Most people correctly view the threat of an avian flu pandemic as a potential public health crisis. And it is true that scientists must take the lead in preparing for this risk. But the fact that an avian influenza pandemic would be an international crisis means that it would require an international response. Accordingly, diplomacy must play a key role in any preparation strategy. For this challenge, the United States tapped one of its most noted diplomats—Ambassador Nancy Powell.
Ambassador Powell assumed the new position of Special Representative on Avian and Pandemic Influenza shortly after the November 2005 announcement of a National Avian Influenza Strategy. That strategy put the onus on the Department of State to coordinate international preparations and assistance related to avian flu. In meeting this goal, Ambassador Powell exceeded all expectations.
She ensured a prominent U.S. role as the World Bank, E.U. and China joined together at a January 2006 donors conference to pledge $1.9 billion to help affected countries develop preparedness plans, improve surveillance systems and begin to build the capacity to contain and treat avian influenza.
She worked with the World Health Organization to develop a preliminary global containment strategy, which sets out the responsibilities of the countries in which an outbreak takes place, as well as for donor countries and international organizations. This document is the key to ensuring that the international community can work in concert to combat an outbreak wherever it may occur.
Powell supported USDA’s successful efforts in getting the agreement of the Food and Agriculture Organization on the need to develop a 24-hour “Avian Influenza Watch Center” and a rapid response capability.
She oversaw the development of the international sections of an “implementation plan” that lays out specific timeframes and benchmarks for meeting the United States’ international obligations under the National Strategy, describing in concrete terms exactly what we must do and when in order to ensure that we are not caught unaware by an outbreak.
Powell designed and set up a special interagency task force within the State Department dedicated exclusively to coordinating all international aspects of the U.S. preparation for and response to an avian flu pandemic. Other agencies and countries have emulated her example.
Once you have laid the foundation for the international response to a lethal threat, what do you do for an encore? If you are Ambassador Powell, you move to the front lines in the battle against an equally deadly international threat—terrorism. In March 2006, Powell took a post as the first National Intelligence Officer for South Asia. In this new position, she will lead the National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) effort to expand its coverage in this region which is vitally important in the war on terror. She will also enhance the NIC’s focus on questions related to India’s emerging as a major power, in addition to India-Pakistan relations.
These two prestigious posts mark the culmination of an impressive career in public service. Nancy Powell served successively as U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Uganda and Ghana. Previously, she served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bangladesh, as Consul General in Calcutta, India and the State Department’s Political Counselor in New Delhi. More recently, Powell has been Acting Assistant Secretary of State of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement and Acting Assistant Secretary of Legislative Affairs.
This medalist was the recipient of the Homeland Security Medal. This medal was combined with the Justice and Law Enforcement category in 2013, and renamed the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal in 2020.