Ambassador Donald Steinberg recently stepped down as president and CEO of World Learning, an international nonprofit organization that provides education, exchange, and development programs in more than 60 countries. Steinberg has more than 40 years of experience in government and nongovernmental organizations, and expertise in the fields of international relations and development; Women, Peace and Security; and atrocity prevention. Prior to World Learning, Steinberg served as deputy administrator at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where he focused on the Middle East and Africa; organizational reforms under the USAID Forward agenda; the inclusion of women, people with disabilities, LGBT persons, and other marginalized groups into the development arena; and expanded dialogue with development partners.
We sat down with Ambassador Steinberg to learn more about his tremendous accomplishments.
What are you currently working on?
Since leaving my position as president of World Learning in October 2017, I’ve focused on the global commitment to eliminate extreme poverty in the next 20 years. Previously, as deputy administrator at the US Agency for International Development (USAID), I had the privilege to help write the paragraph in President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address where he pledged that the United States would work with our allies to eradicate extreme poverty within the next two decades. He said we would achieve this by connecting more people to the global economy; by empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve; by helping communities to feed, power, and educate themselves; by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation.
I firmly believe this is an achievable goal. Half of the world’s poorest people have moved across the poverty line—defined as per capita income of under $1.90 per day—over the past 20 years. We’re working in a framework that all countries have signed onto through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Personally, I’m focusing on addressing situations where extreme poverty is increasingly concentrated. This includes two key challenges: addressing armed conflict and empowering marginalized populations.
Armed conflict is perhaps the greatest threat to our goal of eliminating extreme poverty. A growing percentage of the extremely poor now live in countries faced with deadly conflict and civil war. Conflict is a development destroyer: years of painstaking economic growth can vanish overnight when fighting emerges. The lack of security, stability, and accountability can doom the best planned development drive. One of my principal efforts now is to ensure that peace processes around the world are more effective and resilient.
A key reason most peace processes now fail within the first decade of their signature is that they don’t involve the whole population in the process. Cease-fires, peace agreements, and post-conflict reconstruction efforts are dominated by the men who were combatants, and yet it is women, people with disabilities, indigenous populations, racial and religious minorities, displaced persons, and other marginalized groups who have suffered most and are essential to addressing the root causes of conflict. As a result, I am working—including through a program with Our Secure Future that we call Mobilizing Male Allies for Women, Peace, and Security, or MAWPS—to make peace processes diverse and inclusive.
In particular, without the involvement of women as leaders, planners, implementers, and beneficiaries of these processes, they are doomed to fail. We need to draw on the full skills, ground truth, and resources of half the population. Post-conflict reconstruction especially must address girls’ education; leadership training for women in business, government, and civil society; accountability for sexual violence and abuse; and reproductive health care.
I’m also working as a senior fellow at the umbrella organization, InterAction, which is a coalition of 180 US nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) doing international development and humanitarian relief. My focus is diversity and inclusion, helping these organizations conduct programs to empower and address the needs of marginalized populations; mainstream and integrate the advantages of diversity into all their programs; and serve as spokespersons for inclusion, thought leaders, and learning institutions. We’re also supporting their work to “walk the talk” by ensuring that, within their structures, they create inclusive leadership practices, human resources policies, training programs, and safe spaces for dialogues for their own workforces, including women, people with disabilities, racial and religious minorities, and LGBT populations.
What is the one thing you want most to change in the world?
In broad terms, I want to see our major political, economic, and social institutions reexamine themselves and their global roles. Governments, businesses, foundations, civil society organizations, and international institutions have operated in ways that create siloes and divisions, when in fact they should be looking for partnerships and synergies. The idea that government addresses public welfare and security, civil society looks after social and ethical issues, business is about making profits for shareholders, and so on is no longer appropriate or effective. In fact, the lines between the goals and practices of these institutions are vanishing. The most exciting work I’ve done in the last decade has been developing partnerships.
For example, at USAID, we supported a partnership called the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, or MAMA. Working first in Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, and South Africa, MAMA uses age- and stage-based messages directed toward pregnant women, new mothers, and families to foster behavior change and improve maternal and child health outcomes. With the support of business, governments, civil society, and health professionals, MAMA provides access to health information and care via their phones, either in writing or orally. When a woman becomes pregnant, she registers with her phone company and gets regular messages saying things like, “Now it’s time to see an obstetrician,” or “Now you have to stop drinking and smoking,” or “Now you should get your infant vaccinated and weighed to ensure he/she is growing normally.” The program is now saving lives and fighting child stunting and disease all around the world. The medical professionals like it because it’s involving parents as active participants in their children’s health, governments like it because it’s reducing costs of emergency care, and the phone companies like it because it’s tying the family to use of their phone service. At USAID, we implemented nearly 2,000 of these kinds of partnerships in the health, education, food security, energy, water, and sanitation arenas, and they remain among the most successful of all our efforts.
How do you use Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) and UNSC Resolution 1325 in your work?
The WPS agenda and Resolution 1325 are a key part of all my efforts. I was honored to take part in the exercise to bring Resolution 1325 into existence in 2000, reflecting my concern that the systematic exclusion of women from peace processes until then was a principal reason for the failure of post-conflict reconciliation and reconstruction work.
When I served as US Ambassador in Angola and as a member of the Joint Peace Commission there in the mid-1990s, I saw that our failure to engage women in the work to end a 25-year civil war was hindering the process. There were 40 men and no women at the table in the Joint Peace Commission, which led to serious mistakes. For example, one of our first actions was to grant 13 separate amnesties to the warring parties for crimes committed during the conflict. By doing so, we undercut our efforts to reestablish rule of law and accountability, and we sent the unintended message to the survivors of violence that the peace process was mainly for the men with the guns. We also ignored root causes of the conflict, including the poverty that came from an absence of girls’ education, psychosocial support for conflict survivors, maternal-child and reproductive health care, and livelihood opportunities for women. As a result, the peace process lacked popular support and was destined to fail.
These lessons drove my engagement with Resolution 1325 and, more recently, my work with One Earth Future and Our Secure Future under the MAWPS advocacy project. We’ve brought together hundreds of individuals and more than 70 institutions who understand the importance of women’s engagement in global security and peace issues. We’ve enlisted male and female leaders from the diplomatic, development, defense, and business communities in an advocacy network based on a charter that makes the case clearly and succinctly. The network is pressing for women’s engagement with leaders of national governments, the United Nations, and other global institutions. We’re ensuring that these advocates are accompanied and informed by grassroots women leaders from conflict-affected countries, who can share ground truth and personal stories to back up the empirical evidence. We also intend to encourage universities and colleges to expand their work on peacebuilding and conflict transformation to fully reflect the role of gender in these processes.
MAWPS will also monitor implementation of National Action Plans under Resolution 1325 and national laws in this sector. I was pleased to see at long last the passage last year of the US Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, which was co-sponsored by female and male Senators and Representatives from both parties. I testified before Congressional committees three times over the past 10 years in support of this act. Now, MAWPS will help keep the Administration’s feet to the fire in making women a part of peace processes, empowering them as leaders and implementers of reconstruction and reconciliation, addressing issues of greatest importance to social and political stability, and fighting gender-based violence and abuse.
What keeps you up at night?
What literally keeps me up at night is Parkinson’s disease. It is a progressive ailment caused by the death of brain cells that produce dopamine, which controls the nervous and muscular systems. I was diagnosed with the disease four years ago, and one of the side effects of both the disease and the drugs is that I have extreme difficulty sleeping.
The downsides of Parkinson’s—shaking extremities, a mask-like face, slow walk, reduced energy, and quiet speech—are obvious, but adapting to the disease is less a tragedy than it is a transition. One advantage is that it forces you to establish clear priorities. When people have open-ended futures in front of them, they see themselves as immortal and without boundaries. By contrast, because Parkinson’s is progressive and steals the time and energy I have, it forces me to define priorities, clarify goals, recognize limits, and cherish family and friends. But it allows me to get rid of a lot of the clutter that defined my life.
It has also given me a better understanding of prejudices and stereotypes in our society. I’ve spent much of my life working on issues related to marginalized populations, but as a straight white male, I’ve never really understood prejudice from a personal standpoint. Combined with my age—I’m now 65 years old—I have a better understanding of the impact of stereotypes. Now, people see my left arm and chin shake and hear my quieter voice and they assume that I have suffered cognitive decline as well and perhaps am a little behind the times. My current work involves some highly advanced technological tools, including datapaloozas, digital fabrication laboratories, crowdsourcing, hack-a-thons, and big data. When I discuss them, it’s fun to see people often react as if I’m a dog walking on its hind legs.
What has surprised you most about this work?
With respect to women’s empowerment and gender equality, I’ve been surprised by the breadth of institutions from which supporters and allies come. In particular, some of the most sympathetic and convinced advocates come from the military and security sectors. While rightly perceived as “macho” institutions, the US armed services and security agencies are in general very good about developing talent without regard to sex, race, religion, disability, or gender identity. They are so mission-oriented that what matters is what people can do and how they can contribute to the team effort.
They also understand the link between empowerment, stability, and security. They know that countries that draw on the full contributions of all their people don’t tend to traffic in drugs, people, and weapons. They don’t harbor terrorists or pirates, incubate and transmit pandemic diseases, need large humanitarian assistance efforts, send huge numbers of refugees across borders and even oceans, or require foreign troops on their soil.
Similarly, I’ve found that there is no direct correlation between where you are on the political spectrum and where you stand on valuing women and other historically marginalized populations and their contributions. The allies on this agenda come from liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, women and men, and all ethnic, religious, and racial groups, as do the opponents.
What should we pay attention to now?
On diversity and inclusion and the WPS agenda, we have seen rapid progress on norms, attitudes, and public statements over the past decade. But it’s not clear that the actions and policies of our major institutions have kept pace. Leaders are talking the talk much more frequently now, but it’s essential for them to walk the walk. By that, I mean applying the same tough principles of monitoring, measurement, and evaluation to these issues that they do to their substantive programs. We need to be purposeful and intentional about our actions.
As institutions and individuals, we cannot spout strong rhetoric but apply soft standards to these issues. We cannot rank these priorities low on the agenda, to make excuses rather than changes, and to fail to hold individuals and departments accountable for progress. Business, government, and NGO leaders would never ignore goals and metrics in trying to achieve their financial or program goals, yet they rarely demand the same of their work on diversity and inclusion, philanthropic giving, corporate social responsibility, and public-private partnerships. In my work at InterAction, I’m helping our members to address this challenge. Groups like Save the Children, Plan International, World Learning, PCI, the Solidarity Center, Trickle-Up, and American Jewish World Service have adopted clear and measurable time-bound goals, backed by clear indicators, ample financial and human resources, accountability provisions, and feedback loops.
Purposeful attention to achieving these outcomes is essential if we are to reach the goals of diverse and inclusive workplaces that we’ve set for ourselves.