ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Good morning, everyone. I want to thank Janean for teeing me up today, and for deftly presiding over this hybrid swearing-in. Here in DC, we’re joined by several members of our Africa bureau, as well as our still-in-her-honeymoon-phase Assistant Administrator for Africa, Monde Muyangwa.
And in West Africa, not only are we joined from Accra by Ambassador Palmer – whose remarks were wonderful – but also guests from our Missions in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, our Ghana Mission Director, Kimberly Rosen, and, of course, Jo Lesser-Oltheten, her husband, Theo, and their beloved Swiss shepherd, Sugar.
We are all gathered to swear in Jo as our Mission Director for our West Africa regional Mission in Accra. It’s a big assignment: Over 150 staff, a budget that is steadily growing, engaged in programming in 21 countries in the region. What we need, in a Mission of that scale, with an impact on so many different communities, full of so many staff members who will guide USAID work for years, is not just a leader, but a teacher. And that is who Jo is.
Jo grew up in Swampscott, a small seaside community north of Boston, the youngest of three children, alongside her brother Peter, and her sister Meg who are also tuned in today. Her father was a professor, and both he and her mother instilled tremendous intellectual curiosity in their children – as well as a strong work ethic. From a young age, Jo had a paper route, and was also a girl scout. Once she entered high school, she traded in the early newspaper deliveries for shifts at the local bakery, and traded selling cookies as a Girl Scout for debating at the Model UN.
She was also intrigued by public service and politics, volunteering in her Congressman’s constituency office, and then earning an internship at just 17 in Senator Ted Kennedy’s office. After studying literature at Vassar – where she also started a rugby team – she returned to politics, including a brief stint working for Senator Gary Hart.
The more time she spent working politics, the more she figured she could make a bigger impact working on educational policy. But before drafting bills in Washington, Jo decided to do something unusual – gain some expertise. If Jo was going to make a policy affecting teachers and children, she figured she should actually work in a school, first.
So, Jo earned her masters from Columbia University’s teaching college, and set off to teach in New York City for four years at a public school, Columbus Academy Middle. While there, MTV produced a pilot for a show called “Kids’ Court;” like People’s Court for kids. In the pilot, one of Jo’s students took her to Kid’s court for the high crime of assigning too much homework. But during the mock trial, it was Jo’s other students who stepped forward to defend her. Jo was challenging them, they said, because she believed in them. She wanted them to succeed.
Remember that story.
From New York, Jo then continued her educational career abroad, joining the Peace Corps where she served in Guinea as a high school teacher. It would turn out to be a transformative experience, because it was in Guinea that she first heard of USAID – and quickly fell in love. After working at the Guinea Mission following her tour with the Peace Corps, Jo pursued her doctorate in Educational Policy before applying to the Foreign Service.
In her first post, Jo returned to West Africa, for a fateful tour in Mali. There, she met a member of the Dutch Foreign Service, part of a multilateral team working with the Malian Education ministry on a major reform initiative. As Theo says, they quickly set about “strengthening trans-Atlantic cooperation and donor harmonization.” When the group was dispatched to northeastern Mali, Jo and Theo opted for tents rather than the local hotel, looking up at the vastness of the night as a shooting star traced the sky. A month later, they were engaged, and soon after they were married in Timbuktu, on camelback.
Over the course of their marriage, the two bounced around the world – Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh – where time and again Jo helped countries bounce back from natural disasters, and strengthen their public services. In Pakistan, she focused heavily on higher education, setting up joint research programs between Pakistani science and technology universities and schools here in the U.S.
One of Jo’s lifelong friends said: “The beauty of Jo is that these attributes we have seen since she was 19 – open minded, persevering, curious, committed, loyal – are the same she has carried into her passion for her work with USAID and the world.”
That’s not all Jo carries to each assignment; everywhere she goes, she and Theo grow a big garden with leafy greens that she pulses into the green smoothies that she always carries. Another incentive to visit, Jo.
But no superfood could have prepared Jo for the last tough post she took on: establishing a new USAID mission in Niger, a key partner to the U.S., during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under her direction, the new staff – fewer than 20 – led the development of USAID’s first development strategy for Niger since 1996. And Jo’s leadership – her willingness to proactively mentor, organize in- and out-of-office events, create a more tolerant culture, and support staff to meet high expectations – inspired in that team a fierce loyalty.
The feedback from her team in Niger is almost harmonic in its consistency. Remember that story about Kid’s Court? Listen to some quotes from her Niger colleagues:
“Jo can be a demanding leader. At the same time, she is incredibly supportive in helping staff… achieve the high standards she is looking for.”
Another says: “Jo sees things in people that they don’t see in themselves. She gives you really challenging assignments because she sees something in you and she knows you can do it.”
Yet another: “When [Jo] gives you a task and pushes you beyond what you think you can do, it’s because she knows you will succeed.”
But perhaps two colleagues said it best: “She is someone with a hard shell, but a soft heart.”
Ever the teacher, Jo often shares a children’s book with colleagues called The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse. One passage stands out to those who think of Jo.
“We have such a long way to go,’ sighed the boy.” “Yes, but look how far we’ve come,’ said the horse.”
Now Jo returns once more to West Africa, where she’ll provide crucial leadership at a crucial time for the region. Amidst widespread poverty, violent conflict has ricocheted across borders and led to several forced seizures of power, upending institutions, imperiling citizens and displacing millions. A mix of conflict, drought, and spiraling food and fertilizer prices is also causing widespread food insecurity in the Sahel. And in such a challenging environment, suppressing the pandemic and attending to other global health needs is a tall order.
But, in Jo, we have both a regional expert and an inspiring leader, who will help focus regional efforts like PEPFAR and the President’s Malaria Initiative. She’ll also be our key link to regional organizations, like ECOWAS, that are designed to address poverty and promote economic growth. And she will, in implementing the Global Fragility Act, work with our interagency partners to help prevent the next outbreak of violence or state collapse, and help the citizens of countries throughout West Africa build the peaceful, stable societies they deserve.
Jo, with that significant to-do list in front of you, I know you have such a long way to go. But look how far you’ve come.
With that, it’s my pleasure to swear you in as our new Mission Director for West Africa.