Thursday, August 3, 2023

Washington, DC

ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: Good morning, everybody. Good afternoon, good evening. Thank you, Michael [Schiffer], for your tremendous leadership through this very turbulent period for the people of Afghanistan. And as we figure out how to support them, from afar in some cases, and through our implementing partners who continue to work on the ground creatively to try to make sure that the assistance improves lives against a backdrop of really, really excruciating repression and deprivation – I’ll come back to Afghanistan. And thank you, Karen [Decker], for your leadership. I guess COVID prepared you for leading a team, maybe, in Astana, in Doha, in – I think you mentioned South Korea? – that’s a leadership challenge, but we know from your esteemed career, one that you’re ideally suited to manage. And we’re thrilled to be able to send you Joel here, and thrilled that you’ve been able to work so closely with Sean, to such really impactful results in Afghanistan.

I want to offer a special welcome to Joel’s family, who I just got to spend a little bit of time with, his mom, Dona; his father, Chuck; and his wife, Lucia – herself a longtime member of the USAID community, an expert acquisition and assistance specialist who served USAID in Moldova as an FSN for 15 years. And, I can tell you from having visited Moldova a few times, that FSN community, they basically run the show. There’s no getting in the way with their ambition for their country, and Lucia and her colleagues there have an awful lot to do with where Moldova is today – integrating itself into Europe, pushing anti-corruption and democratic reforms – you all have made a tremendous difference, Lucia, so thank you so much for your service. Thrillingly, Lucia is actually going to now take everything she’s learned about [inaudible] for democracy, spur economic growth, and integrate Moldova into Europe, and taking that skillset to support USAID’s work in Ukraine, where that portfolio is very, very similar, even though, of course, it’s being driven against the backdrop of horrific brutality by Putin and the Russian Federation forces. So that couldn’t be more needed. 

I was just in Ukraine a couple weeks ago, and luckily the resources that we have to invest right now are ample, and the needs are even more ample, but we would be nowhere again without people stepping up to serve and to help us be faithful stewards of those resources, to decide amongst so many priorities where they go, and so the role that you will be playing will be absolutely critical. 

Welcome, as well, to all of Joel’s friends and family, some of whom are up on the screen here and who are beaming in from all over the world. 

So it’s especially fitting, I think, as we do the, “this is your life,” for Joel, that we have Chuck and Dona present here with us to celebrate, because really, they helped, of course, from the beginning, cultivate the world’s perspective that Joel has, and the desire to serve that has helped shape the trajectory of his career.

Joel’s childhood was punctuated by frequent family moves all over the U.S. – from coast to coast and beyond – Jersey, to California, to Hawaii. He thrived amidst the constant changes, made friends at each stop with his trademark dry sense of humor. In Hawaii, where Joel spent his high school years, he found a multicultural community that gave him an appreciation for the richness that a broad range of perspectives and traditions can bring. This is what Barack Obama says as well, I will have you know, about his high school years in Hawaii – terrible name dropping, but, as it happens. Joel was insatiably curious and interested in global affairs – and this was stoked by conversations that Dona and Chuck spearheaded around the dinner table. Chuck is a minister and a dedicated humanitarian, and devoted his career to service, notably serving as the President of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency.

Upon graduating from college, Joel began his own humanitarian career as an intern at the Adventist Development Relief Agency. And when Haiti, back in the day, experienced yet another sudden economic and humanitarian crisis, Joel – whose French major proved very useful – swiftly answered the call. He coordinated logistics to get emergency USAID food assistance to communities in need. According to his dad, Joel has always been [inaudible] who wished to spring into action to make a practical difference in the lives of people. In reflecting on his son, he referenced the title of a book, that I’m going to soon be ordering, by American spiritual scholar Jack Kornfield “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.” In the book, apparently, I haven’t yet read the book, Kornfield argues that, while our biggest ideals and moments of inspiration – the so-called “ecstasy” – hold value, it is really in the grounded, simple, small tasks of life – the daily to-dos, the meetings, maybe the memos, the so-called “laundry,” where true change occurs. Joel always has been quick to embrace this philosophy – he’s full of important ideals, the lodestar, but also impatient for those ideals to be matched with concrete, practical actions. So, hoping to get the skills he needed to turn principle into policy that drove real change for people out in the world, Joel enrolled in law school.

Joel cut his teeth as a young lawyer at Jones Day but found, as many young lawyers do, that his hopes of having the tools with which to change the world with his law degree were not matching up yet with his day to day. And one day, he stumbled on a website called, a site of job postings for lawyers who wanted to get out of big firm work.

Just eighteen months after stumbling onto the site – but I suspect there might have been some Googling involved, it wasn’t like a pure stumble – Joel arrived at the Ronald Reagan Building for his first day of work as a newly-minted FSO. He quickly realized that USAID was a place where he could apply his legal talent toward a mission that deeply aligned with his values, putting his practical skills to work day to day.

Joel’s Foreign Service career took him from Ghana, to Iraq, to South Africa – and, eventually, to Afghanistan. He began his first Afghanistan tour as a Resident Legal Officer in 2012, during a period when USAID was focused on building economic, governance, and security capacity in areas that had previously been controlled by terrorist insurgents. USAID set out to support the Afghan people through a wide range of initiatives, from supporting enormous infrastructure projects, to advancing girls’ education, to spurring job training across the country. 

Soon after Joel arrived at post, on August 8, 2012, the Embassy faced what one colleague described as “the hardest day of her professional life,” when they lost a treasured colleague, Ragaei Abdelfattah. Ragaei was headed to a meeting at a provincial governor’s compound when an explosion struck, killing him and four others. In an instant, the life-threatening nature of this work came into full focus as colleagues, friends, and family mourned his loss. Today, as we approach the eleventh anniversary of Ragaei’s passing, we honor his eleven years of service to the people of Afghanistan.

Following Joel’s first tour, when he moved to his next posts in Eastern Europe, he became infamous for a quirk – that has not actually arisen at previous swearing in ceremonies – receiving large personal shipments of raw leather at the Embassy. Now this initially bewildered his colleagues, raising all kinds of questions. But it turns out that Joel is an expert craftsman. In his free time, he meticulously fashions bags, trays, phone cases, and even shoes out of leather, by hand, from scratch. One of Joel’s colleagues from Kyiv mentioned Joel should really open an Etsy shop, though he did gripe that Joel somehow never got around to making him the strapping pair of leather chaps he requested to wear to the office. – some people hold grudges a long time.

When he wasn’t crafting high class leather fashion in Ukraine, Joel covered USAID’s Moldova portfolio, which would prove consequential – it was on one of his TDYs to Moldova when he first met a remarkable USAID FSN, Lucia. Lucia vividly remembers being struck by Joel’s intelligence, his humor, and his kindness, and the two became practically inseparable from there forward, remaining in close contact even when physically separated, and finding their way back to one another at every opportunity. The two eventually married in 2021. It was a COVID marriage, so not a grand ceremony, but they just reprised their marriage in Moldova last September, and had one of those enormous Moldovan family weddings. And I’m very impressed with Dona, who is attempting to learn Romanian, just as Lucia’s mother is attempting to learn English. So, looking forward to seeing how those conversations unfold going forward, but it’s a great visual to imagine, a family wedding in Moldova.

In 2019, Joel returned to Afghanistan for a second tour. One of his first acts after he took over as Deputy Mission Director was to take part in an Emergency Action Committee meeting on COVID-19. COVID cases were rapidly spreading through the community, and before long, Joel was thrust into the Herculean task of relocating nearly 150 staff from the Mission safely back to their home countries across five continents. Joel continued to lead the Mission remotely, from his new station in Silver Spring, providing steadfast leadership paired with his characteristic dry humor that colleagues remember lightening even the tensest moments. Joel continually went out of his way to lift up his team, always making himself readily available to offer guidance and advice and to serve as a mentor to junior colleagues. When promotions season came around, and colleagues began fretting about how to accurately convey the contributions that they had made, Joel showed his compassion and support in that useful way that is his custom, volunteering hours of his time to read through the documents his colleagues were preparing, and to provide invaluable feedback to directly support their career advancement.

In 2021, Joel and other staff members returned to Kabul, only to be thrust into another fateful crisis – the Taliban forcibly seized control of city after city, and then, of course, putting Kabul on the brink of capture. On August 14, 2021, Joel and his American colleagues received just 15 minutes notice that they needed to evacuate from Embassy Kabul. Meanwhile, the Mission’s FSN staff – our Afghans – undeniably at the greatest risk of targeted attacks for their U.S. allegiances – remained in Afghanistan, unable to leave without always having the proper paperwork and knowing which departure flights to make their way toward. As the days passed while the staff awaited their documents and word that they would have entry and access to flights, Joel stood out as a steadfast leader under pressure, one FSN colleague recalled, “Throughout the evacuation, Joel was in constant contact. For the nine or ten days that we were trapped, he reached out almost every day, giving us the confidence and understanding that he and our leaders were working for us. He made sure we didn’t feel isolated or alone.” Throughout the process, Joel was a fierce advocate for the evacuation of our Afghan FSNs, and fought for the resources they needed to build a new life overseas. Upon their arrival in the U.S., Joel quickly connected them with American colleagues and friends to further support them as they acclimated to their new home. 

During his almost two years back in Washington, as Joel has helped lead the Agency’s legal affairs and connect new Resident Legal Officers like his younger self with USAID Missions, he has continued to serve as a trusted mentor to many Afghan colleagues who have weathered some of the most critical moments together with Joel.

Now, as we approach the two year anniversary of the fall of Kabul, the people of Afghanistan are living, as Michael has alluded to, through a devastating humanitarian crisis. The country is entering its third consecutive year of drought and the second year of economic decline. Afghan people are struggling to access essential food, water, sanitation, and medical care, much less quality education and economic opportunities. The humanitarian crisis is felt most acutely by Afghanistan’s women and girls, who have been the subject of draconian edicts banning their right to freedom of movement, education, and employment at NGOs and the United Nations.

We cannot stand by and allow mass hunger and disease outbreaks, or let a generation of women and girls be robbed of the chance to learn. So, even in the face of ongoing opposition and a myriad of constraints from the Taliban government, we are working to help the Afghan people meet these urgent needs. Our partners work in a really, really difficult environment to get Afghans access to food and to nutrition services, to basic healthcare, to clean water, to shelter. This year alone, USAID humanitarian funding will ensure that 10 million vulnerable Afghans receive urgently needed food assistance. Our partners are also ensuring that protection services continue despite the Taliban’s resistance to activities designed to support the most vulnerable, including, of course, women and children. We’re working closely with UNICEF to keep schools open and sustain access to quality education, especially for women and girls. And all told, we have provided more than $1.9 billion in humanitarian assistance as a government, including more than $1.4 billion from USAID.  

We are going to continue to strive to meet our moral commitment to the people of Afghanistan in these coming months and years. We will continue to call on Afghanistan’s leaders to restore basic rights, and to establish a credible process to form a much more inclusive government that reflects Afghanistan’s rich diversity, including meaningful representation of women and minority communities. But we all know that the odds of success in that regard are not high, and even with this incredibly challenging backdrop, we will strive to meet the needs of as many individuals as we can, and work to circumnavigate the constraints to help the vulnerable.

As Joel takes on this vital, challenging, lifesaving work, he will bring with him a wealth of experience forged across multiple tours, now, of Afghanistan, and across decades of dedicated service in a range of roles. He will bring his thoroughness and his eye for detail developed through his career in law. And he will bring his fierce commitment to grounding his ideals in tangible, practical action. 

Joel is perfectly suited to meet this moment, as we continue to support the Afghan people during this extended  hour of need.

So Joel, thank you for taking this on. Lucia, thank you for accompanying Joel to Astana, or Doha, or wherever you all end up landing. Thank you, Dona and Chuck, for loaning you son, yet again, and your daughter-in-law, to a life of service, one that you have helped foster in them. And Joel with that, let’s make it official! I look forward to swearing you in.

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