Administrator Samantha Power at the Swearing-in Ceremony for Deputy Administrator for Policy and Planning, Isobel Coleman

Speeches Shim

Monday, November 15, 2021

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, Paloma, for kicking things off this morning. It is such a pleasure to be here with you all to welcome and swear in the inimitable Isobel Coleman as USAID’s Deputy Administrator for Policy and Programming. Isobel’s husband of more than 30 years, Struan, is here with us to celebrate this long-awaited day, and I understand their children are dialed in virtually—Adrienne, Josephine, Julian, Struan and Cullen—as well as Isobel’s parents, Michael and Edie. 

As head physician for the New York Mets, Struan is used to monitoring the roster for signs of fatigue and early injury. We can all use his advice on how to avoid burnout here at the Agency, but I suspect you of all people know what it’s like to watch as the full roster begins to come together. Actually, come to think of it, it’s the New York Mets, so maybe you don’t know exactly what that feels like, but I’ve had that experience on occasion as a baseball fan. It feels really, really good. And it feels especially good because Isobel is kind of like Jacob deGrom. She can do it all. And so she is joining this team and we could not be more excited. 

There is much to say about Isobel specifically, which I’ll come to, but to start, having Isobel and Paloma in place, as Paloma indicated, to now begin to implement this two-deputies structure. And I want to be clear, this new structure for the agency is something that we decided upon—and the President approved and embraced—by virtue of feedback and commentary and appeals from the USAID workforce. That is, this is a long time coming, and it is reflective of all of the demands and burdens being placed on this Agency. It is also reflective, I think, of the wonderful opportunity we have to be fully focused on reform and on the strength of the Agency per se, as well as the chance to shine in tackling the most challenging problems of our time. Who better than USAID to be at the forefront of getting shots into arms or combatting climate change or bringing our food security programming to bear alongside our gender empowerment programming, alongside our anticorruption programming? And Isobel, to have you also at the deputies table alongside Paloma, I just think we are now operating at full strength in a way that is going to be good for the world. And it’s going to be really good for the people who work at this Agency. 

So, we’ve been desperate to get Isobel in the door for some time—but she’s been a foreign policy wonk her whole life! As a middle schooler, when Struan and I were obsessing about baseball, she was devouring the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions” publications that her dad would bring home from work. 

Isobel, with her life-long curiosity about the world and remarkable talent, could have had her pick of jobs in the private sector, where she got some experience early in her career. But today she returns to public service where she has already made a tremendous mark. On many occasions, during our time together at the UN, she undertook ambitious campaigns around management and reform of the UN—no easy task. I think we’re prepared to take on the earmarks fight by virtue of all that you achieved in that very, very difficult role. But also always showing up when we were launching broader campaigns and we, the Ambassadors to the UN representing the United States, would divvy up the call list. And together, thanks in part to Isobel’s tremendous diplomacy, being able to team up to secure the passage of the first-ever UN resolution on LGBTQ rights, the first time a dedicated position was created at the UN to hold countries accountable for their respect for LGBTQ rights; garnering support for the release of women unjustly imprisoned from China to Egypt to Eritrea to Venezuela. 

Isobel was an integral part of the team leading diplomatic negotiations and bringing together multilateral coalitions to defend democratic principles. And she did this while focusing on her core task, management and reform of the UN. Isobel understands that it is by strengthening our institutions—the UN then and USAID now—that we will bring about better outcomes on the ground. 

One of our co-Ambassadors at the United States Mission to the UN said of Isobel, she’s “tough on the outside with a heart of gold.” She has a legendary mentor for her USUN team, bringing crates of tangerines to the office whenever they looked Vitamin-C deficient. Watching her mentor young men and women, Foreign Service Officers, Civil Service Officers. Watching her even look out for staff at other Missions. Really just a class act, and just the kind of person we want to have here at USAID. 

And she is bold. In 2018, while serving as COO of GiveDirectly, a nonprofit that does, cutting-edge work to to listen and support those in need, Isobel heard a pitch for a plan that would help the organization deliver emergency cash, digitally, at an unprecedented speed, say perhaps, in the wake of a devastating crises like the kinds we deal with here at USAID. When every senior manager passed on the pitch, Isobel saw the potential, raised funds for it, and invested in it. And when a once-in-a-generation pandemic stopped the world the following year, GiveDirectly was able to deliver assistance through that mechanism to hundreds of thousands of people while lockdown restrictions prevented them from earning a regular income. 

A colleague of Isobel’s from GiveDirectly said of her leadership, “She tells you the full picture, complete with personal introspection and an unrelenting drive for excellence. She keeps it real, while inspiring those around her to achieve so much more.”

Isobel has studied all sides and written extensively about some of the toughest global challenges of our time, including the fight for equality and women’s empowerment in the Middle East, the need to spur inclusive economic growth and strengthen democratic institutions across the developing world, and American efforts to improve global health by expanding access to clean water and sanitation, and improve food security through better water management in agriculture. 

Isobel is a strategic thought leader, a skilled diplomat, and a management guru with the experience to shape USAID’s policy and programming to be even more responsive to the needs of our partners on the ground. 

Over the years, she has made her mark as a role model, as I mentioned, in the workplace, but also as a role model to her kids—all five of them. Cullen, Isobel and Struan’s oldest, put it this way: “Growing up as one of five kids, she had the amazing ability, no matter how busy she was at work, to always be present when around us… that led us to look back on a childhood with two parents working full time and feel like we had not missed a moment with her.”

Struan recalled one particular holiday season, while end-of-year budget negotiations at the UN lasted through Christmas Eve. Upon returning home after an all-nighter, Isobel, without missing a beat, presided over the unwrapping of Christmas presents and a family lunch for 20. And even with all this dedication to work and family, she still has time for hobbies—beekeeping, tennis, and as Cullen put it, “Epic hikes that enriched not only her life but ours as well.”

Today Isobel gets a new family, and we are so lucky to be welcoming her to this Agency. I know she is ready to help us with our efforts to fight COVID-19, climate change, and corrupt autocracies and fulfill a vision of inclusive development. And I know she will do that with the same excitement and heart—and seemingly effortless ability to multitask—that she has brought to all elements of her life. 

I am confident that USAID is better positioned today to make great strides in each of these areas with Isobel as on board as our second Deputy Administrator. Her experience as a reform-minded thinker, a seasoned team builder, and a roll-up-your-sleeves-type of change agent will be key to helping us move the dial against the generational challenges we face. 

So in addition to congratulating you, Isobel, I want to thank you for stepping up and answering the call to serve once again. We are lucky to have you. Now, it is my privilege to swear in our newest Deputy Administrator for Policy and Programming, Isobel Coleman.

Last updated: May 23, 2022

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