Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Ronald Reagan Building, Washington DC

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much, Monde. I really appreciate your leadership of the Bureau. I am very excited every day to get to know new members of the Africa Bureau team and most recently, Maria. We could not be more excited to get to swear you in today, Maria. 

Ambassador Liman-Tinguiri, you carried with you a tiny little post-it. And he said, ‘I have no paper.’ He did – you had a little paper. But you managed to deliver a kind of magisterial account of the importance of the relationship between USAID and Niger, the United States and Niger, the range of interconnected challenges that your country is facing. But also in your words, in your powerful accounting of the relationship between development and democracy, you affirm for us why it is so important that we have a full fledged presence again in Niger to partner with you. And it is really, really great to have you here with us, and to have heard directly from you about why the work that Maria and her team, our wonderful Chargé, are doing, why that work is so important, and how we have such a willing and engaged partner in your government. So, I know you are no stranger to development, and the words that you offered here today, off the cuff, stem from your lifetime of experience in international development –  and even in the UN system I gather – and so I feel the good relationship also that you and Maria have, and that you have with us here at USAID, is one that we should deepen, and draw on your expertise as well. 

Thank you Chargé N’Garnim for your remarks, and for being here today. It really matters when we have the Chief of Mission as part of these swearing-in ceremonies, not least, because you are going to learn things about Maria that she never would have told you. That’s really important, but just to say a few words about you, and why you are a natural partner for us here at USAID. Susan, as some of you know, spent time with the Peace Corps in Africa, joining the State Department, I think, the same year Maria joined USAID. And your range of experiences, Susan, in the Management Bureau – not that management ever comes up between USAID and the State Department – but those experiences, your experience on a range of issues related to intelligence and finance, there’s a lot to draw on there as well, and a lot of collaboration that we can hatch, and a lot of mutual learning, and learning that we can do from you both in the field, and back here in Washington. 

Before I say a word about Maria’s family, I want to also give a shout out to Idrissa, and offer you a thin sketch of a remarkable life. Idrissa is a Nigerian immigrant to the United States, who came here, worked hard – I think in Illinois if I’m not mistaken – worked in meat packing in order to help support his family, got his citizenship here, returned to Niger, I think before university, but to pay for university, started a bakery, started his own business, paid for university. After university, USAID and our Embassy there had the great wisdom to spot him, and to hire him as a Foreign Service National, and that’s fantastic, and he’s been an incredible contribution to the work that USAID, and the United States, do in Niger. But he had the secret weapon, which was that he was also an American citizen. And so, thankfully, Idrissa did us the great honor and privilege of applying to become a Foreign Service Officer – and lo and behold – he is here in Washington getting his training, and soon will be sworn in as a newly minted USAID Foreign Service Officer. We are so excited! And for those of you who can’t see Idrisa, who are on the screen, he is very tall. And he’s from Niger, and from America, and it is a great American story. So, thank you, we are thrilled to have you. 

I’d also like to just say a word about Maria’s mother, Elaine, who I just had the chance to get to know a little bit, and had a weepy little cry together, because these are very emotional occasions, and really should be. These are chances to look forward, of course, but also to look back, and to take a deep breath, and just note how things have turned out. And Elaine, it’s clear, the inspiration that you have offered not only Maria, but your other two kids, and I’m sure everyone who comes into contact with you. Elaine was a lifelong nurse, but decided that she could actually make a difference as a medical doctor. And in her thirties went back to medical school, and got her M.D. And I’m completely inspired by the story because my mom did the exact same thing in her late twenties. And both of you have something in common, which was all the people telling you couldn’t be doctors, and had to go do something else, and you kind of listened to them initially because you had no choice, and then it was just pulling on you, this passion and this vocation that you had, and then that you went back, and just pursued that, when I’m sure a lot of people were naysaying. And my mother is practicing in Mount Sinai. She's a kidney doctor right now. And you have made such a contribution to the lives, I’m sure, of so many patients. So, thank you for inspiring me this morning, and all of us here today.

So, Elaine has come here with Aunt Patricia, and they drove from Cleveland to be with us. We also have Bibiana, who has flown all the way from Mexico, and you just honor us by traveling here, and this makes the ceremony so much more meaningful, not only for Maria, but for all of us. So thank you, all of you, for being here. 

So, Maria was born to parents Elaine from Cleveland, Ohio and her father from Mexico City, and lived growing up – I think for the most part –  along the U.S-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. Maria’s childhood featured an infusion of Mexican and American culture.

Her birthday parties, I gather, had mariachi bands. Afternoons were filled with Mexican folklore, dance lessons, and back then, it dates us, but friends could easily cross the border to get some authentic Mexican food, or to experience nightlife in Ciudad Juarez. 

In high school, Maria found quite a lot of success as a DJ. And I don’t mean – like she played gigs at like a high school dance or a college party. She worked at a local radio station in El Paso, where she hosted her own weekly show called “Steppin’ Out.” DJ Maria was quite the hit. In fact, she had the most listened to radio show in El Paso on Saturday mornings! 

I’ve done quite a few of these swearing-in ceremonies. This might be the coolest thing ever of any preceding Mission Director that I’ve had the chance to swear in. 

She interviewed punk bands. She produced segments about new music – hardcore, glam, garage music. And her show was especially popular among the coveted teen demographic. They had the slogan, “the show for teens, about teens, and by teens.” So, I know there are recordings out there, and we worked really hard, going on all the intelligence assets of the United States government, to try to track down these recordings so I could play them, and I am sad to say that we have failed. But, the year is young. 

So interestingly, her presence in leading this performance on the radio, and leading this radio show, may have unwittingly been the hook and the link to her being here today. There may be a dotted line that you can draw between that experience, and the experience that she is embarking on in Niger because at the station, Maria shared a studio with the Latin American News Service. And apparently, observing those reporters, tracking current events, sparked Maria’s interest in issues beyond music. So, once Maria got to college, she decided to go from DJ to a reporter with the University paper. 

She frequently crossed the border into Mexico and covered gubernatorial elections, political protests, and bridge blockades. After graduation, her experiences at the paper compelled her to move to Mexico City to live with family so she could better understand Mexico’s history, culture, and even its archeology.

Once in Mexico, she backpacked throughout Central America, and parts of South America for eight months. And while traveling through Guatemala, she met a Peace Corps volunteer whose work inspired her to apply for a tour once she returned to El Paso a few months later. 

Maria was assigned to her Peace Corps posting in Togo. She was tasked with improving water systems and assisting in the eradication of Guinea worm in 25 villages across the southern part of the country. Maria was renowned for riding her bicycle from village to village to do her work, collecting samples, tracking cases, and raising awareness of the disease.

After her time in the Peace Corps, Maria earned her Master's in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon. Then in 2001, she became a Presidential Management Fellow, and joined USAID’s Latin America and Caribbean Bureau.

After six years in D.C, Maria joined the Foreign Service, and her first posting took her back to Mexico, which could not have been more perfect. There, Maria led USAID’s response to the bilateral security cooperation agreement between the U.S and Mexican governments. Her work focused on countering the effects of drug cartels and gang violence, and she often returned to Ciudad Juarez – the city she knew so well growing up – to watch USAID programs in action. 

As one colleague from Mexico put it, “Maria knows how to roll up her sleeves and get the job done, and she can hold her own with the most senior government counterparts, elegantly and effectively.” 

After Mexico, and then a year in Afghanistan, Maria then went to Nepal, where she spent the next six years as the Director of the Office of Democracy and Governance. 

Her time in Nepal coincided with the country’s worst earthquake in more than 80 years. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the center of the country, swallowing towns and leaving almost 9,000 people dead. Maria assisted in recovery efforts, which were crucial to the Mission’s response. According to the then-Mission Director, “It was because of Maria’s decision making and ability to disseminate vital information that search and rescue teams and decision makers back in Washington were better informed to shape USAID’s response.” 

Her time in Nepal also came as the country ratified a new constitution in 2015. To increase public knowledge about this new secular government and promote inclusion in the country’s new system, Maria helped write the script for a “West Wing Style” TV show, that followed a female Prime Minister and her multi-ethnic cabinet. The show had such an impact that Nepal's first female House Speaker said the series, “makes people realize that they have the power to hold leaders accountable, and provides hope for the future." Maria’s work has continued to pay dividends there, as the country itself expands the reach of democracy and deepens the work that was underway when Maria worked there.

Maria then went to her most recent posting before Niger, in Mali, where she oversaw both the humanitarian assistance team, and the democracy, human rights and governance team. Maria moved bureaucratic mountains, working with the U.S government and the United Nations, to get the security she and her team needed, so they could actually go and collaborate with local stakeholders, despite extremist threats and violence. Her determination to interact with local leaders gave our Mission, and our government, insights needed to develop programs that were more responsive to the needs of Malians after the most recent coup.

Throughout her time with USAID, Maria has remained undaunted and determined. But as one colleague noted, Maria is also known for, she put it, “creating lifelong friendships wherever she goes.” During every assignment the colleague went on, “Maria makes her home a welcoming place for everyone, FSNs, embassy colleagues, and more, to share some of her famous Mexican food.”

I know many at the Mission in Niger are eager to try some of those recipes, Maria, but I’m sure they are more excited to get such a consummate leader during a trying time in the country. 

Like much of the developing world, despite Niger’s very limited contribution to global emissions, Niger is grappling with the effects of the climate crisis. Just this past weekend, more people were killed by flooding that has left almost 200 people dead, and destroyed 30,000 homes since the rainy season began in June. 

While some areas are dealing with too much water and flooding, others are plagued by too little. Sparse rainfall has created droughts that dried up fields, and devastated agricultural production. While there has been a return to normal levels of rainfall in dry areas this year – floods, droughts and other climate events in Niger are slated to become more intense as temperatures across the Sahel are rising 1.5 times faster than anywhere else in the world. And we know how fast they are rising everywhere else. 

These climate shocks come while the price of food and fertilizer has increased around the globe. The 80 percent of Nigeriens who rely on subsistence farming as their main source of food are struggling to grow crops in fields that are bone dry or underwater. All the while, if they are lucky enough to have land that can be planted and harvested, they can't afford the same amount of fertilizer that they were able to afford just last year. 

The country is also facing violent threats from extremist groups that are exacerbating food insecurity, and undermining civilian safety. In March of last year, Niger was rocked by what state officials called the bloodiest violence to hit the country in years. Insurgents on motorcycles went between villages and killed 137 people. This attack was followed by a string of similar style attacks carried out by members of Boko Haram, and other savage militant groups.

Violence coming from Niger’s neighbors is leading, also, to attacks on security forces, and civilians along its borders. Since 2015, three regions have been in a state of emergency, and it was recently extended to at least February of next year.

The confluence of climate change, conflict and inflation has left nearly 7 million Nigeriens food insecure, and Niger ranks ninth in the world of countries affected by severe acute malnutrition in children under the age of five.

This is a devastating reality, all of these interlocking crises, but one that USAID is working, with our partners on the ground in Niger, to try to help address. A few weeks ago, Deputy Administrator Coleman traveled to Niger, where she announced an additional $44 million to help ease the impacts of food insecurity. She also announced a commitment to extend a bilateral agreement between the Government of Niger and USAID that addresses the long term effects of food insecurity, conflict and other key issues.

And despite the number of challenges that Nigeriens clearly face, this country still represents a glimmer of hope, not only in the Sahel, but across the continent. After years of political violence and opaque elections, President Mohamed Bazoum’s election last February was the first democratic transfer of power from an elected civilian government to another in the nation’s history. When the results were challenged by the opposition candidate, they were upheld, and President Bazoum was inaugurated in April of last year.

While climate change, food insecurity and violence, of course, are threatening the country’s progress, I know Maria’s experience in the Sahel, along with her decades of experience elsewhere, can help steer Niger – help reinforce the work of the brave change agents in the government, in communities, on the ground, in civil society, the voters who stepped up to be part of those elections that I describe, working with those partners in support of the effort to bring Niger to a more prosperous and democratic place. 

Before I close, and we make Maria’s first Mission Director posting official, I would like to thank her family and friends again, for supporting her along this incredible journey. I know that this lifestyle can be particularly hard on those who watch a friend, or a child, or a sister, working so far away. Zoom and FaceTime help, but they are no substitutes for the face to face interactions that one has with people who chose different lines of work. But it is your support that makes Maria’s own vocation possible. Knowing that you have her back, that you are in her corner, and drawing on all the lessons, and the nurturing, that you have given her over her entire life is what makes her so unbelievably good, as well at her job. So, thank you. Without you, Maria would not be here, quite literally, but I think in other ways as well. So, thank you so much, and thanks to you, Maria for taking on yet another tough challenge. Thank you, and with that I look forward to swearing you in. 

Samantha Power Maria Barron
Share This Page