Ronald Reagan Building, Washington, DC
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks to Rob and Isobel for getting us started.
We’re going to be saying goodbye to an indispensable leader, Jim Barnhart. Jim has led USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security for two long years. It is difficult, as Rob said, to grow a new bureau, especially in a time of COVID when you’re doing so much of it virtually, but also, Jim has been leading this incredibly important interagency initiative, Feed the Future. He’s had to put up with newcomers like me and Isobel. It has been really challenging. It would have been really challenging if there were no Vladimir Putin; no reckless, devastating inhumane decision to gratuitously make war on innocent neighbors. But the fact that everything we knew was coming at us has now been so exacerbated by Russia’s attack on Ukraine has really put a lot of pressure on you and your team, and it has been a really difficult time. And yet, as I just saw last week in Zambia and Malawi, our teams in the field, because of their connections back here and the guidance that you’ve offered, they are ready to try to help countries meet the moment and, as it were, build back better; put themselves in a better position on the back end of this. The fact that resilience is in the title of the Bureau; it is the watchword of this moment. To no longer be as dependent on fertilizer that comes from countries that do things like this. And to also be more resilient, of course, to the climate devastation that long predated this conflict. So, we are really grateful Jim for your leadership at this time of all times, and for educating many of us who’ve come new to this set of issues. I think we are much, much wiser for it, but it’s required a lot of patience on your part and that of your team, and so I am really personally grateful for that.
I do want to just say a word, because it’s Jim who’s leaving; there are many RFS people gathered on the screen here. I just want to thank you for working around the clock, already on fumes from a food crisis that predated Putin’s invasion. Already on fumes because of the effect of the pandemic on everybody’s individual lives. But this work has just never been more vital, and I hope you know how appreciated you are. This isn’t just folks here at the bureau, at headquarters, it’s all around the world. I’m thinking of our locally employed staff, our incredible foreign service nationals. They’re both creatively thinking through how to ramp up our programming to help meet this possibly unprecedented food crisis, depending on which country you’re talking about. At the same time, they’re thinking about how to deal with food and fuel prices that put basic staples out of reach for their loved ones. Just to keep our foreign service nationals in our hearts during this period where they’re working twenty-four seven to meet food needs and to expand partnerships and answer all of our inane questions from Washington—mine at least. But this is real for everyone who’s living these vulnerabilities themselves.
What’s so great about Jim is that the individuals who constitute our teams, the individuals who are the beneficiaries and partners in our programs are why he’s in this business. And that is clear every day. So, the USAID family is a family that Jim has been nurtured by, I hope, but also has nurtured himself so beautifully. Speaking of family, Jim’s parents, Carol and Jim Sr. can probably tell you that Jim and USAID were made for each other. Once their son graduated from Furman University and shipped off to Egypt for two years to teach English, it was all but certain that he would build a global life.
The Barnhart family is a virtual cadre of global citizens devoted to building better futures for people in need. As Jim’s wife Elizabeth put it, “We are field people. And whether it’s working with governments or grassroots, with a macro or micro development approach, a focus on the local community defines us.”
Jim and Elizabeth met on that fateful flight to Egypt, and while according to Elizabeth, he was quick to get serious about their relationship, it was not until they traveled to Israel and the West Bank that their relationship blossomed.
In the summer before their two years teaching in Egypt, the two joined a work camp at Bir Zeit University. One day while the group was supporting a Palestinian construction project, a misunderstanding with the local military led to a stall in the work, while tension began to grow. While the group anxiously awaited, Jim, ever the diplomat, approached the soldiers and began to engage them in conversation.
Not long after, the soldiers departed, and the work carried on. As they drove away, Elizabeth asked Jim what they had discussed. “Good camping spots in Galilee,” he said. “That was all.” But clearly his attempt to diffuse the situation worked—not just to resolve the dispute, but to impress his future wife.
Elizabeth said: “He saw the walls going up and wanted to see if he could break some down. That was all I needed to know about him,” she recalls.
Elizabeth is here with us today and their two daughters are tuning in virtually. Both Michaela and Sarah joined the Peace Corps after college. Both completed Masters degrees and Michaela is a science teacher in the international school system, now beginning a doctoral program at Johns Hopkins. And Sarah worked for USDA and the United Nations before joining USAID as an agricultural officer. So the Barnhart family is definitely redefining what it means when we say that the foreign service is a family affair.
For his part, Jim joined USAID in 2001 after traveling through the Middle East, putting his degrees to work supporting programs for educational and economic development, from Egypt to the West Bank and Gaza, to Armenia, Turkey, and Syria. He’s held eight different posts in his twenty-one years at USAID, including three as Mission Director, first in Lebanon, then Albania, and Jordan. Through each of Jim’s assignments, he made his mark as a level-headed, compassionate problem-solver.
He’s known for telling his staff, “The only things that will stress me out are things relating to my wife, my daughters, and my dogs, in that order. We can solve everything else.”
Jim’s grounded perspective is the common thread among the many stories we’ve heard from his colleagues, not just today but through the years. One colleague in particular—who was also Jim’s doubles partner in tennis, said, “I especially appreciated his low key but productive approach to his work. I have never seen him lose his temper or be angry—even when we were playing tennis and I was playing terribly!”
In Pakistan, Jim served as USAID’s Associate Mission Director for Economic Growth, where he was recognized for leading USAID teams through an extraordinary year of transformation, which included doubling the foreign assistance budget and instituting a new model for implementation built upon Pakistani ownership of U.S. assistance.
As Mission Director in Lebanon during the Arab Spring, Jim led reform and optimization efforts for the United States’ assistance to the Lebanese people, embracing the political uprisings throughout the region and developing policies in concert with government counterparts to nurture transparency and spearhead decentralization.
From Lebanon, Jim went on to serve as Mission Director in Albania, where he oversaw USAID programs that strengthened democratic institutions and governance and accelerated private sector-led growth, giving the Albanian people, critically, the foundation they needed to begin to meet conditions for EU accession. That’s again, just one example of something that is happening out there in the world today.
And in 2015 when Jim returned to his first post in Jordan, this time as Mission Director, Jim oversaw transformational investments that improved transparency and efficiency in public sector services, including an overhaul of Jordan’s water supply. Under his leadership, USAID supported economic development and job creation in the country, and generated economic and political reforms that strengthened Jordan’s role as a critical partner in the region.
On top of all that, Jim routinely served as Acting Deputy Chief of Mission while in Jordan. In 2019 alone, he oversaw the visits of more than 900 congressional-level, assistant secretaries, and 3- and 4- star general delegations. If you’ve worked at an embassy or USAID mission, you know the amount of work that goes into these visits. True to form, Jim helped his teams manage layers of added responsibility, and he left Jordan in 2020 having deepened our decades-old partnership with the Jordanian people and government.
And, as Ambassador Kawar noted, it’s not just his colleagues here at USAID who recognize the impact of Jim’s leadership in Jordan from 2015 to 2020. After his departure, Jordan’s Royal Court bestowed a Royal Grand Order medal “recognizing his singular leadership and substantive contributions to the country.” One person who I know was particularly inspired by this was Ambassador Kawar, and I will say, Jim, as I think I’ve told you, when I first got into this job, Dina texted me and just said, “You have this jewel in your midst. You are so lucky. He is a star.” And so we’re incredibly grateful that Dina has come here today and conveyed her reflections on just how much you got done in, you might say a long time in Jordan, but really a short time for all of the impact and all that you left behind.
The other piece of Jim’s legacy that we can’t forget about that I’ve already alluded to is the way he relates to his team members and staff. That’s from Amman to Washington, DC, to every place that he has served.
While in Jordan, Jim launched a mission-wide coaching program available to all American and Jordanian staff, and tailored to the needs of each employee. The program was immediately popular, but once the pandemic hit, it became what one colleague called: “a godsend.” During a time when people were physically isolated from their colleagues, the program gave each person a crucial outlet for engagement—someone to help them deal with the hardships and challenges of remote work, someone to turn to with questions, someone to simply stay close to when we were forced to be distant.
And as calls for racial justice here at home intensified in the Summer of 2020, Jim made championing equity a top RFS priority, first by creating spaces for open dialogue among colleagues. Within months, RFS, really I think as a trailblazer here at USAID, had an approved, permanent DEIA budget, a dedicated senior leader, and a plan to energetically recruit and retain a diverse workforce.
One RFS colleague of Jim’s commented, “Jim promised to address our concerns about DEI and he did. He listened, participated in programs, and prioritized our concerns—that’s leadership,” they said.
Jim’s dedication to the United States’ global food security mission has helped position USAID to drive global efforts to mitigate the crisis we face today, but also addressing the systemic factors that impact medium- and long-term efforts to build resilience in the regions most at-risk.
From his current perch overseeing $1.4 billion dollars of investments in food security, a multi-sector nutrition strategy, the U.S. Global Water Strategy, and efforts to boost resilience in regions that routinely experience humanitarian crises, Jim’s legacy is going to live on in the millions of lives touched by these initiatives. He is leaving behind some awfully big shoes to fill. But the impact he’s had on this Agency is monumental.
For more than two decades, he has demonstrated that change does not come from dollars or technical expertise alone. It requires an unwavering willingness to listen to and care for our colleagues and our partners, so that whatever challenges may come, they know there is someone in their corner who has their back.
One colleague remembers from a USAID field mission experience in Jordan in 2003, how Jim’s demeanor motivated his work in the decades since. He said of Jim, “Not only did you and your family welcome me, but I remember, and have tried to model, the trust and empowerment you provided.”
The key here, I’d argue—and I suspect everybody gathered here would agree—is trust. Jim’s instinct to listen when others have something to say, his willingness to engage on tough issues, is the kind of example-setting leadership that breeds trust and brings about real change—in our institutions, as well as with our government partners and in the local communities where we work.
We are very sad to see you go, Jim, but we are thrilled that you are not retiring from your life’s work. He’ll be making a difference of a different kind, taking your talents, as Lebron James would say, to Oxbow Farm and Conservation Center in Washington State, where experts are researching and developing sustainable farming methods, growing food and native plants, and educating people of all ages about sustainable agriculture and the environment.
We are incredibly excited that Jim will not be a stranger from USAID given that Sarah has chosen to follow in his footsteps. Now, Sarah, we’ll just need your help recruiting Michaela to join our ranks once she finishes at Hopkins.
It’s a privilege to send you off, Jim, on this incredibly well-deserved retirement. It’s a privilege to be able to have this role at USAID just to be able to thank you for your service and all that good that you’ve done in your time here. And all the good that you will do in the years ahead. Thank you, and to your family, for everything that you’ve done for our country and for our partners around the world. Thank you.