In Country and Behind the Scenes with Marie Ahmed of USAID

Aid, Evolved
In Country and Behind the Scenes with Marie Ahmed of USAID

Marie Ahmed has worked within USAID to strengthen health systems in Nepal, Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire, and Thailand. She has a long career in the non-profit and public sector, including time with the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan and over a decade with USAID, the largest contributor of foreign aid in the world.

In this conversation, we recall what inspired Marie to work in the aid sector; her surprise placement in Uzbekistan; and the hard financial realities that constrain who can work in aid. We also peek behind the scenes to understand what it’s like being someone with the responsibility of directing US Foreign Assistance overseas. In her role, Marie is constantly balancing her accountability to the American taxpayer with the unique needs of different countries which have hosted her. She needs to act according to the deadlines and the policies of the American Congress, while deeply understanding the needs of vulnerable communities that she is trying to serve elsewhere. Marie provides an honest and human perspective on what it’s like navigating the aid industry. She tackles head-on some of the common pet peeves people have with aid, opening our eyes to the realities and responsibilities that come with managing public funds.

This interview is an eye-opener to the financial and political mechanisms which anyone working in the modern aid industry needs to work with.

Show Notes

  • Peace Corps: Marie’s first professional experience overseas had her serving in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan. The Peace Corps is a volunteer program run by the US Government, which reports directly into Congress.
  • The State Department is responsible for the US Government’s International Affairs and Foreign Relations.
    • USAID: Today, Marie serves as the Director of the Office of Public Health at USAID’s Regional Development Mission for Asia (or ‘RDMA’ as we refer to it in our conversation). RDMA is located in Bangkok, Thailand. USAID operates subject to the guidance of the President, Secretary of State, and the National Security Council.
  • HHS: The US Department of Health and Human Services is a separate Department within US Government responsible for the health of all Americans and providing essential human services. Within HHS, we have two sister agencies:
    • HRSA: The Health Resources and Services Administration which primarily concerns itself which providing healthcare to the uninsured or vulnerable in the United States.
    • CDC: The Centers for Disease Control, the public health agency of the United States
  • DOD: The Department of Defense is the executive branch of the US Federal Government in charge of National Security and the US Armed Forces.
  • PEPFAR: the United States President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief is an emergency measure to provide relief to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It was launched by President George W. Bush in 2003 but continues even today. It was the largest global health program focused on a single disease – until the COVID-19 crisis. It is implemented by a complex combination of US Government Agencies, that must carefully coordinate with each other in order to deliver services.
  • PMI: The President’s Malaria Initiative was also originally launched by US President George W. Bush and continues to this day. It was launched in 2005, with the goal of combating global malaria. It is led by USAID and implemented together with CDC.
  • Beltway Bandits: Rowena refers to the Beltway Bandits, a term for large private companies located in or near Washington DC (and its Capital Beltway road) who receive significant funding from US Government.
  • “Pale, male, and Yale”: Critiques of the State Department have used this phase to accuse it of a lack of diversity.
  • Gina Kay Abercrombie-Winstanley was sworn in on April 12, 2021 as Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for the US Department of State. The creation of this role is one of many actions the State Department is taking to improve its diversity.
  • You’re Only Old Once: This children’s book from Dr. Seuss pokes fun at all the problems within healthcare systems.
  • The Giving Tree: On a personal note, Marie has enjoyed reading The Giving Tree with her children and navigating the complex emotions in this seemingly simple story.

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