Remarks by Vice President Joseph Biden in Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of USAID

Friday, November 4, 2011
On the 50th Anniversary of the United States Agency for International Development

(As Delivered)

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Raj, thank you very much. Deputy Administrator Steinberg. I missed Caroline, a great, good friend. I understand she was here earlier.

Let me begin by a lot of you -- all of you are probably young than I am, and a lot of you probably have young children. Let me give you a piece of advice at the outset here. Be careful what you tell them, they may remember it. (Laughter.)

And instead of raising two sons and a daughter, I was hoping one of them would be an investment banker and a Republican making millions of dollars, so when they put me in a home, I’d have a window with a view. (Laughter.) I got one who gave up a good firm to be a prosecutor. I had another one that has a great operation is now the head of -- what’s he the head of? (Laughter.) I’m joking. The World Food Program. (Laughter.) I got a daughter who went to Tulane and then University of Pennsylvania to get her master’s degree in social work, making less money that her tuition cost. (Laughter.) But every time I feel bad, I think of Raj’s parents. (Laughter and applause.) Every time I feel badly. (Applause.) Parents are Indian immigrants, very, very smart, bright people; the man moves from his residency into a political campaign and gets hooked on helping people around the world. What a disappointment. (Laughter.) What a disappointment.

Look, I am really excited to be here even though with these lights, I can't see a one of you. (Laughter.) But I’ve seen you all over the world. I’ve seen you all over the world.

And let me say, start also by thanking all of your colleagues who are watching and listening from the Ronald Reagan Building and more than 80 AID missions across the world. I know some of you had to get up awful early, and some of you stayed up awful late. I hope it’s worth the effort.

And I greatly appreciate -- I just want you to know I mean this sincerely -- having done this for the better part of my adult life over 39 years as a U.S. senator on the Foreign Relations Committee and chairman for years, working to protect AID -- AID -- as everybody tried to cram it somewhere else over the years, and watching you as I’ve traveled around the world; it’s remarkable what you do.

We mark a lot of milestones here in Washington, but this is truly a special occasion, not just for the United States Agency for International Develop, for the United States, period.

I’m honored to be joined on this platform by a woman who just left, Caroline Kennedy, as I said who is a friend, whose father inspired my generation and I believe continues to inspire my children’s generation, inspired us to engage in public service.

It was exactly 50 years ago today that President Kennedy signed the executive order that gave birth to this extraordinary agency, and I might add I got an opportunity in the Senate to serve with a number of the people who were with it -- with him at the birth of it, including George McGovern, who deserves a lot of credit I might add.

The establishment of AID was a critical salvo in what the President, President Kennedy aptly called, “a peaceful revolution of hope” -- a peaceful revolution of hope. The struggle against enemies common to all mankind: poverty and persecution, hunger and disease.

President Kennedy knew these were not only God-awful problems, but they ripped people of their dignity and their self-respect. It was more -- more than just not being able to feed their children. It was more than the physical deprivation that they were suffering. You’ve ministered to proud people. I don't know a single mother in the world who doesn't feel her dignity is stripped because she cannot look her child in the eye and know with certitude that she can care for that child’s needs. She needs help.

Those of you who are mothers and fathers, those of you who are out in the field, I can't imagine you haven’t put yourself in the position of the people you're helping time and time again.

That's what I loved about John Kennedy. He said that we had a moral imperative, and I quote him. He said, “a wise leader and a good neighbor in the interdependent community of free nations”. That's what he expected us to be. And that moral imperative continues today, and I would argue hollers as loudly as it ever had for our leadership.

President Barack Obama, Secretary Hillary Clinton motivated by this simple proposition, this moral imperative of helping people in times of crisis because it’s simply the right thing to do. And human suffering anywhere -- I sometimes get criticized for saying this by some of my friends -- but human suffering anywhere is a stain on the conscience of all humanity. We sure in hell can't solve it all, but we sure in hell can do something important.

But President Kennedy recognized that if we fail to address the plight of the least fortunate, and I again I quote him, he said, “our own security would be endangered and our prosperity imperiled”. So on this anniversary as we -- all of us, all of you here, all of you listening to me -- as we renew our commitment to the view that international development, which Pope Paul VI called, “the new name of peace,” is both the right thing to do and profoundly -- profoundly in America’s interest.

It’s been five decades since USAID’s founding, and the founding proved three fundamental truths. One in a short time we’ve seen the eradication of smallpox; a green revolution that enabled once-impoverished nations to feed millions of their own citizens; oil rehydration therapy that is the bulwark against the lethal cholera outbreaks; millions of lives saved and improved in nearly every corner of the globe. And we have proven that nations can escape the grip of poverty.

More than 30 countries that once needed our assistance have achieved the level of prosperity that has allowed them to graduate from being recipients, and, many cases, being donors. This means that in places as diverse as South Korea, Brazil, Poland, we no longer ask what the United States can do for you, but rather, when I meet with these leaders I ask, what can we do with you?

Because the goal of development work -- I need not tell you, this is preaching to the choir, as they say in the southern part of my state -- is beyond addressing the most acute and immediate crises. It’s about achieving sustainable growth and instituting programs that are self-sustaining so that they can work ourselves out of a job, as the saying goes. God-will the day when we don't need any of us engaged in this work.

I was honored to speak about one such program last week, which we call the Feed the Future Program; you all are familiar with it. Most Americans are only learning about it. It responds both to the immediate needs during times of drought and famine while also working to prevent future droughts and -- leading to famine so that countries need not rely on food aid when the next crisis hits. Beyond these and so many other important programs you offer, the true strength of USAID has always been and always will be you. You. You, the people who make it work.

You -- the foreign service and civil service and foreign service nationals here in Washington and around the world -- you are the greatest asset this agency has, and one that President Kennedy, if you go back and listen to what he said at the time and talked about it -- why he was so confident that this new experiment could work. You’re also the greatest asset this nation has.

All of you were drawn to the work you’re engaged in now for a simple proposition. You just felt the need to help, help people. Not to get famous, not to get rich -- certainly not to get rich. (Laughter.) But to help -- help people in desperate circumstances. And for all of you this is more than a job. For the vast majority of you this is a calling.

At this very moment, USAID democracy specialists are providing critical support in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo as they hold important elections. Hundreds of you listening to me are serving alongside our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan where I’ve seen you most taking the same risks.

Those of you who are health workers are making sure that vulnerable families have bed nets that can prevent malaria -- such a simple proposition. My little nephew is being confirmed; he said I don't want gifts -- he sent out to everybody his email -- email. President Kennedy would be -- marvel at that. (Laughter.) He wouldn’t marvel at what you’re doing, he’d expect what you did, but he’d wonder about emails. Sent an email to everyone he knew: Send $10 to such-and-such an agency to make sure there are bed nets.

You, health workers are providing vaccines that can and do save children’s lives. You know, it’s not unusual for your selflessness and dedication to be recognized -- I realize that I’m not unique in recognizing that -- for it’s your calling. But all too often, when we recognize your selflessness we fail to acknowledge your physical courage; your physical courage that so many of you show day in and day out, particularly those of you out there in our DART teams.

What most Americans don't know is that USAID Disaster Assistance Response Teams are among the first responders in times of crisis, responding not only to national disasters but to man-made disasters. And sometimes that means wars. Since Barack and I took office you first responders have been deployed to some of the most devastating crises the planet has faced -- earthquake in Japan, Haiti, Chile; flooding in Pakistan; the worst famine in decades across the Horn of Africa, and early on in Libya.

But it’s not just the DART teams who face danger. Over 90 people -- only 90 of your colleagues have paid the ultimate price in service of your mission. As you all know they’re all memorialized in a wall basically across the street from here at our headquarters in the Ronald Reagan building. And I’ve had the privilege as I’ve traveled into these war areas for the last 25 years of my career starting in Bosnia, Kosovo and 20 or so times in Afghanistan and Iraq, I’ve had the privilege of looking and watching you, seeing what you do, seeing the risk you take -- Chad, Kenya, on the border. And I’m not exaggerating when I say this -- presumptuous of me to say this, I guess, but you’ve always made me proud. You’ve always made me just simply proud.

But you and I both know that the backbone of our efforts and the majority of our workforce are the foreign service nationals and locally hired staff. I'd like to speak directly to all of you who are foreign service nationals, if you’re listening, and to the staff. In one sense, the work you do in your home countries may be more rewarding to you, but it’s also, in another sense, more painful. Your intimate knowledge of your country’s history, culture, language, allow the rest of us to do our job.

And as important as your intimate knowledge -- I’m speaking to these foreign service workers -- as important as your knowledge of a country is, it’s your institutional memory that makes it work -- for we rotate through, you rotate through, but they’re always there.

Those of you who are foreign service nationals know intuitively and particularly are -- what our young aid workers learn quickly, and that is how famine, floods, disaster, as I said, strip people not only of their physical necessities, but of their dignity and some cases their pride.

And, as I said earlier, no mother or father wants to look their child in the eye knowing they cannot help on their own. You all understand that, like President Kennedy did, and we appreciate the fact you understand that.

And together, all USAID employees are much more than the sum of your numbers. You become a force of nature. To tens of millions of people around the world, you are the face of America and demonstrable evidence of our nation’s commitment to their dignity.

I learned that firsthand when I was in Chad. I think I told Raj this. Several years ago, when I was still in the Senate, I went into -- I tried to get into Darfur and for good reasons, as you all know, couldn’t make it. And I remember us being in a small aircraft landing in a God-awful portion of the world -- Chad, one of the poorest nations in the world.

And the U.N. had set up a refugee camp about -- I think it was about two miles from the -- maybe a little further from the border with thousands of people. And, as we landed on a runway which was marked only by stones and what otherwise was just high desert it looked like, we kicked up an awful lot of dust in this prop plane. And as the back of the plane came down -- I think it was a C-20 -- I’m not sure what aircraft it was to be precise.

And we got out of the aircraft in the back and we were all covered with dust. And as the dust cleared, with some aid workers with me, the Chadians who were there, two people from the camp and the U.N. representative, one of them said -- I’ll never forget it -- America is here. You’re the face of America. America is here.

I was a senator elected seven times. I don’t ever remember anyone in all of my travels ever using that phrase. And it has profound meaning. You are the face of America. The power of what you do extends far beyond the lives you save.

But to coordinate all those efforts, it takes, as you well know, skilled leadership. When our administration took office, Alonzo Fulgham, a man of considerable experience, we asked him to be our acting administrator. We appreciate him taking on the responsibility. And we know that he had it for a hell of a longer than he thought he was going to have it, than he bargained for. (Laughter.) And we appreciate it.

But he didn’t hesitate and he guided AID with a professionalism and grace that has marked his entire career. And I suspect that Raj may have had the hardest first week any administrator ever had. It seemed like only hours literally after I congratulated you that you and I were sitting across from one another in the Situation Room with the President at the head of the table. And the President looked at Raj and said, Raj, Haiti -- what are you going to do? (Laughter.)

You remember that? No, it wasn’t like -- hey, Raj, I know you’re new -- Raj, Haiti -- what are you going to do? (Laughter.)

Now, most people -- in my experience -- when a President speaks to them that way in a room like the one we were in surrounded by a lot of generals and a lot of high-powered folks, their reaction would have been like a deer caught in the headlights. But Raj acted like he had been doing this job for 20 years. He said, Mr. President, and then went on. He began. He has been doing a stunning job since that day, Raj, so I want to personally congratulate you. (Applause.)

And like every administrator that I’ve known -- and I’ve known all of them since I got elected as a 29-year-old kid in 1972 -- like every administrator is faced with those inside and outside voices who always have no shortage of opinions and at least one or two studies about where you all should be. (Laughter.) Well, I’ve read those studies. I’ve heard those studies. I have held hearings on those studies for the last 30 years.

But Raj and the President were on the exact same page. And I’ll sum it up in Biden terms, which you know is usually fairly straightforward and occasionally gets me in trouble. (Laughter.) The way I’d summarize it, they looked at me and said they both agreed let’s stop studying and start moving -- stop studying, start moving, start rebuilding this great agency. (Applause.)

Give it the resources and support its needs to become once again the world’s premier development organization of the 21st century. That’s our mission and it’s a whole of government approach -- partner aggressively with private sector and civil society as well, invest in science and technology to help make new leaps forward in agriculture and medicine. Empower women and girls, which in my view is the single best investment the world could make at this time for sustainable growth in the world and to eradicate poverty and development. (Applause.)

And they’re both of the same generation, out of the same school basically, achieved the best results for taxpayers by meticulously and rigorously actually measuring the results. That’s the time always when you’d start doing that, I kind of pictured you back in an operating room or something.

Look, in addition to that, press our allies to keep their commitments and urge our friends in Congress to resist the urge to slash our foreign aid budgets, for the temptation is great.

For over the past 40 years, the political propaganda in this country has led American people to believe that somewhere between 20 and 30 -- and some of you say 40 percent -- of our entire budget goes to foreign aid. (Laughter.) Seriously, you think I’m kidding. Well, folks, the entire budget makes up less than 1 percent of our whole budget. If only every other 1 percent was as productive as you are. (Applause.)

If Caroline were still here -- it’s presumptuous of me to say this, but I know her well -- I think she’d agree with me when I would say, if her dad were here, he would tell us, go ahead, mark the past, but only for a second. Focus on the future. Focus on the future. And take heart. Take heart from the knowledge of how much AID has achieved in the past five decades and how much more is possible in the next five decades. Celebrate today, but begin tomorrow.

Folks, we have an opportunity that exceeds any generation in American history, in world history to build a new record of achievement because we expect such great things, such possibilities. All of you, if you are like most AID workers, believe in possibilities. And the possibilities are limitless. The advances you are going to see in global health hold the promise of bringing to an absolute end multiple diseases, expanding life expectancies -- fundamentally enabling you to change the world.

Incredible scientific breakthroughs in agriculture hold the potential for a second grain revolution that will make the first -- will dwarf the first. And it’s going to be you. And the certitude that as these things happen, more nations can move from the column of recipients to the column of donors.

These challenges, I know, seem daunting. But I’m more optimistic today than I was when I was a 29-year-old kid being sworn in at age 30, a month later, to the United States Senate, because I’m more certain not only of the technological breakthroughs that are on the horizon, but of your generation.

I graduated from law school in ’68. They always talk about the generation of the ‘60s and the early ‘70s. I’m proud of my generation, but you’re better. No -- you’re better. More than any other, including mine, you’ve chosen occupations that had as their sole purpose assisting other people. More of your generation volunteers than any generation had. You’re an incredible generation, and you’ll do incredible things, particularly equipped with these new possibilities.

I know for certain -- for absolute certain -- that President Obama agrees with me, and that Secretary Clinton shares the same view. And you, Raj, and your colleagues out here, you are that generation. Look at what you’ve done.

Like I said, I'll end where I began: a medical doctor devoting his life to changing the world in development, and trying to explain to his parents why they spent so much money on his education. (Laughter.)

Folks, all kidding aside, I am not exaggerating when I say I think we’re at an inflection point in world history. And you guys are the point of that spear. And the possibilities that exist with the tools that over the next year or two, three, five and 10 will be made available to you, are limitless.

I want to thank you for listening. I want to thank you for choosing the path you’ve chosen. And I want to thank you on behalf of a grateful nation for enhancing the reputation of American and making us a more secure nation.

God bless you all, and may God protect you and our troops. Thank you. (Applause.)

Mellon Auditorium, Washington DC

Last updated: May 30, 2012

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