Neneh Diallo was sworn in as the U.S. Agency for International Development’s first ever chief diversity officer last month.

Neneh Diallo was sworn in as the U.S. Agency for International Development’s first ever chief diversity officer last month. Marc Tkach

USAID Has a New (and First Ever) Chief Diversity Officer

“As representatives of the United States, I think that we would want to have a workforce that is reflective of our country,” said Neneh Diallo. 

A new chief diversity officer at a federal agency is focused not just on its workforce, but its impact worldwide.

Last month, Neneh Diallo was sworn in to be the U.S. Agency for International Development’s first ever chief diversity officer, leading a new office that is overseeing the agency’s diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility efforts. 

“In the span of USAID’s 60 years of global development work, today is long, long overdue,” said USAID Administrator Samantha Power during the swearing in ceremony. “If we want an agency that reflects the best of what America has to offer—all our dynamism, all our fresh perspectives, all our best thinking—then we must prioritize the hiring and retention of staff that look like America.” 

A watchdog said in a June 2020 report that between fiscal 2002 and fiscal 2018 there was “mixed progress” in increasing diversity at USAID.

Diallo told Government Executive in an interview on April 14 that, “As representatives of the United States, I think that we would want to have a workforce that is reflective of our country and the diverse talent and lived experiences of the people who represent our country.” She was most recently senior vice president for marketing and communications at pocstock, a global Black-owned media platform that seeks to increase diversity and representation in stock media, as well as the director of diversity and inclusion at the Millennium Challenge Corporation. 

The interview about Diallo's new role and office has been edited lightly for length and clarity. 

GE: Could you give me an overview of your role and the new office? 

ND: At USAID with the onboarding of Administrator Power, she has prioritized diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility since her very first day. She approved on the very first day USAID’s DEIA strategic plan. Since then, Administrator Power has been continuing to emphasize the importance of increasing diversity [and] ensuring equity across the agency. That comes from the time that we're recruiting to our employee engagement and then even through our programs and improving inclusion and expanding accessibility while also working to create a workplace that's free from discrimination, harassment and any kind of retaliation.

As USAID’s first chief diversity officer, I'm similarly committed to upholding USAID’s core values, including promoting integrity, respect and inclusion in everything that we do and support of USAID’s critical, life-saving missions around the world. Our work is not just here in Washington; we are very focused on our missions and supporting the staff there as well. And that includes our foreign service officers, and our foreign service nationals. My own experience working in both the public and private sectors has led me to definitely appreciate the importance of embedding DEIA in everything that we do from my upbringing as a child of parents who both worked for the United Nations and also my personal experience as the Millennium Challenge Corporation's DEIA lead. 

Here at USAID, we believe that integrating DEIA across our workforce and operations isn't just the right thing to do, it's what we believe and our research backs it up and it is also the smart thing to do. And then it helps us honestly, be a better partner to our partners across the world.

GE: Going off your remark about the DEIA plan that Administrator Power implemented on her first day in office, can you give me an overview of what’s in that plan and explain how that furthers the executive order President Biden issued on increasing the DEIA in the federal workforce? 

ND: In March of this year, USAID released an updated DEIA strategic plan [this was an update to what Power signed upon coming into office, following President Biden’s executive order on increasing DEIA in the federal workforce] that outlines the ambitious agenda for actually [making] the structural changes that we need in order to really achieve diversity and inclusion. And the plan is a product of an intense co-creation, collaboration and consultation with agency staff and partners…USAID held multiple focus groups, workshops … to produce the final product. Not only does the plan look at USAID’s own workforce and internal policies and processes, but it also identifies ways to better implement programs by balancing aid, promoting localization and advancing inclusive development.

The strategic plan aligns with the key imperatives and policy directives that were issued by the Biden-Harris administration and we strongly believe it will serve as a roadmap for USAID’s multi-year commitment in this space… We also have a monitoring and evaluation learning plan to go along with it to make sure that we're hitting our targets. 

GE: I know you haven't been in this role long, but from what you've seen so far, what challenges with DEIA has USAID faced over the years? 

ND: I think there's a lot of progress that I don't want to overlook and I do hope that we can talk about some of the progress that has been made to date, but we're very honest and transparent about some of the challenges that we will face and so we understand that we have a lot of work to do…Reforming major structures and processes, like the ways that we hire, recruit, retain and promote our workforce, that's going to take time. That's not something that is going to be flipped overnight and this might cause a little bit of discomfort. We're going to have some very hard conversations, but I think I’ve seen at least I can say—and this is me really speaking from my heart that since joining USAID, what, four weeks ago—that there is a lot of passion around the agency… Almost every bureau under our operating unit has a diversity council, not every single one, but a lot more than I’m used to, and a lot of them are stepping up with DEIA advisors…Part of what I'm trying to do is to see how they all fit in terms of what we––as an agency––are trying to do. 

But USAID is extremely complicated. It’s got more than 20 different hiring mechanisms and our staff is located in more than 100 countries worldwide and so each one has their own, different legal and social systems. We're committed to getting this right and it's not superficial. It's really at the structural level that we have to tackle this and I'm again, really happy and somewhat surprised, but very happy to see that I've got partners across the agency, not just the politicals, but also in the actual, career staff and the foreign service staff who are committed to this and really do want to see some change.

GE: You mentioned that there have been some successes. Can you go over any of those?

ND: I think the first one is that they've established the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer, which is a huge step forward in elevating DEIA across the agency. The office reports directly to USAID leadership, it has its own dedicated budget and this will really put us in a position to make the real and many commitments that we've articulated in our strategic plan. USAID has also reorganized the Office of Civil Rights [in February 2022], which has established two new divisions to help advance DEIA objectives and more robustly implement the agency’s equal opportunity responsibilities, specifically the affirmative employment and the disability employment division. And as I mentioned…we're going to be expanding our DEIA advisors across the agency at the bureau and independent office levels, which together with existing DEIA councils will help us further activate the network of the DEIA champions and innovators that we have across the agency.

To support the release of the strategic plan that I mentioned, we've conducted two equity assessments—one that's looking at our own workforce and another that's looking at our programs—and those will really help us identify DEIA and inclusive development in our priorities moving forward.

GE: Today (April 14), more than 90 federal agencies released their first-ever equity plans following an executive order from the president about using the power of the federal government to help underserved communities and advance racial equity. Were you involved at all with USAID’s plan

ND: I wasn't there from the beginning, so the equity action plan had already been in place prior to my arrival, but I was here in the last four weeks when we were actually getting prepared to release it. The equity assessment plan was submitted in, I believe, August of ‘21 and it outlined about 61 preliminary recommendations that USAID could use to advance the values-based approach, with updated rules and regulations that really would expand our partner base and become a more consultative approach to achieving what the president's goals were regarding racial and ethnic equity in foreign assistance. 

From this equity assessment, we all needed to put together the agency equity teams called the “AETs” and basically, they went through an exercise to prioritize what they believed would be the five recommendations that would be selected to move forward in the action plan.

The first one is continued development of the WorkwithUSAID platform, which actually speaks to one of my priority goals of helping small businesses win awards with USAID. The USAID process …can be kind of gruesome. The second one is to elevate the agency's Title VI program. Third is streamlining the proposal evaluation process to reduce the overhead costs of the proposal’s preparation. Four is to designate an inclusive development advisor at each mission and procure inclusive development support mechanisms managed through the Agency's [Inclusive Development] Hub.

And five is to implement a consistent approach to incorporate racial and ethnic equity and diversity into policy planning and learning. Right now, we've released what our plan is and what we're going to do at this stage is synthesize it throughout the agency by holding listening sessions and then really drill down into how we're going to accomplish that.

That is going to be another collaborative effort across the agency, where each bureau will look at each one of the assessments and address each one. So, one thing I can say is that the administration and with Dr. Susan Rice's leadership with the Domestic Policy Council, that kind of oversees all of this, they're holding us accountable. 

This administration means business and they want to definitely see us do our parts. So, [it’s] no longer as it was in prior years, like at least when I was doing this role at MCC, where maybe one or maybe a team of five, if that much were working on diversity and equity and inclusion efforts in an agency. It's not just looking at your, in your internal workforce; it's also looking at externally, how can we extend our partner base? And how can you make sure that we are really, really being transparent and inclusive in our approach to development and in our federal workforce? So, it's not just an employee engagement exercise.

GE: Your agency is closely aligned with the State Department and there have been news reports and attention from lawmakers about “assignment restriction” at State in which Asian American diplomats have been limited on their security clearances based on security concerns. Is this also an issue at USAID and, if so, are you doing anything about it? 

ND: To my knowledge, I’ve not heard that. But now that you mentioned, I will look into that. [Beyond] reading what's happening at the State Department, I've not heard about that at USAID. 

GE: Overall, given USAID’s mission, why is it important to have a diverse federal workforce and work on diversity issues? 

ND: As representatives of the United States, I think that we would want to have a workforce that is reflective of our country and the diverse talent and lived experiences of the people who represent our country…We are our best ambassadors and everybody comes from different walks of life… If we're going to be in these roles where we are, again, each one of us is somewhat of an ambassador so to speak [then] we would want to make sure that we are putting our best foot forward. And to me, that's through our resources in terms of our human capital, our people. 

I recently just attended a [memorandum of understanding] signing with Alcorn State University in Mississippi where the students there will be working on environmental and climate change mitigation in the Caribbean with our mission in Barbados. To see their intelligence, to see their curiosity, I was like, “you should come work for USAID when you're done with your courses.” And the fact is that not all of them know what we do; what we actually help with when there's a humanitarian crisis, whether it be in Haiti or Ukraine. Even here in [the United States during] Hurricane Katrina, I believe USAID played a role back in 2005 or so. To me, their lived experience, coming from rural Mississippi or the rural south is something that I think is needed and wanted at USAID and throughout the federal government.

I'd love to see more people like them representing us in USAID missions…And that's obviously not just the Historically Black Colleges, but also Hispanic Serving Institutions. [Also,] we're currently putting together a plan for Native American and Tribal colleges to go and visit them as well to see what we can do to help recruit a more diverse workforce. 

GE: Those were all my questions. Is there anything else I didn’t ask about that you’d like to add? 

ND: I think just to put out there what my goals will be over the next couple of years. [One is] to improve and expand the collection of voluntary self-reported data. I believe in taking an evidence-based approach to reducing barriers and the data tells the story. So, once you see what that data tells us, it'll help us in reducing potential barriers in hiring, promotions, our professional development opportunities and our retention practices. 

My second goal would be to diversify our workforce throughout the ranks, so through recruitment, promotions at all levels of the agency. And then third, and this is something that's really close to my heart, is really creating that asset for minority and women owned businesses to be able to partner with USAID. 

Like I mentioned before, we have a worked with, which is a one-stop shop that really lets any organization know exactly how to pursue a USAID partnership, which includes online courses that'll help them bid for awards and this is small businesses, [non-governmental organizations], faith-based organizations, minority serving institutions, diaspora groups, and foundations. We really want to expand our reach and make sure, again, everybody has equal access and opportunity to work with USAID.