Former U.S. officials who reflect on their time in office tend to come from the government’s most senior ranks. The public typically hears less about the cut and thrust of policymaking that takes place several levels down the bureaucratic chain. As I reflect on my experience in two political appointments over five years, I feel the need to reanimate those times and places with stories of successes, failures, and important lessons learned as my colleagues and I pushed an agenda that championed human rights.

It is no secret that Washington is filled with people eager to get political appointments. For many years, I was not among them. By early 2007, however, I found myself unusually enthusiastic about Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, and I volunteered (for the first time in my life) to work for the policy side of his campaign. When Obama was elected president in 2008, I was still not focused on joining the administration. But when the call came one January afternoon in 2010, I did what a lot of people do when asked to serve and accepted.

Although serving in a presidential administration is a privilege, it can also be very stressful. And it is a humbling experience. In government, as the former Obama adviser David Axelrod noted recently, “you’re always a supporting actor, never the star.” For many of those who come from academia, the think tank world, or any job where one never had to get permission to speak on a topic, joining the government can be disorienting. Some colleagues described it as “soul crushing.” At the least, it can right-size almost any ego. 

And that goes for the people who actually get jobs. Many people who worked for the Obama campaign waited months or years for appointments at the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development. Some waited an entire presidential term, and others never got the call. USAID had no political appointees for almost the entire first year of the Obama administration.

Interviewing, filling out long forms detailing every foreign trip, and being vetted takes time—even for appointments that do not require Senate confirmation. For my first appointment, it took from January 12, 2010, when the call came, until May 10, 2010, when I walked through the doors at USAID, raised my right hand, and got my badge. The second time, it took from September 30, 2014, when a colleague asked if I might consider entering the government again, until October 8, 2015, when an excited staffer called to tell me the Senate had finally confirmed me to my position at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and that the boss wanted me in New York as soon as possible.


I spent four years in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) at USAID. This was the crisis bureau, with teams that responded rapidly to earthquakes, tsunamis, famine, and natural disasters. It was also home to experts in conflict prevention, supporting free and fair elections, civil society, and political transitions around the world. I led the teams that worked on global democracy, human rights, governance issues, and, eventually, conflict mitigation. 

USAID is led by an administrator who reports to the secretary of state. He or she is supported by a deputy administrator, while the rest of the agency is headed by assistant administrators of bureaus. DCHA had four deputy assistant administrators, of which I was one. Under us were around 500 people managing programs and budgets of over $3 billion.

In DCHA, you could expect that if a government fell or a dictator was kicked out of his country, you or your boss would need to make a policy recommendation on how the United States ought to respond and how DCHA could help. On the morning of January 15, 2011, I was driving to New Jersey to see my mother-in-law. It was a Saturday. While stopped at a gas station on the turnpike to check e-mail, I found a chain about President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali having fled Tunisia. The Arab Spring had landed in our in boxes. Within an hour, someone had set up a phone bridge so teams could dial in to talk about what we knew and whom we knew on the ground to corroborate what we were hearing from government sources; sometimes the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) knew more than we did inside government. By the time I was driving back to Washington that weekend, I was on an interagency call: colleagues from different parts of the government were vying to see who could most quickly get people and money out the door and to Tunisia. Moving money quickly was usually welcomed by local activists and disapproved of by dictators. For that reason alone, the United States should be wary of cutting foreign assistance budgets, as the Donald Trump administration has requested.


Much of the agenda in a crisis bureau is reactive, but I joined the government with a proactive agenda: to elevate human rights at USAID. Since the early 1990s, USAID’s custom had been to focus on democracy and governance. Then and now, USAID was the largest bilateral assistance provider in the world on these two policy areas. Although it was also supporting work on human rights, it was not focusing on it.

To make the case that rights should be a core part of USAID’s mission, my team and I gathered dozens of examples of work the agency was already doing, as well as examples from other donors and the UN. After a conversation with the agency’s leadership and through inclusion in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, we got approval to reconfigure the “DG team” as a new Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance. We established, essentially, some bureaucratic real estate, with a repurposed goal, aided with data and empirical evidence. It was a shift away from what had devolved into a team mainly managing funding mechanisms.

Next, our teams at USAID went to work on the first new agency strategy in 20 years on these issues. Drawing on various studies, we explicitly recognized human rights as a part of the development agenda, providing an intellectual basis for what we were doing and moving us away from the more technocratic approach to development that has traditionally downplayed the role of politics, rights, and governance.

It is by no means guaranteed that the elevation of human rights at USAID will continue.

It is by no means guaranteed that the elevation of human rights at USAID will continue. The entire development sector is now in the budget cross hairs, and the agency’s independence from the State Department is once again up for debate. But dismantling something in government can be as difficult as building it, and the nominee to be the USAID administrator, Ambassador Mark Green, has a deep understanding of the importance of rights in development. (Green currently heads the International Republican Institute, a democracy promotion organization.) More important, human rights have been established as a priority elsewhere in the international community through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by all 193 member states at the United Nations in September 2015. Largely unknown to Americans, dozens of countries, including the United States’ closest allies, are already moving smartly to implement the SDGs; the goals, which include eradicating slavery, reducing inequalities, and ending poverty by 2030, provide a blueprint for a more peaceful and prosperous world. If USAID moves away from the agenda, with its recognition of the role of rights in development, it will be relegated to the B team of international development.


I came to USAID wanting also to reinvigorate the work the agency was doing to combat human trafficking, a $150 billion-a-year criminal enterprise swallowing upward of 21 million people. The agency’s previous efforts to address trafficking had been languishing in another bureau, buried in a gender portfolio. In 2011, I put together a pitch for why it belonged with my team and took it to the USAID leadership. They approved the move.

Our vision included doing something fast that did not cost money but signaled change to the rest of the bureaucracy: adopting a code of conduct on human trafficking that would apply to all USAID personnel. (One would think there was no need to tell staff they should not buy and sell humans, but I had researched trafficking in and around peacekeeping deployments and knew even the most honorable organizations were not immune.) Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, herself a longtime champion of combating trafficking, took note, which meant we had a bureaucratic win helping to elevate the issue at both USAID and State.

Next up was reworking the dated policy underpinning how USAID funded its work combating trafficking, to which the agency was allocating about $16 million a year. We launched the new policy at the White House in February 2012, not USAID’s usual venue. Along with colleagues at the State Department and the National Security Council (NSC), we helped bring more attention to trafficking at the White House, culminating in the president delivering a speech on the margins of the yearly UN General Assembly in September 2012. This use of Obama’s time was bureaucratic gold; to be able to quote the president discussing the “fight against human trafficking” as “one of the great human rights causes of our time” was helpful in convincing our bureaucracy this was an administration priority, especially given the relatively small number of experts inside the government working on it. The issue has enormous bipartisan support in Congress, and Senators Bob Corker and Ben Cardin, among others, will make sure it is not dropped from the U.S. foreign policy agenda in the months ahead.


In the years I served in government, countries around the world passed dozens of laws restricting the access of NGOs to funding from foreign sources. These laws and others like them tend to make the lives of those working in civil society more difficult, if not impossible. I had been tracking this phenomenon, known among experts as “closing space around civil society,” in Russia since the early years of this millennium; Russian President Vladimir Putin was a pioneer. In September 2012, a month before I was scheduled to travel to Russia to assess the United States’ civil society and human rights work there, Putin informed Secretary Clinton that the USAID presence in the country would be shut down, and fast.

The news was upsetting. I felt boxed in: no one in the U.S. government, it seemed, was saying no to this closure, and I could not detect any consequence for Russia’s actions. I had no way to push back on the decision made high up the policy chain, and resigning would have done absolutely nothing. Instead, my colleagues and I huddled at Human Rights Watch’s New York office to brainstorm. We all knew these closures would not be limited to Russia or to USAID. The epidemic was spreading.

We quickly landed on the idea of centers that could be set up in various parts of the world as places where members of civil society could learn to be more resilient and develop skills that made them better connected to the people they were meant to represent than to their foreign donors. I had come to believe that a model of international development in which donors from the wealthy countries of the global north backed civil society groups in the global south was part of the problem, turning NGOs into easy targets for dictators. Governments were labeling these NGOs “foreign agents” while citizens stood by unmoved, despite the good work in many cases performed by these NGOs. Until we could convince like-minded governments (or our own) that if a certain state shut down or harassed civil society, the issue ought to dominate bilateral relations (a prospect unlikely to materialize anytime soon), we needed to think about how best to help civil society become more relevant to and valued by local populations. A relatively short time later, with funds from both public and private sources, the first such center opened in Prague. To this day, the teams there are doing innovative work.

In what amounted to more bureaucratic gold, my colleagues and I were also able to get the president to speak on several occasions about closing space around civil society—a phrase that, admittedly, does not roll off the tongue. Over the years, the president’s words (and Clinton’s) helped make the case to embassies and USAID missions around the world that meeting with civil society, and standing up for their right to exist, is critical work for U.S. diplomats and development experts. So far, neither President Donald Trump nor Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has followed this example. The omission sends a terrible message to governments that they can do whatever they want to civil society. Embassies and USAID missions will no doubt continue the practice of supporting civil society in their day-to-day work, however, even if it is not explicitly supported by top officials.


There were failures along the way, of course, but one that I experienced both at USAID and at the UN reflects a gap in the United States’ domestic and foreign policy architecture. The international community is not well organized to manage the problem of historical memory. That is troubling, since how countries deal with violent episodes in their past shapes how they develop. Think of Russia and the lack of knowledge concerning the scale of the 1930s Great Terror and how that ignorance contributes to nostalgia for Joseph Stalin. Or consider the United States’ own lack of reconciliation with its legacy of slavery and how this affects race relations and inequality today. Over and over again, we witnessed the lack of accountability for the past as a driver of contemporary development and, often, of conflict. But we had no steady funding source and few nongovernmental partners with the money to do anything about it. This accounting for the past can be broadly understood as so-called transitional justice, but it is a menu of options that goes beyond transitions and legal formulas for how societies relate to these episodes—from amnesty and prosecution to memorialization and truth-and-reconciliation commissions. Despite my coming to USAID with a proposal for a program that would focus on this area, I could not identify any policy opening or event on which to build out this concept.

Whatever hook I could fashion was overtaken by a presidential directive issued on August 4, 2011, directing the bureaucracy to organize an atrocity-prevention body within 120 days. From then until December 2, 2011, I managed the working groups for USAID and attended the interagency meetings the NSC ran on how to set up what we came to call the Atrocity Prevention Board (APB). It was modeled closely on a report titled Preventing Genocide that had been published in November 2008 by a bipartisan study group led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and sponsored by the American Academy of Diplomacy, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the U.S. Institute of Peace. The establishment of the APB is a great case study of how an outside idea with bipartisan support can take hold inside government; few policy prescriptions take hold as seamlessly as that one initially did.

The APB was not able to prevent or end the largest atrocity of our time—the war in Syria—and history will judge it harshly as a result. Yet in some places that were not making headline news, the APB enabled the government to do more to stem atrocities than we would have if the APB did not exist. For example, it allowed USAID to develop training for development experts that helps them recognize the warning signs of atrocities and teaches them that preventing such crimes is a part of their job. That is in stark contrast with what was happening in Rwanda in March 1994, when USAID staff were reportedly focused on a massive health procurement during the day, worrying only about what the increasingly prevalent Hutu hate speech against the Tutsi might portend at night.


I left the administration in May 2014 with no plans to return, but I found myself in October 2015 joining the United States’ Mission to the UN, where I served the remainder of the administration, one year and three months.

The U.S. Mission to the UN is led by the permanent representative and assisted by four other ambassadors. I was one of the four. Under Obama and under Trump, the permanent representative is also a member of the cabinet and presides over a mission of about 130 people. I found that it was even more difficult to be proactive at the U.S. Mission to the UN than at USAID. Getting something done, at least for my part of the mission—as the U.S. ambassador to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)—had a different meaning from what it did at USAID. Often it was about preventing bad language from getting into a resolution (for example, language that excluded NGOs from international meetings or committed the United States to spend money on initiatives it did not support). Diplomacy was, naturally, at the center of everything we did, and the gas that propels diplomacy is the relationships we developed with ambassadors from around the world. Negotiating with someone you know is much easier than negotiating with someone you have never met or with whom you have had no shared experience.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting after voting on a resolution at the UN headquarters in New York, July 2015.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power speaks during a United Nations Security Council meeting after voting on a resolution at the UN headquarters in New York, July 2015.
Mike Segar / REUTERS

Much of what goes on at the UN, in stark contrast to USAID, is driven by a bureaucratic calendar: with March comes the Commission on the Status of Women, for example, and September brings the annual convening of the General Assembly. Every fall, ambassadors focus on getting dozens of resolutions out of various committees and through the General Assembly, where I was an alternate U.S. representative.

As one might expect, given the title of ambassador and the culture of the UN, there was better food, more cocktails, and a lot more talking than at USAID. Although I faced almost 70 percent less time for policy entrepreneurship compared with my time at USAID, there were still 460 days in which to “get s*** done,” or “GSD,” as was the motto printed on our coffee mugs.

I was serving in a mission where human rights were already a priority, given the inclinations of Samantha Power, then U.S. ambassador to the UN. I knew, however, that few missions at the UN were focused on human trafficking. The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals meant that member states had already endorsed eradicating human trafficking by 2030. My initial idea was to get countries to increase their funding for that project. The United States is among the largest donors, but few others were spending any money to combat trafficking. I had spent four years at USAID trying to get the United Kingdom’s foreign aid agency to do more and failed; they had had one person working trafficking, and she had quit. But since then, Prime Minister Theresa May had made it her signature issue and substantially increased the United Kingdom’s funding. I thought we might start a trend.

Between my July 2015 confirmation hearing and my October 2015 confirmation, however, increased funding for combating trafficking was already competing with another tragedy. The September 2, 2015, death of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian whose body was photographed washed up on a beach in Turkey, galvanized the Obama administration to do more to help refugees. When I arrived at the UN, the White House was planning to use the last General Assembly meeting of the Obama presidency in September 2016 to host a summit on the issue. States that wanted to be invited to the summit would be asked (among other issues) to increase their funding for refugees. To also ask countries to increase funding to combat trafficking would have been at cross-purposes, and I did not expect to get approval to pursue that effort.

Soon after arriving in New York, however, an opportunity arose; I found receptivity to use the thematic session that the United States would run during its December 2015 presidency of the Security Council to address human trafficking, a topic that had never been discussed in 70 years of Security Council meetings. This meant that my team and I were not remaining confined to ECOSOC, a distinct chamber at the UN with 54 member states, but were drifting into that of the Security Council, which in the UN hierarchy is first among equals. Some colleagues were not pleased and lobbied for a “hard security” topic. Both Power and former UN Ambassador Susan Rice (at that time serving as national security adviser) in the White House, however, supported the trafficking theme. We had exactly 21 days to find someone who had been trafficked in a conflict, could get a U.S. visa, buy a plane ticket to New York, and deliver a compelling briefing to the Security Council on December 16.

I made a number of frantic calls to my network inside and outside government in search of such a person. Within days, we had several candidates, and my team conducted a series of three-hour interviews with several women who had been enslaved by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), all of them Yazidis. We chose Nadia Murad, then 21 years old, who had been enslaved in August 2014, escaping months later, and was living in Germany thanks to a resettlement program devoted to Yazidi women. She described in detail her enslavement and repeated rape to a hushed council and was met with thunderous applause; many ambassadors were visibly moved. Few could remember a Security Council session as emotional. I had nothing to compare it with; it was my first.

After her testimony to the Security Council, Nadia’s life changed. She met heads of state, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and was awarded the Andrei Sakharov Prize; in September 2016, the UN secretary-general named her a UN goodwill ambassador. The story of Nadia’s ascent is one of taking a topic that is broad and often not well understood, that had never been addressed by the Security Council, and making it real through the power of an individual. Since December 2015, there have been two other Security Council sessions on trafficking, one hosted by Spain in December 2016 and the other by the United Kingdom in March 2017. In the context of the UN, that counts as a win. But in the wider world, the facts are grim: so far, no one from ISIS has been prosecuted for their crimes, and the UN estimates that 1,500 Yazidi women and girls are still held captive. Ambassador Nikki Haley has not yet spoken on the issue of human trafficking, but she has been a lone voice in support of human rights in the Trump administration, so perhaps combating human trafficking is on her to-do list.  


I came to New York wanting to continue pushing back against closing space around civil society, which is a feature of daily life at the UN. It plays out through NGOs seeking access to major UN gatherings that set global agendas on any number of issues and the many member states wanting to keep them out of such gatherings to reduce their influence in shaping agendas. The main UN unit that deals with NGO accreditation is the obscure Committee on Nongovernmental Organizations, populated by 19 member states, most of which are champions of closing space for civil society, including China, Cuba, and Russia. These states routinely delay action and accreditation. A scan of the list of NGOs published by the UN after each session revealed that hundreds had been in limbo for years. Yale University, for example, could not get accredited likely because of its program on Taiwan, and other NGOs that focus on human rights in, say, Iran or North Korea get rejected routinely.

On the list, one name stood out: the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ does brave work tracking violations and murders of journalists worldwide (and it does not hesitate to criticize the United States). CPJ volunteered generously to be the poster child to demonstrate the dysfunction of the NGO Committee, and my team and I planned a campaign to get CPJ through the accreditation process. We knew the 19-member committee vote would fail to approve it, but it would allow us to highlight through Twitter and other social media the countries that denied them access as places where journalists had perished. We planned to take the case for CPJ accreditation to a vote of the full ECOSOC, where, with the help of our vote tracker and repeated calls to ECOSOC members, we calculated we would win, which we did. Since then, other member states have been doing similar campaigns, and a few weeks ago, ECOSOC voted to finally live stream NGO Committee sessions—a victory, as Haley noted, for transparency at the UN.

Yet again, I failed to find a way to get the UN to focus more on how violent episodes from the past affect a country’s development. In UN-speak, transitional justice lives partly in “peace building,” a fuzzy mandate that is voluntarily and poorly funded; the U.S. government donated just $300,000 to it last year. It lives partly in the personage of a highly respected special rapporteur, Pablo de Greiff, whose title, “on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence,” could only mean he works for the UN. Although advocacy groups diligently work to get a special rapporteur established to address this or that problem (closing space to civil society, threats to journalists, internally displaced people, and so on), the little-discussed fact about such jobs is that they are barely funded or staffed and lack the influence to drive structural change. I do not expect any movement on elevating transitional justice anytime in the near future, and that will have both negative development and security implications.


In 2017, the change in administration was dramatic in the extreme, and the hours spent every night watching crisis after crisis only adds to the confusion. Consider that within seven days, the Trump administration tried to end policies on refugees that had been a large part of what the Obama administration had done in 2016. It is not surprising, then, that after just over 100 days in office, the Trump team would try to roll back what has been decades of investment for both Democrats and Republicans in diplomacy and development.

Trump’s budget request suggests that the shops I ran at USAID are in danger of being squeezed, if not closed, as are countless other programs. Some organizations have calculated that the request would introduce a 30 percent cut in funds the United States uses to support democracy, human rights, and governance abroad. Congress will be the key to stopping this dangerous budget, which reflects a profound lack of understanding of the role that U.S. support for international development, diplomacy, and human rights plays in advancing U.S. foreign policy.

An equally radical but polar opposite budget proposition has been floated by Christopher Murphy, the Democratic senator from Connecticut. He argues that the United States’ development and diplomatic initiatives should be as well supported as its defense programs. If you believe that human rights and sound democratic governance are key to development and security, and that much of today’s conflict and displacement is a result of governance gaps and human rights abuses, then the budgets should be rebalanced. Given the dysfunction in Congress, the most likely scenario for the State Department and USAID budget may be continuing the status quo rather than adopting either the draconian Trump request or Murphy’s visionary approach.

New ideas can stick if the leadership and the organizational culture encourage policy entrepreneurship.

In any case, U.S. officials can still create innovative policies. The way to do so is to take the massive amounts of information and issues that one is exposed to on a daily basis, recognize opportunities to advance one’s agenda, and gain the support of champions within and outside government to implement and amplify the ideas.

New ideas can stick if the leadership and the organizational culture encourage policy entrepreneurship. In the Trump era, for human rights among other topics, that could prove disastrous. But this administration is high on drama and low on focus. Layers of people need to be in place to get work done, and far too many positions in the State Department and USAID remain unfilled. If the chaos of the first several months continues, policy entrepreneurship will be relegated to the private sector, out of reach for the former businesspeople who now serve in government. For those who want the United States to continue its commitments to human rights, keeping the work humming along at capable lower levels of the bureaucracy, even if shunned by more senior levels, may be the only hope.  

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  • SARAH MENDELSON is former U.S. Ambassador to the Economic and Social Council at the United Nations. Follow her on Twitter @SarahMendelson.
  • More By Sarah E. Mendelson