s what we’re doing. Also, I think part of my role is to be honest and open about challenges that we see. In my discussions with other agencies I’m going to be very honest about what I see, about the level of the challenge that we see, and that will go into formulations.
This is a time of challenge. We don’t have all the money that we would like to take on all the challenges in the world. That’s a reality. We have to make choices. We have to ask our partners here to do more. We have to concentrate on efficiencies, and we have to, again, incentivize host country partners to do more, and I think that is part of my role here.
One of the things you’ve built your career on is a focus on democracy and governance. How do you balance that personal and longstanding agency priority with concerns about U.S. government playing a role in nation building or exporting democracy. I’m thinking in particular of President Trump’s recent Afghanistan speech.
As a practical matter, the investments that we have all made around the world, they are not sustainable if they are not backed up by citizen-responsive governance. That’s how you stop things from just sort of crumbling — you help to foster leadership and governments that respond to the best interests and needs of their people. That to me must be in how we measure country capacity. We can’t want it more than they do. That’s something I have said numerous times here already.
Sometimes in development we can all get caught up in wish-projection. The reality is we can’t want it more than they do. I think you go in with humility. I say look, again, our democracy is far from perfect. It took parts of our electorate a long time to have the right to vote. We are far from perfect. This is what we’ve learned. We’d like to share with you our experience.
I don’t see it as a choice, in the sense it’s [either] this or that. I do think it all does fit together, because I don’t think any of this work can be sustained if it isn’t backed up by responsive governance. Again, where countries aren’t willing to listen to their people or serve the best interests of their people, I’m hard-pressed to see how — at least on the development side — our investments are going to make a big difference in the long run.
Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider’s perspective.