Administrator Samantha Power at the Swearing-in Ceremony for John Pennell, Mission Director to USAID/Georgia

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Friday, August 12, 2022

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much to Erin, for that introduction, and welcome to everyone who has made it out here today – old and new faces, in-person and virtual – to swear in John Pennell as our new Mission Director for the Caucasus where he will lead the efforts of our Georgia Mission.

A special welcome to Ambassador David Zalkaliani, Georgia’s Ambassador to the United States. Our partnership with Georgia marked 30 years of diplomatic ties just this past spring. This anniversary signifies our continued efforts to work together – fighting the pandemic, bolstering Georgia’s democratic progress, and supporting its agricultural, educational, and economic growth.

Welcome also to Andrew Hersowitz, the Chief Development Officer at the Development Finance Corporation. For those of you who don’t know, Andrew is, himself, a former USAID Mission Director, and served in leadership roles in several of our Missions in Latin America and the Caribbean. Andrew, you can leave USAID, but I know the mission leads you, and I just want to express our appreciation of the partnership you’ve helped us foster with DFC to unleash private sector investment to help tackle everything from vaccine production to green energy development to fertilizer production.

Welcome to John’s family, who is joining us virtually. His brother Chris, tuning in from San Francisco, and his mother Betsy and stepfather, Larry. I’m told that John’s biggest supporters, his five children, are watching as well: John Victor, Gabriel, Herbie, Faisal, and Talal. You all have a rockstar of a dad – and I mean that literally.

Growing up in the suburbs of Bowie, Maryland, John’s first love was music. An avid drummer, he nurtured a passion for ‘70s and ‘80s rock, punk, funk, reggae, and DC’s own go-go. His brother Chris remembers listening jealousy as John played the drums in his room, sometimes attempting to break in and play himself.

But John’s other passion was human rights. The son of a civil servant, John discovered an early interest in human rights and social justice issues, deepened by his childhood growing up in diverse parts of the DMV. In high school, he joined the Amnesty International Club, and also volunteered for the American Civil Liberties Union.

And John always appreciated the times he could merge his two passions. According to his brother, Chris, when John was a teenager, he was a big fan of the band U2. At the time, the band was active in the anti-apartheid movement, Artists Against Apartheid. And in 1985, U2 performed at LiveAid in London’s Wembley Stadium – a performance that I’m told John owns on DVD and rewatches every few years.

After high school, John stayed in DC, studying political science at Catholic University before pursuing his master’s at American. Throughout his academic career, John stayed close to his family, particularly Chris. Despite their double-digit age gap, John would walk to Chris’s daycare with his college friends in tow, just to check in on him and make sure he was having fun.

That is just who John is – passionate, loyal, and always going the extra mile for the people and the causes he cares about.

These qualities have shone through in all his postings here at USAID.

John joined the Agency in 1997 as an institutional contractor, and he was quickly sent to his first international posting in Ukraine in 1999, aiding in Ukraine’s democratic transition and falling in love with Eastern Europe at the same time.

Since that first post, John has represented USAID in El Salvador, Kenya, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, back to Ukraine and Belarus, and most recently, as the USAID’s Country Representative in Libya.

Everywhere he has traveled, he’s had an impact. He took up his post in Baghdad in 2005, where he helped build up Iraq’s infrastructure amidst one of the most difficult security environments our teams have ever faced. In Afghanistan, where he began his work during the troop surge in 2009, he headed up the agriculture office, helping farmers transition their fields from poppies to pomegranates. As Deputy Mission Director in Ukraine and Belarus, where he arrived in 2015 just after the Revolution of Dignity, John helped expand USAID’s work in countering Russian influence in eastern and southern Ukraine and supporting internally displaced communities following Russia’s invasion of the Donbas. And as the Country Representative in Libya, he led efforts to help local journalists combat disinformation and debunk false facts and narratives.

And he cultivated connections and relationships with his colleagues – sometimes through unconventional methods. He kept up his childhood love of rock, gathering fellow USAID musicians to perform at Mission events and Marine Balls; in El Salvador, he was the drummer for a band called “Hans Blix and the WMDs”. And in Ukraine, according to a former coworker, he hosted disco parties in his apartment that quickly became infamous – crowded and loud, with dancing and live DJs. Several times, the police were called – and yet when they arrived, they always left soon after, apologizing for trying to shut down the party so early in the evening.

John makes an effort to maintain those connections even after he has moved on. One colleague remembers his engagement with local staff, wanting to learn about their lives and families and asking for their help as he learned their language. And John has kept in touch with more than a few of his Ukrainian colleagues, remaining active in the WhatsApp group and regularly checking in. As one coworker said, “John has such a big heart and soul. He shouldn’t be as modest as he is.”

As if managing our efforts in all these regions while raising a large family wasn’t enough, he is also finishing up a PhD in International Security Studies at King’s College in London. His thesis, fittingly, examines the changing nature of war in the 21st century, with a focus on Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria. It’s a degree he didn’t necessarily need, but one that he wanted to pursue – because he saw it as a chance to dig even deeper into the issues he most cared about.

Today, John returns to Eastern Europe, this time as Mission Director for the Caucasus, overseeing our work in Georgia. He takes the reins at a difficult time for the Mission, as Georgia and much of Eastern Europe face the ramifications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and old wounds resurface.

Anyone familiar with the country knows that Russia has repeatedly invaded Georgia, most recently in 2008, when it claimed sovereignty over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Today, Russia occupies nearly 20 percent of territory internationally recognized as Georgian, and continues to pose a threat to the country through pro-Russian media, disinformation, and concerns about continued aggression.

Beyond the threat of invasion, the country faces many of the political challenges that democracies throughout the world face – a lack of public trust in elections, battles against corruption, and threats to judicial independence. And there is much work to do to fully integrate and empower ethnic minorities like Azerbaijanis, Abkhazians, and Yazidis.

Yet despite these challenges, our long partnership with the country has helped unlock some of Georgia’s tremendous potential. We have helped local fruit growers in agriculture with innovative land management strategies and exporting their goods. We’ve helped the country install a five-year plan for implementing forms of renewable energy, such as wind, solar, and hydropower. And with our support, civil society organizations have helped support free and fair elections and expand press and political freedoms.

John will help lead these programs and others, working to support Georgia as a beacon for democracy in the region. It’s a job that requires dedication, commitment, persistence, and, perhaps most importantly, a love of Khachapuri.

But John has all those things – with his years of experience in Eastern Europe, his proven ability to handle tough assignments, and his commitment not just to his work, but to his staff. I’m grateful to have him representing us in our Mission in Georgia, and I know that he will be warmly welcomed as he embarks on this new adventure.

Last updated: October 04, 2022

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