USAID Acting Administrator Barsa Remarks at American Enterprise Institute on the Over-the-Horizon Strategic Review

Speeches Shim

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

 
October 28, 2020
American Enterprise Institute
Washington, DC

MS. ZIMMERMAN: Welcome to the American Enterprise Institute, here in Washington, D.C. I'm Katherine Zimmerman and I'm a resident fellow and an adviser to AEI's Critical Threats project. I'm delighted to be hosting a conversation this morning on how USAID will be responding to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and transforming to better advance U.S. national security interests through more effective foreign assistance. As a reminder to the audience, you'll be able to ask questions at the end of this session by submitting via email to Chris.Gavin@AEI.org or over the Twitter hashtag, #AidOverTheHorizon.

I'm delighted to introduce to you the USAID Acting Administrator, John Barsa, who formally took the reins of the Agency in April of this year. No easy time. He previously served as the Assistant Administrator for USAID's Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean and, prior to that, served at the Department of Homeland Security under both the Trump and the Bush Administrations. He spent time in the private sector and also in the U.S. Army Reserves with the 11th Special Forces Group and then the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion.

Mr. Barsa, I'm delighted to welcome you to AEI.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Well, thank you so very much. I'm very delighted to be here. And I'm grateful to you and AEI for having me here today. I'm really grateful for this opportunity.

When it was announced in March that I would serve as the acting Administrator, it was exactly six days after the World Health organization deemed COVID-19 a global pandemic. On March 11, the world basically flipped a switch. Up to that point, only 1,000 Americans had been identified with the virus and only 29 had died. But by the end of the day, President Trump had halted travel from Europe, the NBA had suspended its season, and actor Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive. The world changed quite significantly and dramatically in a single day. And so, one month later, on my first day as Acting Administrator, I began to ask a question that our Agency had just begun to grapple with. What will COVID-19 mean for our world and our work? Remember, we were just beginning to experience COVID-19 as a pandemic. And we had a lot to learn about the virus: how people got infected, how the symptoms presented themselves, how to treat people who had particularly serious cases, and how to protect the most vulnerable.

COVID-19 is fundamentally a healthcare crisis. More than 30 million sick and more than a million dead. These are horrendous figures, but we have learned that COVID-19 is so, so much more than a healthcare crisis. It is a development and humanitarian crisis, and it required a new way of thinking about doing our work. The pandemic has driven the global economy into a tailspin. And we know that tens of millions of people will be driven into poverty and hunger. People have lost jobs, access to healthcare, access to schools and education, and access even to democracy. Nations have canceled elections; supply chains and food commodities have been disrupted; and the pandemic has set off a great power competition over things in which countries should be able to cooperate, such as sharing critical information about the virus, sharing PPE, and developing and distributing vaccines safely and for maximum global impact.

In short, in virtually every dimension of our work and in every place we work, COVID-19 has been a game-changer. We had to lift our eyes from the immediate day-to-day demands of our inboxes to look Over the Horizon and how to respond proactively to the demands of a world changed by COVID-19. What will we need to do differently? What will we need to prioritize? How will we interact with our stakeholders to make sure we're addressing the priorities of Congress and the White House? My goal today is to discuss how we've begun to answer these new strategic demands and to outline where our strategic priorities will be.

I want to make clear what this will mean for the countries with whom we already work and explore the implications for the broader development community. And I want to outline some of the critical principles that guided our strategic analysis, which we call our Over the Horizon Initiative.

Now, before I dig into our key strategic insights, I want to explain our methodology, and give some detail on how we did this unprecedented work. This was an unusually expansive and energetic deep dive with over 200 data sources consulted. It involves significant time and effort, both by our agency staff and outside stakeholders. We did advanced research and analysis, landscape analysis, as well as scenario planning. We tested our insights to make sure they were well grounded in data. We drew on existing third party indicators to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on partner countries and considered this data when selecting our focus countries. Internally, we sought feedback on the ongoing and anticipated impacts of COVID-19 from USAID missions across the globe, serving more than 40 USAID offices from around 20 missions.

There were numerous consultations with mission directors and program officers in the field. We met with key stakeholders, including Interaction, the Professional Services Council, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, the CORE Group, the Global Health Council, the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development, and others.

We also convened with key bilateral donors, as well as new and underutilized partners, many of whom I know are listening today. Over 70 organizations participated in our roundtable discussions. And we incorporated their ideas and feedback. With all that said, let me add three major points. First off, the implications of our work are not yet fully known. We'll be able to talk about strategic insights, but we are not yet ready to discuss how this will play out at the granular programmatic level. If you think today that we'll be able to tell you how much USAID will spend on, say, women's workforce training in Nepal in 2022, I'm sorry to disappoint you, but you'll understand what objectives will guide our work. And eventually, after today, we'll continue the conversation on where we will focus more and where we will focus less.

Second, this is the work of an entire Agency. I stress this because USAID is an extremely strong and energetic agency filled with highly motivated professionals who are mission driven. It is these individuals who do this work and they have owned it from the beginning. Third, no matter what happens in next week's election, the work had to be done. Whoever leads the Agency in the months and years ahead will inherit this work and will benefit from it, as will American taxpayers, members of Congress, our partners around the world, and I hope hundreds of millions of people who will serve through American assistance and leadership. The data and analysis are nonpartisan and will stand the test of time. We can't wait for a vaccine before evaluating the post-COVID landscape. Even as global and national health organizations are now coping with a resurgence in cases, we have to prepare for the significant changes to our development and humanitarian work.

With all that said, let me review our work at a high level and then we'll have time for some questions. Our assessment of COVID's impact revealed five key trends, each with far-reaching implications on our work. The first is an area where USAID has always been important, but where we had to step up our efforts. Our competitors are taking advantage of the pandemic to strengthen their position at the expense of U.S. national security and the security of every country in which they seek influence. COVID-19 threatens not only our health, security, prosperity at home; it also challenges our allies and friends globally and has created the kind of chaos our adversaries thrive on. The Chinese Communist Party, in particular, has aggressively sought to use the pandemic as a cudgel in its efforts to gain direct and indirect control over other nations. We will therefore have to take an active role in complementing the work of our colleagues at the State Department and other agencies vital to America's soft and hard power in supporting civic institutions and democratic practices.

The second key trend is a pattern of shocks to mobility and economic growth. COVID-19 has impeded the movement of people, capital, and information. The global downturn hit virtually every industry, cutting demand for energy and natural resources, cutting into demand for labor, cutting international tourism, and cutting into the remittances that are crucial for many countries. The IMF projects a 4.9 percent contraction in global GDP this year, and 3 percent for emerging markets and developing economies. Those hardest hit will be the most vulnerable. Given that a critical goal of USAID is to support our partner countries on their Journeys of Self-Reliance, COVID-19 is not just a bump in the road. It is a massive axel-cracking crater. Clearly, we will need to focus on economic stability and recovery in the coming years.

The third major trend was probably the most obvious from the very start. We're facing a health crisis on an unprecedented scale that is setting back much of the progress we've made. COVID-19 has interrupted our progress in global health. Because of the necessity of focusing on the pandemic, health systems have had to divert resources away from the treatment of other dangerous diseases. Key health agencies estimate that 117 million children are at risk of missing measles vaccine globally. We know that 24 countries have postponed their immunization campaigns, and we will have to rebuild and restart these programs.

The fourth major trend is an increase in pressure on governance systems, increased corruption and accompanying threats to democracy and political stability. COVID-19 has made stable countries more fragile and fragile countries nearly brittle. Two-thirds of countries with planned elections have postponed them due to the pandemic, and 44 countries have issued measures that curtail free expression, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. Economic downturns and pandemics are always toughest on marginalized groups and tend to promote autocracy, corruption, and unrest. We will need to pay special attention to supporting countries which, before COVID-19, were making strides in adopting stable democratic systems, anti-corruption measures, and core individual rights. We can't afford backsliding on democracy.

The fifth major trend of service is a truly devastating increase in devastating impacts at the household level. Poverty, food insecurity, and loss of education can be paralyzing. Current projections estimate that global extreme poverty could increase by up to 100 million people this year, and 132 million people could be pushed into chronic food insecurity. In addition, the UN estimates as of August, more than 1.6 billion students have been affected by school closures in more than 190 countries. The impact on schooling is particularly concerning because it has the potential to persist even when COVID-19 is no longer with us. It's very hard to convince people in certain countries to send their girls to school. Once that schooling is halted, it's even harder to get it restarted. We can't come back to this issue in two years. By then, it'll be too late. We have to focus on it now.

Understanding these five distinct trends and how they're playing out differently across the globe means that we at USAID need to focus our efforts differently. We know COVID does not impact every country in the same way. Through our detailed analysis of the impacts, we gained a deep understanding of just how different these effects can be. That is why, through the Over the Horizon effort, we have a data-driven analytical process to identify focus countries. Focus countries are places with significant need, places hit hard by COVID-19 and with the potential for backsliding on development. They are also places of national security importance. In these focused countries in the Northern Triangle, East Africa, and elsewhere across the world, we will ensure our technical approaches are responsive to the new kinds of problems we face. We will value adaptability and fresh thinking. We will give our missions in the field more support and increase flexibilities.

In addition, we will make adjustments to how the Agency works overall. For example, at the strategic level, we will establish a foresight unit to prepare for the pandemic's unexpected impacts and keep us looking ahead to the next crisis. A strategic foresight unit in USAID's Washington headquarters will allow us to scan the horizon for future crises and prepare us for uncertain and complex operating environments. This means that USAID headquarters will be better able to prepare our missions in the field, supporting them with scenario planning to scan their contacts for potential changes and challenges. This will ultimately allow missions to be more responsive and more adaptive. We will also make meaningful, immediate changes that allow USAID's foreign service nationals to lead. When the outbreak first began, we responded to the needs in the field by giving our Foreign Service National staff expanded responsibility. The push was a big success and we are looking for ways to make some of those shifts permanent. We will put FSNs in leadership roles as advisors to mission directors and also in management roles, heading up technical offices and teams where they possess deep subject matter expertise.

This is the right thing to do, especially considering how critical Foreign Service Nationals have been in maintaining USAID's on-the-ground presence during this pandemic. It is this fresh approach that will ensure USAID will play a vital role in helping the countries in which we work to rebuild and recover. But let's not kid ourselves. It will take the entire development community to meet these demands. No single donor, no matter how well-funded, can do this work alone. Going forward, we'll continue to lead efforts to ensure the donor community is coordinated in its immediate and long-term response. In a COVID altered world, there will be, we can hope, a vaccine and greater enthusiasm for investments in global health. But we must remember that this is more than a healthcare crisis. There will be billions of victims of this pandemic who never caught the virus, and it will fall to USAID, and like minded donors around the world to rebuild what was lost and to think ahead of the challenges that are upcoming. If we focus on the future while continuing to lead in the present, USAID will prove, yet again, why the United States remains the best friend of the developing world. Thank you, Katie, and I'm looking forward to our conversations and any questions.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: Thank you, Mr. Administrator. I've got my own questions. But as a reminder, if you're looking to ask questions this morning, please email them to Chris.Gavin@AEI.org or use the Twitter #AidOverTheHorizon.

Before we begin, let me be the first to congratulate you on being, I believe, the first in the U.S. Government to take on this initiative for an Agency or department-wide review of what the world looks like post-pandemic. And it's good to see USAID leading forward on that and looking to be much more proactive in the world. As you said, we certainly cannot afford to wait for a vaccine as we prepare for what comes next. And we're certainly going to feel these aftershocks for a long time, especially in those second and third order effects. I can't imagine the victims that you mentioned that haven't even gotten the virus, but will be suffering long term.

I don't want to put you on the spot, but I know there's so much that we don't know and that we simply cannot know about our work in the field. In my research, I've come across criticism and my research focuses on counterterrorism. So we're looking at those fragile spaces that USAID is just not getting enough done in the competitive spaces. So in the spaces where we have adversaries like China and Russia gaining, or al-Qaida in the Islamic State making gains on the peripheries, what do you say to those critics who say that USAID is not in that competitive space against these enemies?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Well, first of all, again, thank you for this opportunity to be here. So in a past life, I actually worked at the Department of Homeland Security. So counterterrorism efforts are not completely alien to me. So on countering violent extremism, for example. So very familiar with countering violent extremism domestically from my time in the Department of Homeland Security. So when I first started at the Latin American Caribbean Bureau of USAID, I saw Trinidad and Tobago had the highest percentage of return ISIS fighters. And then USAID has what is defined as CVE programming. But if you take a step back and look at all USAID programs, you could make the argument that about 90 percent of what USAID does, outside of the humanitarian sphere, is actually counterterrorism, in that when you look at how to prevent individuals and populations from being radicalized, a lot of the CVE work comes from social and economic inclusion, political inclusion.

While some of our work may not be branded as CVE, you can make the intellectual argument that a lot of what USAID does is that. So it gets to your point, how do you respond to your critics? It gets to a lot of it, is to perhaps our branding. So branding is important to us, and when we give out humanitarian assistance and we do democratic work, we like it when these boxes of aid have the USAID logo or the American flag on it, because as, part of our soft power raison d'etre, we want people to know this is the generosity of the United States coming out here. So can we do better with perhaps branding here in the United States? Possibly, which is why I welcome opportunities like this to tell people more about the USAID mission and exactly what we do.

But part of the Over the Horizon project was to look exactly as to where these challenges were. If the pandemic is causing disruptions to food networks, was this going to lead to increased food insecurity in certain parts of this world? Would this make certain populations more vulnerable to radicalization? That is why I started this, because I intuitively knew, again, it's more than just a healthcare crisis. So what are the second and third order effects of this? Are we going to have to worry about radicalization in certain parts of the world? If so, we need to have informed data-driven discussions with OMB, the F Bureau, appropriators; "Hey, this may be an issue not in the next six months, but in the next couple years." That's why this Over the Horizon project was so absolutely valuable to enable us to have data-driven discussions about just some of the things you brought up.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: You're speaking my language there about using foreign assistance for soft power. Over the Horizon found a real decline in conditions globally. And all of those really do affect U.S. national security interests. How does this initiative improve what and where USAID is working, and how does aid get and keep access to some of these critical spaces? What does our foreign assistance actually do for us?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Okay, that's a couple of questions in there, so what does our foreign assistance actually do for us? That could be a separate session talking about foreign aid and soft power aspects. Let me take a step back and do the Over the Horizon, come up to that. We've all seen the data. Prior to the pandemic, we had CDCSs; we had individual country plans where USAID and U.S. Government writ-large has relationships, programs, and plans based on where countries were. The reason the pandemic led to me starting this Over the Horizon project is because you intuitively knew that the pandemic was not going to hit every country equally. So we could talk about the Global Fragility Act, intuitively goes to that countries are more fragile than others, more susceptible to outside pressures and influences.

So what greater pressure, influence, and destabilizing factor than a pandemic? So what the study sought to do and did was identify, where exactly were those countries going to be most affected? Intuitively the pandemic isn't going to affect every country equally. The reason for doing all this is to find out, okay, where's it going to hit worse? Where's it going to have more of a health impact? Where's it going to have more of an economic impact? Where's it going to strain a political system? You cannot have data-driven discussions without data. So as we look at what is in the U.S. national security policy, how do we go forward? We need to have a baseline analysis showing what are going to be the conditions On the ground for the foreseeable future, or dare I say, Over the Horizon.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: Aptly named, I guess. So you mentioned it in your response here. But aid has really been going through a transformation over the past few years, recognizing particularly that USAID has actually been caught in the past and hasn't adapted to the new realities. It's not been able to adjust to new challenges on the ground and to really work in the modern world the way that it needed to. And so part of that has been in the Transformation initiative; part of that is through the Global Fragility Act from Congress, which is improving how we're working on our stabilization work. And now we've got the Over the Horizon initiative, which I'm a big fan of, and is looking out over that horizon and trying to see how AID can best position itself going forward in the future. But how are we really going to change what USAID does? And what is really going to be different when we still have the same people in the same places within the agency itself? And it's unclear that previous initiatives to drive that sort of change at AID have actually gone through? So how do you make the pitch that these transformations are going to result in real change for foreign assistance?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Okay, so let me talk broadly about change in the government sphere. So in a previous life, I helped stand up the Department of Homeland Security. That act was the greatest reorganization of government since the National Security Act of 1947, which stood up DOD. You even see the DOD -- so DOD stands up. Then you even have had Goldwater-Nichols to restructure DOD to get the concept of purple. So it's natural that organizations flow, change, and modify based on needs, evolving the way people think, how data is processed. What I stepped into was a process that rightfully started in terms of Transformation, in terms of reorganizing USAID to meet today's challenges. So just like, again, I lived it. I got them; I got the medals; I got all the coins from the restructuring of DHS. So is this on the scale of restructuring the Department Homeland Security? Not on the scale, but vitally important in terms of the way USAID focuses and does its work. We have bureaus doing conflict prevention and stability. So you can have the same people, but when you can change the structures and reporting lines, it actually improves the way things get done. You can't just change something on a PowerPoint and immediately think it's going to work. So there's some cultural change as well. But that's exactly it. So we recognize that a change in structure and culture at USAID is necessary. We're in the midst of that right now. We're making great progress.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: In your defense, as somebody who's been critical of USAID and other aspects of our government and our ability to actually pivot to new developments and challenges on the ground, the pandemic, of course, being the most recent and the biggest one on the table, Congress has effectively tied your hands in some areas. It's given you the authorities to do a lot of work with foreign assistance, but then has gone through and earmarked your budget, which means that you don't have the funds to actually exercise the authorities that you have. What constraints does USAID face in being able to be proactive and reactive to developments on the ground? And how can we start to change these outside of the organization?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: As a former Congressional staffer myself, I understand the absolute importance of oversight and the authorizations and appropriations process. I intuitively understand that relationship with Capitol Hill. So certainly when I was leading the Latin American Caribbean Bureau, I always prided myself on being proactive in having discussions with authorizing and appropriations committees about what I had and being very open where I wished I would have had more flexibility in the Western Hemisphere to do some of the programming. So that kind of relationship, that kind of positive interaction with members of Congress, I think is key for, not just for USAID, but for anyone in general. I think it's a best practice, personally. So I have very open conversations with members on both sides of the aisle in both chambers. And I will continue to advocate for greater flexibilities when I think they're needed. But it's an ongoing dialogue; Congress has a vitally important role. We cannot do it without them. Congress was very generous in COVID supplementals and giving us the ability to work flexibly in responding to the pandemic. So the relationship with Congress is key and it's one that requires constant, not negotiations, but constant discussion. So I pride myself on our positive relationships with both parties and both chambers.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: The pandemic has certainly been a time of change and there is an opportunity to look for the silver lining of what it's brought forward, and I think part of that is what you mentioned here, where Congress is willing to work much more closely with USAID as you're looking to evolve and transform. Are you finding that there is more acceptance of risk in terms of our foreign assistance and branching out and trying new programs that may not actually have been tested before, but some of the start-up mentality where we can try and do new things with our foreign assistance?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: So during my confirmation process to lead the Latin American and Caribbean Bureau, I told multiple senators that if confirmed, I look forward to reporting back to them about failures. And they’re like, "Excuse me?" I don't think that was something they were used to hearing. The context for that was if you're not taking risks, if you're not trying novel approaches, then you're condemned to the past.

And so I said, if the Senate confirmed me, I said what I wanted to do in the Latin American Caribbean Bureau is make my staff in not just D.C., but in the field, importantly, where so many decisions are made, comfortable with risk, for trying new things, trying novel approaches. Because if you keep doing the same thing over and over, you're just trying to bunt, as opposed to ever swinging for the fences. You're denying yourself the opportunity to hit it out of the park. So certainly, my role as a public servant and a manager is to back up my staff when they try something new. So that was the context for me telling multiple senators, "I look forward to reporting failures," because when you take risky behavior, not everything's going to work. But that's okay.

So similarly, I have that same approach as ActingAdministrator as well. So I think risk, not just at USAID, but in many parts of government, I think risk avoidance is one of the problems because you have these people kind of just huddled in; "I'm just going to do the same thing over and over and over." I think as public servants, we owe it to the American people to try novel approaches, to try to do our jobs better. But you can't have these discussions without data. That's why the all -- the products of the Over the Horizon study, being a data-driven study -- we did not put our thumbs on the scale. We let the data speak for itself. I can't have a conversation with anybody from the Appropriations Committee, "Can you please give me more flexibility on spending?" Not because I feel like it, but because the data shows we need to try something new here. And this is a new and unprecedented change or challenge. You've got to give our people down in the field the flexibility to try novel approaches. So it goes back to having data-driven decisions and open conversations.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: I think that question of data and understanding how we should be aligning ourselves speaks well to the Over the Horizon initiative, which is also looking forward, and I'm really excited to see a take on the new foresight unit, which I think should help position us better for a new pandemic or other crises, because we've constantly been caught flat-footed and the COVID-19 pandemic revealed weaknesses across our government. And it also presented an opportunity for the United States to start leading in the world in global health and the humanitarian response. So can you speak a little bit about what we're doing now to lead that initiative? Are we looking to lead a global vaccination program or simply to be responding to the very, very severe situations that people worldwide find themselves in?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Well, I'm not going to get ahead of the White House or other parts of government talking about our vaccine plans. But what I can say is that we have a working group that's looking internally across multiple silos that would be involved in vaccine delivery overseas, and under White House guidance, we are having discussions and we're talking with our interagency partners. But we're not going to be caught flat-footed. We're thinking very proactively head of the challenges that are coming up. Regarding global distribution of vaccines, stay tuned to this channel. We'll get back to you.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: Excellent. And how is USAID leading the response today?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Oh, well, certainly, and again, a lot of it is tailored to specific country needs. So we were certainly instrumental in getting our ventilators, for example, to countries that needed it most. We've been helping in any number of ways in terms of access to clean water and sanitation, washing your hands. You can't wash your hands unless you have clean water. So there's some places where some wash activities were appropriate. Other places we were helping with public communication. So our response has been tailored to specific country needs. And we proved to be the most generous country in the world in terms of true response to the pandemic.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: Excellent. Now, I'm going to be opening this up to questions from the audience. And I've seen them rolling in over here, but I really can't let you go without asking one final question just for me that's very near and dear to my work.

So I just published a report that you probably haven't had a chance to read yet, called "Fragility and Failure," where I argue that our enemies, and here, I'm talking about the Islamic State, al-Qaida and other Salafi jihadi groups have gained in fragile spaces because of our absence, because we have defined it as a counterterrorism problem. And we've sent in the military at times, but largely we've left the peripheries alone. And so inevitably, that leads to our own military interventions. Do you think there's a credible case to be made that the U.S. can effectively preempt the need for a military conflict? Can we compete with our soft power?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Well, that's why we have soft power. That's why we do a lot of what we do. So you can make the argument that once you find yourself having to go kinetic -- and it's not that it's too late because there's nobody better than the United States of America and our kinetic response. I'm very proud of our men and women in uniform and those capabilities they bring to the table. But certainly we'd like to do -- USAID, we think if we do our job correctly around the world, it doesn't have to get kinetic; again, back to the Over the Horizon. Where do we need to step up our activities? How do we need to change or modify what we do on the ground to keep people from being radicalized?

But if you take a step back and you think about the history of the development programs, going back from the Marshall Plan, USAID was, is, and will always be, a national security agency. When we were helping Europe with the Marshall Plan after World War II, this was in context of a global competition where we were helping countries be more resilient economically and democratically to withstand malevolent intent from outside actors. So we're still doing that. Our Journeys of Self-Reliance help countries better withstand malevolent intent from outside actors, be it the Chinese Communist Party or some radical Islamic group trying to turn their own citizens against them and to push back democracy.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: Excellent. So our first question from the audience now is from Richmond Blake, who's at Mercy Corps. And he emailed this to me the other day. So he's asking a series of questions, all of which --

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Does he get more than one? Is he allowed more than one?

MS. ZIMMERMAN: We'll call it one question, but it will be a series.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: A follow-up, okay.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: And they're all on Over the Horizon. So he's looking at, you know, asking, how is USAID preparing for the next inevitable global pandemic? And are you conducting an assessment to do so of the efficacy of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the Over the Horizon initiative? And what are you finding the biggest lessons learned from our response?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Multiple questions, okay, let's see if I can remember them and take them in order. So certainly, one of the one of the challenges we notice, one of the areas we need to focus on is on health systems. So what we found -- I don't want to say uniformly across the board, but we -- one of the trends we discovered is that many healthcare systems had to shift their focus away from their current programing to deal with the pandemic. So what that has meant is that programs with vaccination against measles, and any other number of diseases has suffered. So that's one of the trends we discovered, one of the challenges we faced. One of the lessons learned from this is places where USAID has worked in building healthcare resiliency actually paid off. They were better able to withstand the challenge of the pandemic.

This goes back to the whole idea, are you going to give somebody a fish, or you going to teach them how to fish? So it's one thing, here's a vaccine; here's some medicine. Do this, okay? That's well and good, you took care of the immediate need. But what USAID does in so many parts of the world is we’ve helped build up resilience systems. We're not going to -- if you're starving and need a fish, here's a fish. But more importantly, let's teach you how to fish. So one of the lessons learned, and we saw it play out, was countries that had robust healthcare systems were able to better deal with the pandemic, and to walk and chew gum at the same time. One of the focus areas is to prepare for the next pandemic -- I don't know for those who've read Nassim Taleb, you know, "The Black Swan," was the pandemic a black swan event? I don't know. But he rightfully says, at some point, you're going to have another zoonotic pandemic come in. How do you prepare for this one? What lessons learned do you learn from that? Well, having the obvious one: having robust health systems gets you better prepared. So thanks to Over the Horizon, we can see where some of those needs are, where some of those healthcare systems need to be built up, not just for the current crisis, but for the next one as well. I mean, hopefully tangentially, I got to a couple of his questions. He had a number of them there.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: He did. Richmond can be a tough cookie there. From Chris O'Donnell at Development Essentials, he asks, in USAID's 2019 financial part to Congress, USAID committed to completing all country development cooperation strategies with the Journey to Self-Reliance by December of 2020. Can you give the listeners insights on -- to the deadline and how you're going to meet that, especially given the pandemic?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: I don't have the detailed list in terms of where we are, but I believe we are on track to meet that. But it could certainly cause -- this gets into the questions, so the CDCS process is a multi-year process, takes a lot of work, and, well, shocker, newsflash, okay, we had a pandemic. So the CDCS processes will continue. And I believe we're on track for completing those, but we're fully cognizant that the pandemic is going to have to revisit some of the assumptions that have been made. And that's not just a challenge for USAID, but across the board and in so many parts of government. Long term planning is necessary, but it needs to be modified, so something I learned when I was in uniform a long time ago, planning is necessary; plans are useless. So certainly the information we've gained from Over the Horizon and the pandemic, we'll go ahead and modify existing CDCSs. But we're still on track for meeting the country plans. But it would be folly to think that we're not factoring in the pandemic in terms of our programming overseas.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: Excellent. And this question is from Jorge Segura and it actually goes to a little bit of what you mentioned in your opening remarks about donor coordination and the importance of working and coordinating globally. He asks, how is USAID coordinating its policies and programs with other USG agencies, so within the interagency, specifically the MCC, the TDA, the DFC? And if you can talk about those acronyms for the audience and the multilateral development banks, the World Bank, the IMF, et cetera. Is there an integrated approach or are all of these entities implementing their own separate initiatives?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: So certainly at the Tactical Working Group level, USAID staff, we interact with all those bodies. Myself, I'm on the board for the DFC, the Development Finance Corporation, and MCC, Millennium Challenge Corporation. So I work very closely with Adam Boehler and Sean in terms of looking at the programming. And, so much great work has been done by these organizations pre-pandemic. But now we're looking strategically. I mean, we're not fools. We see how this modifies things and we certainly take those into account. So one of the things, happy to report, good government is occurring, where these organizations were coordinating at the tactical level and the district level as well.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: The next question is from Sarah Higgins, who asks, how will USAID empower data innovation and sharing to understand the real-time impact of COVID on LMICs?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Of COVID on?

MS. ZIMMERMAN: LMICs.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Okay. So regarding data, so a couple of things, so internally, so we had to respond to the pandemic. On my first day of work, it was April 13. I remember it well because it was my birthday. That was my first full day in the office. I listed out three priorities. The first was the physical and emotional well-being of all USAID staff. The second was the necessity to continue all USAID operations to make sure USAID did not retreat from any part of the globe. And the third was, let's think through what the challenges are going to be. So the third priority turned into the Over the Horizon project. So with the second priority, ensuring that USAID was able to continue operations, we were able to do that successfully for two things. I mentioned one was FSN empowerments, so the Foreign Service National community. Now we're able to give them some more authorities; they're able to step up and help keep things going. The other thing was data, digital, using IT resources. So telework, innovative ways to find telework, and to continue operations. From the Over the Horizon, so one of the things it picked up was some of the best ways to counter China and get a country back on their feet is with digital IT systems. So having robust digital programs in countries is a key means of allowing countries to better respond with the pandemic, so one of the things we're looking to do is to add more digital into our programing at the country level. So obviously, this will mean working more with our partners and we're looking for more ways to field these digital solutions to allow countries to respond better. That's one of the things that jumped out at us with the Over the Horizon study.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: Right. And I'm going to combine two questions since they're interrelated and they're focused a little bit on what stage the Over the Horizon initiative is in now; you've premiered some of the initial findings, but where actually are we? And with that, the question from Bill Courtney at RAND was looking at, will USAID continue to fund programs to bolster civil society support to public health initiatives in emerging countries?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Well, the second one is, yes; that was the easy one.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: Regardless of what they Over the Horizon findings are?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Well, again, but the Over the Horizon findings show where it's needed most. So, data-driven decisions, where the challenge is upcoming. But where we are. So the study has concluded and has a list of countries, again, letting the data speak for itself. We haven't released a list of focus countries yet; we will be doing that in the next few days. We're currently in a state right now. We're looking at, okay, this is where the data says the greatest challenges are. Where can our activities be most impactful? So where are our national security priorities? Where can our funding be most impactful? So that we'll be making that list public, so then everybody will see what the focus countries are. But the whole activity of the Over the Horizon effort showed us how this methodology, what we put together to do this one-time study, could be made more permanent. So as the earth rotates, the horizon always goes back. So there's always an ability to look over the horizon. So the strategic foresight unit, we've created at USAID is now going to get the best practices from the Over the Horizon study and get it into a permanent analytical unit to keep trying to forecast to the best extent possible.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: And this question, I don't know whether you actually have the assessment yet from the Over the Horizon initiative, but it's from Nora O'Connell. And she asks, there's a lot of analysis that the pandemic is not just revealing gender inequality and gender-based violence, but exacerbating it. How do you see advancing gender equality across the various areas, such as political stability and economic recovery, in addition to at the household level?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Okay, so certainly, another one of the trends, is that, at the microeconomic level in terms of impact on households and especially on the education of women. A couple of things about gender-based violence and women's economic empowerment. USAID has been working for decades and certainly under this Administration under the leadership of Adviser Ivanka Trump, we have been very forward leaning on women's economic development issues. So we've been working in countries to try to get women integrated into economies.

What I have said repeatedly to foreign leaders and others I'm in front of, if you're going to reach your potential and full economic recovery without having at least half of your workforce fully participating economically, you're a fool. Sometimes I am that blunt, yes. A lot of the work we've been doing on female economic empowerment, I think the COVID drives further the point on how female economic empowerment is necessary. The pandemic is putting at risk of having a generation lost. This has a lot of ripple effects in terms of unemployment. If you look at certain countries, where you have like a youth bulge of people under the age of 20 or 25. If these people are losing education, then they're losing economic opportunities and access, and more opportunities for marginalization.

In countries where we have been striving to get women access to education, girls access to education, the slowdown in the education system itself is particularly troubling. Clearly, when you have, regardless of gender, individuals who are in the service economy, the informal economy, when you have economic contraction, it's the informal economy that's going to take it more on the chin. So when you have more females than males in the informal economy, you're going to lead to obviously greater female unemployment. And it has ripple effects, more gender-based violence. It goes back to the reason we did the Over the Horizon study. If we had not done this, then you ran a danger of every organization looking at it within their own little silo. This means this; this means that.

Because we're doing Over the Horizon, this is our version of purple, joint, looking at all segments. How does this impact? So that's how I and other leadership at USAID can opine intelligently on how a healthcare crisis is leading to gender-based violence, to greater female unemployment, because we're able to do the study to see how everything affects each other. It's a systemic approach. So on issues, on gender-based violence, again, the Over the Horizon study will show us where females are most vulnerable. This is how, when we have these focus countries, we're going to give the mission directors greater analytical tools to be on the lookout for this and how to track that. And it'll inform conversations with Congress. "Senator, can I have a little bit more flexibility on this one?" So that's just another reason why I'm so proud of all this work.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: I think it's great work. So another question from the audience. And this one is related to the commitment to increase the leadership of Foreign Service Nationals.

How will USAID's Over the Horizon work elevate the role of national civil society, national governmental institutions, and other local actors?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: I have never been a fan of the 10,000 mile screwdriver where people in Washington turn a screw to tighten this thing over there. I've always been of the belief that the best solutions are the ones that are developed closest to the problem. In my view, the field does not exist to support Washington. It's the other way around. Washington exists to support the field. My sympathies and support are always going to be for the people on the ground with dirt under their fingernails actually getting work done. That whole adage, "I'm here from Washington. I'm here to help." Yeah, right.

So the Foreign Service Nationals are a key part of our workforce. We have really talented Foreign Service Officers, a lot of training. They bring incredible amounts of work and they come into our missions and they find this cadre of people who are often there for decades, locals who understand intuitively the cultures. I mean, they live it; their families are there. They've been there for generations. It's their homes. Having this workforce here, it's a great benefit. As I mentioned before, one of the reasons we were able to successfully ensure that USG, USAID did not retreat from any corner of the globe was because we tried some novel things in terms of FSN empowerment, in terms of giving some more authorities, giving some more abilities to do things. And we validated, it worked. Part of the challenge with the FSN program is that it's a joint State-USAID program. So certainly empowering FSNs, there's so much I can do. But this is certainly what we've done in Over the Horizon, seeing how they've contributed, informs conversations I have with State Department leadership in terms of what we could do for our Foreign Service Nationals in terms of career paths and investing in them. Again, it's good government. So, you have a whole tranche of data; now we can at least opine intelligently.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: All right. This question is from Twitter, and I promise I didn't place it there. Will USAID reconsider its current approaches to stabilization and CIMIC missions in Mali and Afghanistan, for example? Will it consider partners' approaches, reevaluation of local priorities, as well as our own interests?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Well, I would hate to think that we were so steadfast and hard-headed that we don't look at approaches. So that's certainly one of the things -- I'm not going to get into specific countries. As I mentioned in terms of risk, trying to empower people to do risk, just because USAID has been doing a certain program for decades doesn't mean it's the right program to do. I haven't really mentioned it here, but we have this thing called the New Partnership Initiative, where we're looking to broaden our base of partners in which we work with. So instead of using the same traditional partners, through our New Partnership Initiative, which we piloted in 2019, is now worldwide, we now have the tools in the toolbox to work with locally-based organizations, again, trying to get solutions that are developed and derived closest to the source of the problem, as opposed to somebody 10,000 miles away in a deep, dark leather chair smoking a pipe. Not that I'm against that, but I certainly am a fan of locally based solutions for local problems.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: And this question comes from my former colleague, Jessica Trisko Darden. And she's talking about how AID workers around the world have been under attack, especially as security conditions have deteriorated during the pandemic. And you've mentioned, Administrator, that USAID is part of the national security apparatus.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Yes.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: It's certainly advancing U.S. national security interests. What role do you think USAID should have in mitigating the targeting of aid workers and development projects?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: In coming into the office every day, it's a little sobering when you walk in. So for anybody who hasn't been to USAID, when you walk in, right when you get to the turnstiles and the main entrance on the 14th Street side of the Ronald Reagan Building, you have a wall full of names of USAID staff who've died while carrying out their duties. But that's not all of it. As you and so many others know, we work with implementing partners all the time who are in dangerous situations, putting their lives at risk. So we fall under the security umbrella of Diplomatic Security in the field. And so we certainly take that guidance, and we're grateful for that protection, work closely with them. But inherently, the work we do is risky. We're not in developed worlds where everything is perfect. That's why we exist. We go to the places that are difficult. So I'm really blessed beyond belief to be in such an organization with a talented team of people and staff and importantly partners that were willing to go to dangerous places and do difficult things to further the U.S. national security interests by doing development work and economic aid. It's a risk. We're cognizant of it and we deal with it the best way possible every day, every day of the year.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: Administor, I think, with that, you know, I really do think I speak for so many of us when we say how much we appreciate the work that USAID does and USAID staff does in the world. I'm somebody that studies those places where our foreign assistance goes a long way in advancing our national security interests, and knowing that we actually don't have good access because of security concerns is certainly one that I've talked about and the careful balance of risk and success in some of these areas. So I would like to leave it, though, with, what message do you want the audience today to take away from the Over the Horizon initiative and about USAID's Transformation and its future in this post-pandemic world?

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Well, thank you so much. And thank you again for this opportunity to be here to help with our USAID branding, to let people know what we're doing. I guess one of the takeaways is actually that good government does occur once in a while. And what we have here is we have talented men and women in USAID looking outside of our inboxes, trying to look ahead to see what the challenges are for the U.S. Gt in terms of what we're doing. USAID is a tool of national security. We have a role in soft power projection. And what we did with this Over the Horizon study is to proactively think ahead about what the challenges are going to be to USAID and the U.S. Gand our world leadership. And I'm grateful to be with such an organization that's been able to do such work.

MS. ZIMMERMAN: All right. Thank you so much. There was a question from the audience about where they could access the Over the Horizon initiative documents, and once those are available, I will be tweeting those out on the Twitter #AidOverTheHorizon, so that the public can have the information on the initiative to date. Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Administrator. I really appreciate it. And a big thank you to the USAID staff and the AEI staff that made today's event possible.

ACTING ADMINISTRATOR BARSA: Thank you very much.

Last updated: November 24, 2020

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