Administrator Samantha Power at a Swearing-in Ceremony for Dina Esposito as Assistant to the Administrator for the Bureau for Resilience, Environment, and Food Security
ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: Thank you, Isobel [Coleman], for your leadership across so many domains, but also for all the work you’ve done with Dina and the team to shape America’s response to the global food crisis. As bad as it has been out there in the world, I can’t even imagine how much worse it would have been but for the leadership of Dina and her team, her folks out in the field, the creativity, innovation, injection of this agenda by Isobel and others into the interagency process so that we can make it a bigger priority. So, again, it’s hard to feel a sense of satisfaction often in these jobs, because there’s always more to be done, and there’s always not such great things happening out there. But the walloping currents that are afflicting so many vulnerable communities – you all really rose to the occasion. I’m just so grateful, it’s been amazing to watch.
Special thanks – before we get into the “this is your life” of one Dina Esposito – I want to thank Dina’s friends, colleagues, and loved ones who took the time to show up here today, in person or online, to witness her being sworn-in, finally, as our newest Assistant to the Administrator – in this case, our first Assistant to the Administrator – for the Bureau for Resilience, Environment, and Food Security. Thanks especially to her husband, Rob, a public servant in his own right; and her children, Chris and Mariah. Their son, Robert, couldn’t be here today because he’s in the middle of finals at James Madison University. Parenthetically, my son is a high school freshman and is in the middle of finals for the first time. And my one job this week is to call him to wake him up. And I would like to announce to the world that I was unable to reach my son this morning, so I have no idea what is happening right now. But to Dina’s kids, you should know that Dina calls you “her best work” – and that is an incredibly high bar, if you know the kind of work Dina does in her day job.
I also want to acknowledge Dina’s three brothers – Michael, Peter, and Paul, who she calls the Apostles – who have apparently joined online. We’re really thrilled to have you.
And I want to do something unusual, which is to take a little tour through Dina’s past and the array of mentors and people who have been so important to her in shaping her life and her vision and inspiring the incredible work that she does every day.
In her earliest days, I can only imagine what this is like, she was the youngest of six children – five of them boys – in a small town in Connecticut.
And the first of her influences, as is so true for many of us, was her mother, Pauline, whose memory I’m sure must be especially present for the family at the time of the holidays. Pauline had a special love for Christmas. Pauline passed on to Dina her deep commitment to family, a commitment that Dina has exhibited throughout her career. No job, to Dina, has ever been more important than the people who depend on her – and I know her mother would be incredibly proud of how grounded Dina is even while being so capable and so accomplished.
The second is Dina’s father, Michael, who modeled for Dina the value of an education and a life of service. During World War II, as the United States faced a shortage of military doctors, the government started a program to fast track young people to become physicians. One of those young people was Michael – one of only two children, out of nine, who received a college education. He made the decision, before he was even eligible to vote, to risk his life saving the lives of others. By 19, he had his college diploma, by 22, his MD, before deploying to a hospital ship off the coast of the Korean peninsula.
But Dina’s interest in international diplomacy and development was first sparked by the last person I want to mention, her Aunt Mary. At five feet, Mary was legendarily formidable. She worked her way up from a personal secretary in the State Department to Consul General – which was exceedingly rare for a woman at that time. Every Christmas, apparently, Mary would fly in from some new, exotic post, with gifts and stories from faraway lands, and have a real impact on Dina and her imagination, inspiring Dina herself to break barriers in her life.
At boarding school, that vision of a life lived outside small town Connecticut began to take hold. Big ideas, small classes, students from all over the world. A place that was so transformative, that Dina actually later decided to get married at her high school chapel – and not, in fact, to her high school sweetheart.
No, Rob and Dina met in college, at Williams, in the college pool, in fact. Dina, thriving academically, was also distinguishing herself as a champion springboard diver. This visual is actually easy to construct – now that you mention it, you seem like you would be an amazing springboard diver. Why is that?
Dina and a cohort of powerhouse women athletes carried Williams to back-to-back National Championships, and Dina became the College’s first-ever female All-American diver. Incredibly impressive.
Rob also swam. I’m sure there’s more to that. We just didn’t dig into the facts.
After college and a stint at grad school, Dina began her career as a Presidential Management Fellow, traveling to refugee camps across Africa as civil wars raged across the continent.
Colleagues remember her – also very visualizable, if you’ve traveled with Dina – at those camps, sitting on the ground with recently arrived refugee families and mothers who’d lost their children along the way, having direct, if difficult, conversations about their needs and experiences. As one coworker put it, “Many officials just want to do a drive by, but Dina wanted to sit down and hear directly about people’s experiences.”
Later, as a Disaster Relief Officer in what was then our Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, Dina led a team responding to the Somali famine of 1992. It was the largest ever humanitarian relief operation at the time, and Dina traveled the country seeing the harrowing effects of the famine first hand.
It was in Somalia that she met another mentor, in fact one that we shared, Fred Cuny, renowned as one of the world’s greatest humanitarians. Fred was larger-than-life, his trademark cowboy boots and thick Texan accent, and his unorthodox solutions during humanitarian disasters earned him renown – and the coveted nickname, “that goddamned Fred Cuny!”
Fred showed Dina how food is often very present even in the midst of widespread hunger, just hoarded or priced out of reach, and how, beyond the people lining up for assistance at the refugee camps, were countless others dying quiet, unacknowledged, and often invisible deaths. He also instilled in her his own penchant for unconventional, but efficient, solutions – something that we’ve seen Dina bring to her work in the rest of her career.
As one colleague said, “What always set Dina apart was that she was a real thinker. She wanted to ponder, challenge our assumptions, and change our way of thinking.” That same colleague remembers Dina always telling her team, “Don’t just say it’s the way we’ve always done it – tell us why it’s the best way!”
Dina brought that desire to challenge conventional wisdom to what had become the central focus of her career – fighting hunger and famine around the world. After spending the early years of her professional life focusing on humanitarian response, she had seen how humanitarian aid could save countless lives in the face of hunger and famine.
But she had also seen its limitations. Emergency food shipments, Dina recognized, were not enough to turn back the tide of hunger without measures that got at the structural measures to address poverty, economic underdevelopment, agricultural stagnation, and oppressive norms and laws that often contributed to all of the above. Although investing in long-term solutions and agricultural growth had powered the Green Revolution, of course we have seen far too little investment in structural, agricultural, and other solutions since, again, the heyday of the Green Revolution. We are privileged at USAID over the years to have come to be able to inject billions of dollars into humanitarian response measures like emergency food and water assistance, but it pains us all to see agricultural assistance – lasting food security – receive just a fraction of the funding that it needs.
So, throughout her roles at USAID, Dina sought to harness the power of short-term humanitarian aid to make a lasting development impact. She helped expand the use of cash transfers and food vouchers tenfold, helping communities stricken by hunger to access the food that was already in the markets around them, but just out of reach. She helped source food aid not just from American farmers, but farmers in partner countries as well, boosting local economies and reducing poverty. And she pushed USDA to diversify the type of food sent overseas – bags of corn or wheat, yes, but also nutritious Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods that could revive a severely malnourished child on the brink of death.
She was an incredible advocate, but it has been her dedication, her emphasis on putting theory into practice, and her ability to GSD, get things done, for the children in the room – grown children, but still, her ability to implement effective initiatives, the rigor, the demandingness, that together have helped her move the needle in such a significant way. Another said that she “was one of those leaders you wanted to support – someone you want to follow into battle.”
Dina’s work to link humanitarian relief and development also led her to draft a series of recommendations and reforms, including the need to quickly help communities transition from conflict to peace. Those recommendations became the heart of the Office of Transition Initiatives, with Dina drafting OTI’s first strategic plan and serving as one of its first officers – alongside some intern named Rob Jenkins. I think that means Dina must have promoted Rob… I’m not sure.
Though Dina has left USAID before – once to attend to the shattering loss of two of her brothers and her mother, all in quick succession, and once more to make a tremendous impact at Mercy Corps – like so many who have been a part this Agency’s mission, who have touched and helped fuel the impact that our teams are able to have out in the world, Dina has returned to answer the call to public service.
For over a year already, Dina has served as our head of the Bureau of Resilience and Food Security and the Deputy Coordinator of Feed the Future, the United States’ flagship Food Security Initiative. Under Dina’s leadership, the Bureau is not only feeding the future through sustained investments in agricultural research and productivity – it is feeding the present by doubling funding for women farmers, catalyzing private investment into food markets and agribusinesses, and helping farmers access efficient fertilizers and drought-resistant seeds to grapple with a changing climate.
With harsher growing conditions, less predictable weather, and frequent shocks – so many shocks we can’t call them shocks anymore – climate change is inextricably linked to agriculture, and agriculture is inextricably linked to climate change. With nearly a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions coming from agriculture, addressing the climate impacts of the sector is becoming ever more urgent. And as we saw at this COP, where this issue really took center stage, again in both directions, we cannot address one without addressing the other.
That is why we’re adding just a little extra work to Dina’s portfolio, making her the head of the newly-formed Bureau for Resilience, Environment, and Food Security. Under Dina’s leadership, our new Bureau must seek new solutions that can address both the climate crisis and the food crisis. It must provide a place for food security experts and climate scientists to partner and collaborate. And it must help direct USAID’s support to local, creative leaders who understand better than anyone how climate change is increasing hunger in their communities.
It’s a formidable task – which is why we are so grateful to Dina for being willing to take it on. After hearing about her road to this moment, could there be anybody more perfect to come along to address hunger and to build resilience and to bring that ability to challenge the status quo? Dina, you are an incredible asset to this Agency and to the communities we serve around the world.
I’m thrilled that there is a watch party going on over at the Annex, where I’m hoping lots of conversations between the climate and environmental team members, and the food security and resilience team members are happening – that this watch party becomes one of many occasions for these synergies to be discovered. Okay, lots of thumbs and balloons and confetti thrown in. But as one former colleague put it, which sort of sums it up, “No one is better prepared at this job and this moment.” Nobody is better to meet this moment than Dina. We are thrilled, Dina, and grateful to your family for loaning you back to the government, and we are eager to hear your vision and your reflections on this life, incredibly well lived. But no one can do a job like this without people who have their back at home. So special thanks to your family, and congratulations to you, Dina.