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Exiting USAID Chief On The Pandemic, Foreign Aid, Trump's Policies

Mark Green has stepped down as administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) after nearly three years on the job.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Mark Green has stepped down as administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) after nearly three years on the job.

For nearly three years, Mark Green led the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in delivering foreign aid to countries in need during times of crisis, including the coronavirus pandemic.

In mid-March, Green announced that he was stepping down and taking on a new position as executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership. President Trump has asked John Barsa, part of the USAID leadership team, to take over as acting administrator.

NPR's Rachel Martin spoke with Green, a former Republican congressman from Wisconsin and U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, about the value of U.S. foreign assistance, his outlook on how developing countries will face the pandemic and what the future may hold for USAID.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Were you reticent at all to leave your job in the middle of this pandemic? I know it had been in the works, but even so, did you pause?

Over the course of a number of weeks when we first saw the epidemic, we began to take steps at USAID to craft the framework that we're now implementing in our work.

We stood up a crisis action team [for coronavirus], and then we moved to create an internal task force led by Ken Staley, who in his day job leads the President's Malaria Initiative. So I feel like we've got the right people at the right time at USAID to lead in that portion of the response to the pandemic.

But the other piece of this is that as we get through to the other side [of the crisis] — hopefully sooner than later — I'm really trying to dedicate myself to help build the kind of leadership that we need around the world to prepare against future shocks and crises. And that's the reason why I joined the McCain Institute, is to try to foster that kind of leadership.

So what does that look like? I mean, what is American leadership? What does it appear to be to you right now and what should it be?

I think the great lesson that we've seen from the coronavirus outbreak in some ways is strikingly similar to the lesson that we learned the hard way not so long after 9/11. We have to care about what takes place in the far reaches of the world.

I was elected to Congress in '98, and I remember not so long after 9/11 thinking to myself that if you would have told me that we would, in a remote corner of Afghanistan, really see a set of actions that resulted in 3,000 people being killed in New York — I'd have said, "You're crazy."

That same thing is true here. We have to care about what takes place in Asia, in Africa, because if we don't — if we're not engaged, if we're not building capacity in these countries — sadly, the challenges will come to us.

You have said that the spread of COVID-19 underscores the importance of investing in foreign aid and global health programs. Yet the White House is looking to cut funding to the World Health Organization. Does that concern you?

There is no doubt that the World Health Organization made some missteps early on. The World Health Organization has said that.

But the advantage of the World Health Organization for the U.S. government and for the American people is that they're able to work in places that are often difficult for us — insecure settings, places where we don't want to post Americans for a range of reasons. So an effective World Health Organization is important for our interests as much as the interests of other countries and other peoples.

President Trump has made clear for a very long time, even as a candidate, that he didn't have faith in international organizations and that, frankly, the U.S. should rethink its role in the world. As someone who believes that we should be paying attention and concern ourselves with all the corners of the world, how do you make sense of that?

There's no doubt that President Trump, that the White House [are] skeptics of foreign assistance and skeptics of multilateral organizations and there's nothing wrong with a healthy skepticism. When I was first asked about coming into the Trump administration, I remember meeting with president-elect Donald Trump, and he was asking me about the value of foreign assistance. And I said, "You know, look, Mr. President-elect. I believe that if we do this right, if our foreign assistance is spent wisely, effectively and efficiently, we can take on the challenges that you see that were an important part of American leadership and American foreign policy."

That's what we try to do at USAID, what I tried to do in my tenure there and I think it's important that we're always thinking in those terms. I think Americans are traditionally skeptical of foreign assistance and in working with international organizations. But I think as we look carefully at these investments, we'll see that they're wise, that in the long run, they're good for our security. They actually are good for our economy. They save us money in the long run, and I think they're important part of who we are as a people.

President Trump proposed slashing foreign aid by 21% in February of this year. Did that make your job harder?

At USAID and at other parts of the foreign assistance apparatus, our job is always to spend money as effectively and efficiently as we can. When we receive less funding, we can do less of that. Our job is to make the money go as far as it can. But make no mistake, when we face deep cuts, that means we have to make hard choices and things necessarily get set aside. And from my point of view, that's unfortunate.

One program that was reportedly cut was a USAID program called Predict. This was an initiative aimed at identifying and preventing animal viruses that might someday infect humans. Given what we know about the origins of COVID-19 at this point, was it a mistake to end funding for that kind of early warning program?

Well, I'm a little bit dated now, having been out of USAID for a couple of weeks. It's important to know that it wasn't cut, that it did come to the end of a contract that had been extended a number of times. And I do know that USAID is working with partners to actually recalibrate and build the successor to it.

I'm very proud of the investments that USAID has made, particularly looking at zoonotic diseases — those that move potentially from animals to humans. I'm also proud of the work that we've done against wildlife trafficking, which is oftentimes a driver of these risks. So the investments that we've made have made a huge difference and built capacity in places where it did not exist. We believe very much in a science- and technology-based approach, and I'm confident that we'll continue to build programs in that regard.

Do you think that America's alliances have frayed over the last few years?

I think they've been tested. I think we've had tough conversations. Again, nothing wrong with that. But, you know, I'm one of those who believes in our alliances. I believe that we're much stronger when we work closely together with our friends and allies on matters of mutual concern.

To the president's credit, he's asking tough questions about the model of foreign assistance that China, Russia, Iran and Turkey offer — more authoritarian models. But at the end of the day, I believe that our foreign assistance is well invested, well-spent and transparently, effectively outcome-oriented. I'm confident of how it lifts lives and helps make the American people stronger and safer.

What are your concerns as as we watch the pandemic start to unfold in developing countries?

In many cases, these countries lack some of the basic tools of an effective response, and I know that we — being the global community, from the United States to our allies — are trying to help with that. But to contain an outbreak, a pandemic, you need effective communications with your people so there's clarity around the steps that can be taken to prevent further spread of the disease and to make sure the treatment, when available, is applied effectively. That's often difficult in many of these countries.

It's also important to build the kind of citizen-centered, citizen-responsive governance that gives people confidence that their leaders, that their governments are well-equipped to take on the challenge.

Those are two key elements that we need to work on with our partners in many parts of the world to make sure not only that we're able to help contain and defeat the current outbreak, but to stop the reemergence of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases in the future.

What is the most important thing that USAID should do in this crisis right now?

It's no one thing — it's a lot of things. So first off, the United States government and USAID are the largest sources of humanitarian assistance in the world. During these times, we continue that leadership role with emergency medical supplies, emergency food assistance. We need to move effectively and efficiently to parts of the world where people are hurting.

Secondly, we need to make sure that the supply lines that enable us to get medical assistance during these challenging times are clear and effective. That's obviously challenging in the face of all of the transportation challenges that emerged during a pandemic like this.

I think finally, it's listening carefully to our partner country leaders on the ways that we can respond to the needs that they identify. So that's a crucial part of what USAID does. We're not transactional. We build relationships. We strengthen leadership and we respond to those with identified needs. So that's the approach and the role that USAID plays during these important times.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 29, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this Web story incorrectly said Sen. John Barrasso, R.-Wyo., will take over as the USAID acting administrator. John Barsa is the acting administrator.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.
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