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Keynote Address: SID-US 2024 Annual Conference "World in Crisis, Sparks of Hope"

Ambassador Mark Green

Watch the Remarks on CSPAN

On April 26, 2024, Amb. Mark Andrew Green delivered opening remarks at the Society for International Development-United States’ Annual Conference. In keeping with the conference theme—“World in Crisis, Sparks of Hope”—Amb. Green reflected on his time as USAID Administrator and his work to address the growing crisis of refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide. He implored the crowd to "dust off our development tools" and help the world's most vulnerable in their "journey to self-reliance," even in the face of immediate fires burning.

Remarks as Delivered

It's great to be with all of you here today. It's like old times for me. I'm following Wade Warren, Bill Steiger and I are quietly fist pumping our Green Bay Packers causing Eddy Acevedo to roll his eyes, and now I find myself at the mercy of Gloria Steele. It's just like old days.

Thank you to all of you for allowing me this moment to share a few thoughts with you. I'm thrilled to be here because I care deeply about the issues you care about. Most importantly, I want to salute all of you for the work you're doing. These are challenging times, but the work that all of you do each and every day, lifting lives and building communities, it's essential in the world we find ourselves in.

I'd like to begin this morning with a little story. In early 2018, I had been [USAID] administrator for only about 6 months, and I had the opportunity to travel with a delegation to Burma. During that trip, I had the chance to go to a small Rohingya camp in central Rakhine State. In fact, I believe I was the only senior US official to be able to visit. It was essentially a prison camp; it was encircled with barbed wire, with armed guards all around patrolling inside and out. 

I remember coming across a young Rohingya father, and he said he had a question for me. He told me he had already been living there for several years—in fact, all of his kids were born in that camp. He wasn't allowed to leave without prior written permission, which he never got. The camp had a clinic that few doctors or nurses ever visited—there was never enough medicine. There was an outdoor classroom with no real teachers or textbooks. He had no way to earn money. He said that the only food he had is what we gave him.

He looked me in the eye and said, “My question is, what do I tell my son?” I had no answer. I'm here this morning because I believe that our job, all of us—you, me, all of us—we have to answer that father's question. 

When the UN Refugee Agency releases its global report later this year, it will likely project that there are 130 million displaced people in the world. Over half of them are women and girls. Roughly 40% are children. In fact, each and every year nearly 400,000 children are born as refugees. Of course, the number of IDPs, or internally displaced [people], is much higher. 

It's not just the numbers that are unprecedented: it's the forces that are driving them. As the IMF's Kristalina Georgieva says, we are living in increasingly shock-prone times. We are seeing weather extremes and climate unpredictability that is fueling new conflicts over precious resources, clean water, arable land, and critical minerals. It's also testing our infrastructure and it's disrupting economic growth. 

What's even more pernicious are the man-made, regime-driven forces sending people in motion: tyrants and their followers who are purposefully driving families from their homes and from their communities. Some of these leaders have actually weaponized human beings - the displaced - and they've made them tools in a hybrid war. Daniel Ortega [has] partnered with human traffickers to make Nicaragua a springboard for migration, sending Africans, Asians, and others north towards the border. That's evil. Vladimir Putin is not only pushing Ukrainians to Moldova and Poland, but he's amassing Syrians and Yemenis and others along the border with Finland. He's threatening to punish Finland for daring to oppose his war. 

None of these dark forces are going away: not the struggles over resources, not the tyrants nor their wars. And the numbers tell us that the displaced are remaining displaced for longer and longer periods of time. So the question, I think, for us is pretty simple. Someday, God willing, when the fences come down and the gate swings open, pick your imagery, how will they not be vulnerable to the worst kinds of exploitative forces? We have to answer that father's question. 

Humanitarian assistance is a response, an immediate response—it's not an answer, at least not a compassionate answer. I think our job is to dust off our development tools, adapt them, reshape them, reenergize them for this generational struggle. 130 million people are not where they were, and not where they're going to be. And so our health, education, and food security programs, they have to move with them. Every dollar of humanitarian assistance must be reinforced with threads of development and resilience to help displaced communities withstand future shocks. 

Today's technology, frugal technology, creates boundless opportunities for all of us to do just that. Our tools need to be people-centered in ways that preserve human dignity and reinforce human choice, like cash assistance, smart cards, mobile phones. A few years ago, I had the chance to see a refugee processing center in Serbia. I remember walking through the center and seeing all of these families amassed against a corner. I thought, ok, what's this about? I went there and expected to see food being handed out or classroom lessons taking place—and of course, they were recharging their cell phones. 

Sometimes our development and foreign assistance debates conjure up my worst nightmares from math class. We are caught up in numbers and we are ruled by percentages, and we’re arguing how we slice up that pie and we posture over which agency and which acronym should lead the work. Our focus must be on people like never before. Preparing them for the future. A future that they drive. A future that they are able to create, regardless of where circumstances find them, whether it's in a camp or in the neighborhood.

And for the communities and countries that are serving compassionately as hosts, we have to do more to help reinforce their resilience as well. Countries like Colombia and Jordan and Moldova—they have taken heroic steps to bring refugees out of the shadows and to better integrate them into the country's economy. We should absolutely help them in that effort with job training, capacity building, and more. 

The future of development won't be about numbers or wonky terms or individual programs. It will be about humanity and compassionate communities harnessing idealism and innovation. It will be about helping every country, every community, and more importantly, every person, to be self-reliant. And that's the answer that we have to give that poor father.

Let me close with another quick story. On the very first trip I took overseas at USAID, I visited Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, I went to the Somali region which had had drought for five or six years in a row and I did a food distribution with our friend Governor Beasley of the World Food Program. I remember walking through and watching sacks of grain being handing out, and in another area the families that had received the grain were sitting and resisting for a moment before they took them back home. 

As I was walking through, a young Ethiopian mother stopped me, and she said that she had a question. She said to me that she deeply appreciated the food assistance—she said look, we need it—the question she asked is, can you help me with irrigation so I never have to do this again? 

That question—the father's question, the mother's question—that's the question each and every one of us here today, we have to answer. If we don't, the crises of today will become the crises of tomorrow. We are not compassionate if we aren't answering those questions. 

Watch the Remarks on CSPAN

About the Author

Ambassador Mark Green

Ambassador Mark A. Green

President & CEO, Wilson Center
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