American Leadership Can Save Lives: An Interview with Former USAID Administrator Mark Green
“The key to being a good leader is to begin with a clear vision, but then be willing to listen to others for their ideas on how to adapt that vision to circumstances,” Ambassador Green says.
There are more than 71 million people displaced in the world today, notes Ambassador Mark Green, who stepped down from his job as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development last month. With so many parts of the world in crisis, under Green’s leadership USAID undertook major reforms in the way the agency administers foreign aid, rethinking its governance, education, nutrition and global health programs.
“What is the desired outcome of the reforms underway at the agency? More countries moving from being aid recipients to partners to, and in some cases, fellow donors,” he said.
The former U.S. representative for Wisconsin’s 8th district (1999-2007), ambassador to the United Republic of Tanzania (2007-2009) and member of the board of directors for the Millennium Challenge Corporation recently spoke to Government Executive about his time in government, the U.S. role in the world, the nature of leadership and what’s next for him as executive director of the McCain Institute, a think tank affiliated with Arizona State University.
As USAID administrator you led many reforms. Can you summarize what they were and the impact you hope they'll have?
It’s hard to summarize them in just a few sentences, and most are still becoming operational. USAID is reshaping the agency, its structures and approaches, to better reflect sweeping changes underway in so many parts of the developing world.
Because private enterprise is more connected to the developing world than ever before, and because there is greater access to information technology than just a decade ago, USAID is moving to harness these forces in order to accelerate outcomes. It’s shifting from mere contracting and grant making with the private sector to true collaboration with entrepreneurs and investors. It’s using the power of markets—innovative finance and tools like impact bonds—to assist countries on their journey to self-reliance.
You spent 21 years in government in different roles. What were some lessons you learned?
The key to being effective in any government role is honest, open communication. The key to being a good leader is to begin with a clear vision, but then be willing to listen to others for their ideas on how to adapt that vision to circumstances. Every opinion is valid, every voice should be heard—even if they don’t end up being part of the final product.
What role do you believe the U.S. should play in foreign aid? Has the subject become too politicized?
I believe America is a force for good in this world—and must be. While the challenges facing us are complex and sometimes daunting, what’s clear is that none of them get easier if America steps back or steps away.
America’s foreign assistance becomes politicized largely because few people actually realize what it is and is not. Foreign assistance isn’t a hand out or giveaway. It isn’t used to prop up dictators or line their pockets.
Foreign assistance, at its best, is a helping hand to people and communities who are pursuing self-reliance, human dignity and a greater voice in their own future. Development assistance shouldn’t be seen in partisan terms, but in American ones. It was a Republican president, George W. Bush, who created the history-making PEPFAR (the HIV/AIDS initiative). It was a Democratic president, Barack Obama, who launched a great food security program called Feed the Future. In the Trump Administration, USAID tried to build on both.
Now the topic on everyone's mind is the coronavirus. What more do you believe needs to be done?
To me, one of the most important lessons of COVID-19 is that we have to care about what happens in far off corners of the world. Not merely for the sake of the citizens who live there, but for our own sake.
America has led the way in building public health capacity in many parts of the world, and that has saved lives. But there’s clearly so much more to be done—better enforcement of international health regulations so we have more transparent, more timely reporting of health conditions in every country, including authoritarian-controlled ones. Ending the evil of wildlife trafficking, which so often plays a role in animal-to-man transmission of disease. The list goes on.
What do you hope to accomplish now as executive director of the McCain Institute?
The McCain Institute is dedicated to advancing character-driven leadership. I’m not sure that mission has ever been more important than it is right now.
I hope to help lead an effort that reaffirms what character-driven leadership means, uses impactful programs to show how such leadership can help us all tackle important challenges, and expands the ranks of new leaders who share our views on freedom and human dignity, national security and economic opportunity.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I’ve had the honor of serving with some remarkable public servants, from my days in Congress and as ambassador to Tanzania to my time leading USAID. They have taught me a great deal, inspired me often, and renewed my faith in America as a force for good. Having the chance to lead an institute that both builds on the extraordinary legacy of John McCain and harnesses the innovative might of Arizona State University is an opportunity to help create new leaders for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.