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Blunting a global pandemic: An open memo to the new head of USAID


Last Monday, the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Mark Green, resigned his post in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. On Tuesday, President Trump designated John Barsa as the new acting head of the agency.

Barsa, currently USAID assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean and with relatively little public health or emergency crisis response experience, will lead the USAID global response to the pandemic.

As the Trump administration has learned, what happens in Wuhan — or any other remote corner of the earth — can have a profound impact on American lives, economy, and security. The global response to the coronavirus remains highly uneven, and even if the United States does everything right to flatten the curve of transmission in the days and weeks ahead, unmitigated hotspots — say in Yemen or Syria — will profoundly affect Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and, ultimately, all of us.

Here are four suggestions to help the new acting administrator succeed:

First, decentralize the response to the USAID missions overseas. The administrator should Immediately authorize each USAID mission director to establish and lead a coronavirus team; this team should include staff officers with experience in humanitarian assistance, global health, stabilization, economic growth, and governance. Also, the mission directors should identify local senior foreign service nationals to be detailed to host governments’ ministries of health and finance as well as local military or security services for civil-military coordination.

All of these nodes should coordinate at the overseas mission with liaisons attached to USAID headquarters and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to make certain host countries and the United States are sharing best practices and accurate data.

The USAID mission director should re-direct appropriated obligated money in currently existing contracts — where possible — to the pandemic response, and the Office of Management and Budget should release the nearly $1 billion in supplemental funding to the missions and Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance this week.

Second, USAID and U.S. embassy teams must integrate into the United Nations (UN) emergency cluster systems led by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to ensure the international community is aligned with the best practices and real-time, accurate data. Further, USAID and CDC should strengthen the World Health Organization’s (WHO) analytical capabilities immediately at the country and regional levels, which may require technical assistance to WHO headquarters. Through the UN clusters and in diplomatic discussions, the U.S. should leverage funding from as many donors as possible, starting with China.

Third, global data from each USAID mission must be channeled daily to the USAID Coronavirus Task Force. This USAID task force must be expanded to include private sector leaders and draw upon public health experts, supply chain and operational research analysts, business leaders, technology entrepreneurs as well as government employees. The USAID Coronavirus Task Force must be fully aligned and embedded into the White House Response Team, headed by Vice President Pence.

Finally, USAID should set aside $100 million of the coronavirus supplemental appropriation to support immediate response, innovative solutions driven by the private sector. These funds must bypass the normal long cycle, bureaucratic procurement process and be dispersed with bankable ideas within 10 to 30 days. USAID can mirror fast moving Department of Defense innovative procurements as a model — or adopt USAID development lab practices rolled out during the Ebola crisis.

America learned on Sept. 11, 2001 that events in Kandahar can have profound implications on our lives. Americans are re-learning this lesson in 2020.

Fortunately, the U.S. can draw upon dedicated foreign service officers, civil servants, and foreign service nationals in some of the toughest places on earth to save lives in Seattle, New York, and throughout the homeland. A fast and effective domestic response is necessary but not sufficient to beat back the coronavirus pandemic.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Harden.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Economic development Foreign Aid foreign service international aid John Barsa Mark Green United States Agency for International Development (USAID) USAID

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