When civil war broke out in Ethiopia in 2020, an estimated two million people were displaced and the large U.S. development program in the beleaguered country was at risk.
The U.S. Agency for International Development had to react quickly to provide humanitarian aid and keep numerous development programs operating while remaining impartial in the conflict. The agency also pressed all parties to allow the assistance to reach those who needed it and to cease human rights abuses.
Jonathan Dworken, director of USAID’s East Africa Office, was instrumental in navigating these challenges, taking a new approach to coordinating efforts across the agency and supporting USAID colleagues in the field even as more than 40 U.S. staff members were evacuated from the country in November 2021 and had to operate from safe havens in different countries and numerous time zones.
Dworken also went to great lengths to advocate for the safety of the local Ethiopian staff who remained in the country, raising the visibility of the recurring issue of security during the extended crisis.
“Jonathan maintained an unrelenting focus on the innocent Ethiopian population and every step along the way took steps to ensure we could continue to provide services and opportunities for those who were impacted by the conflict,” said Diana Putman, who leads USAID’s Bureau for Africa.
“Ultimately, his behind-the-scenes work ensured that children could continue to go to school, mothers could access health care and farmers could manage their crops,” Putman said.
Instead of assembling a task force or senior-level team to manage the response—USAID’s normal mechanism for dealing with a major crisis—the agency leadership endorsed the Africa Bureau, Dworken and other experts on Ethiopia to handle Washington’s response.
To implement this approach, Dworken led daily coordination calls with some 50 people in Washington and abroad from 20 agency bureaus as well as offices running different programs in Ethiopia to obtain accurate, up-to-date information, coordinate policy positions and convey that information to agency leadership.
That effort to connect Washington, the field and experts across the agency facilitated collaboration and proved to be a quick and effective approach, according to Dworken’s colleagues.
”Sometimes you just need someone to lead. In this case, it was Jonathan Dworken,” said Robert Jenkins, who leads USAID’s Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization. “He was responsible for the efficacy of our programs in the field and also having USAID’s voice heard at the National Security Council,” where the agency had recently been given a seat for the first time.
“He was the orchestra conductor for the Ethiopian crisis,” Jenkins said.
Dworken said responding to a crisis like the one in Ethiopia cannot be the work of one person, but must be a team effort.
“The knowledge, dedication and relationships were already there. Rather than develop something new, we just needed to knit experts together without creating a new bureaucracy or changing lines of authority for decision-making,” Dworken said.
The challenges were daunting: providing humanitarian aid such as emergency food, water and shelter to people in the war-torn northern part of the country while continuing longer-term development programs, such as primary health care for women and children elsewhere to help all Ethiopians and demonstrate U.S. evenhandedness.
Dworken has focused on several African crises during his career, including those in South Sudan and Somalia, served in different divisions of USAID, including the Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance, and worked at the National Security Council as director of humanitarian assistance.
“I’ve learned that you have to double down on good coordination, communication and sharing information because it’s even harder to work on a crisis when staff is dispersed,” he said.
His wide experience along with his ability to manage people helped him provide agency officials with the information they needed and for USAID to continue the delivery of critical assistance.
“He inspires trust from leadership,” said Colin Thomas-Jensen, USAID’s national security adviser. “We saw him as a partner linking the bureaus to the front office. We knew the crisis was in good hands.”
“It’s important to have a seasoned, knowledgeable, collaborative leader such as Jonathan at the helm,” said Sarah Charles, who leads USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance. “Jonathan navigated the situation brilliantly.”