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USAID staff demand action from agency leaders over 'systemic racism'

"The world is watching closely," warned hundreds of staffers in a letter to the agency's acting head.
A general view of the Agency for International Development (USAID) headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 9, 2019.
A general view of the Agency for International Development (USAID) headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 9, 2019.Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA via AP file

WASHINGTON — Staff members at the U.S. Agency for International Development on Thursday urged their leadership to take dramatic action to address "systemic racism" at a moment when the world is questioning America's credibility as an advocate for human rights, according to an internal letter to the agency's chief.

"We are proud of our work overseas to prevent violence, encourage security sector reform, and promote democracy and good governance in countries with deep ethnic and religious divisions," said the letter obtained by NBC News. "Yet USAID's credibility and effectiveness abroad are undermined by systemic racism and injustice at home."

The letter was addressed to the agency's acting administrator, John Barsa, who oversees an organization with a $20 billion annual budget and a mission to promote democracy, fight poverty and respond to natural disasters overseas.

"We are writing because USAID's family has been deeply affected by George Floyd's killing and the resulting national and worldwide protests against systemic injustice, racism, colonialism, and police brutality," said the letter.

The staff called on Barsa to "make a public statement affirming that Black Lives Matter," hold an "all-hands" meeting to answer questions, work with senior officials on a plan to hire and retain more people of color, draft an "anti-racism policy" and address the national security implications of the country's "structural racism."

"It is the Agency's responsibility to improve hiring outreach, fix our broken talent pipeline, and ensure that incoming and current nonwhite staff have equal opportunities and are paid and promoted equitably to their colleagues," it said.

Two USAID officials, who were not authorized to speak on the record, said the letter was signed by more than 1,000 staff.

USAID did not respond to requests for comment.

The letter called on the agency leadership to consult with the Departments of State and Defense on how to address the legacy of racism and discrimination and warned that actions were needed and not just words.

"Our adversaries are eagerly exploiting perceived American hypocrisy and fractures in our society; we cannot message our way out of this," it said.

It would be derelict not to have spoken out, the letter said, and failure to act "in this critical moment will undermine our credibility, harm Agency staff, and have operational consequences in the countries where we work."

"The world is watching closely," it said.

The USAID letter came a day after dozens of retired African-American ambassadors, and one current ambassador, called for a strong response to "ongoing acts of police brutality as well as our society's stubborn resistance to addressing institutional racism."

The State Department, which oversees USAID's budget, has also come under criticism that its workforce lacks diversity.

A group of veteran U.S. diplomats this week called attention to the disparity for both women and minorities in the top ranks at the State Department, noting out of 189 U.S. ambassadors serving abroad, three are African-American and four are Latino career diplomats.

"We believe that a diplomatic service and other representatives of U.S. foreign policy need to look like America, an essential part of representing our country abroad. It shows the world that a truly great nation draws its strength from all of its citizens," the American Academy of Diplomacy said in a statement. "The State Department falls short of this goal."

Despite nationwide protests since George Floyd died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes during his arrest, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not address the issue directly with his staff until Wednesday.

Pompeo told employees Wednesday he shared their outage over the death of George Floyd and "concerns about turmoil sweeping our cities." Attributing his delayed response to the timing of Floyd's burial this week, the top U.S. diplomat said in the letter that it was finally appropriate to address the issues "that are currently the topic of much debate."

"We must reject unequivocally the false charges — many of them vile propaganda emanating from China, Iran and other autocracies — questioning America's credibility in promoting human rights and democracy abroad," Pompeo wrote in the email sent department wide. "We can champion human rights and fundamental freedoms abroad because they are the high standards to which we hold ourselves."

But, he said, "the United States is imperfect."

Pompeo also said he was proud of the composition of the department, saying that minority representation had reached an all time high of nearly one third of the agency and 44 percent of employees were women.