by Ara Friedman
Jeremy Konyndyk (MSFS ‘03), Director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, has been working in disaster relief for many years but the Ebola epidemic raging in West Africa now is the first time he has seen this disease cause an outbreak of such scope. “This is the first time that USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) has been involved in an Ebola outbreak, which traditionally has been the domain of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),”Konyndyk said. The span of this outbreak required a broader approach to bring it under control. “We worked closely with CDC to deploy a U.S. government Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to marry up their technical expertise and public health skills with our logistical, programmatic, and operational skills. The result has been a DART response unlike any we have done before, to respond to this unprecedented epidemic.”
There are currently more than 2,100 U.S. civilian and military personnel in West Africa, which includes the DART deployed by USAID to oversee overall Ebola response efforts, making this the largest-ever U.S. response to a global health crisis. According to Nancy Lindborg, an Assistant Administrator at USAID, the goal of the DART is to “oversee and coordinate the U.S. response, providing logistics, planning, program, and operational support to the affected countries; drawing forth critical assets and resources from several U.S. departments and agencies.” The DART is one of the essential tools that OFDA uses to respond to large-scale disasters.
A shortage of doctors and nurses in West Africa has been one of the greatest challenges in fighting the Ebola epidemic. Further complicating this issue has been the fear in the United States surrounding anyone returning from West Africa.
“The biggest challenge on this front has been ensuring that health care workers and other responders involved in the effort can join the fight without fear of stigma or punitive measures upon their return,”Konyndyk said. Additional medical personnel are still needed to continue the fight against this disease.
Konyndyk joined OFDA as its director in 2013 after a career in humanitarian assistance that alternated between the U.S. government and the NGO community. “I have…found it extremely valuable, in my own career, to bounce back and forth between the government and non-governmental sectors. By working in the humanitarian field from both the donor and implementer perspective, I have gained a much better and more holistic understanding of the system as a whole,”Konyndyk said. He entered the humanitarian field straight out of college when he had an opportunity to work in Albania on refugee assistance during the Kosovo conflict. “I found the work to be exciting and meaningful, and have been hooked ever since.”
Graduate school beckoned when Jeremy returned from Albania and he enrolled in the Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) program at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. “MSFS did a great job of weaving the theory and practice of international relations,”Konyndyk said. “I took a number of courses with active practitioners during my time at MSFS, and now find myself working with some of them! Just recently I joined U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power for a trip to West Africa. Another member of the delegation was Andy Weber [MSFS ‘86], who taught a seminar that I took while in MSFS. And even better, when this same delegation visited Brussels we met with Ambassador Mark Storella, who also taught a course I took while at Georgetown.”
After MSFS, Konyndyk spent time at the State Department’s refugee bureau, managing their Balkans portfolio. A position as Country Director with the American Refugee Committee took Konyndyk to Africa where he spent 5 years leading refugee assistance and post-conflict recovery operations in Guinea, South Sudan and Uganda. Konyndyk credits his time overseas in the Balkans and Africa as being integral to his understanding of humanitarian issues. “My biggest piece of advice to aspiring humanitarians is to get overseas early in your career, and go do the legwork of humanitarian response. There is no substitute for field experience and the granular understanding that comes with it,”Konyndyk reflected.
Konyndyk’s varied experiences serve him well now as his team continues to fight Ebola. As of November 12, there were more than 14,000 confirmed cases of Ebola in the affected countries in West Africa and over 5,000 deaths. For more information on how you can help, please visit http://www.usaid.gov/ebola.