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Thursday, 4 February 2021

My WFH Routine: Leslie Reed, Egypt mission director of USAID

Leslie Reed, Egypt mission director of USAID: My Morning / WFH Routine looks each week at how a successful member of the community starts their day — and then throws in a couple of random work questions just for fun. Speaking to us this week is Leslie Reed (Bio). Edited excerpts from our conversation:

I’m Leslie Reed, and I’m the mission director for the US Agency for International Development — or USAID — in Egypt. Through USAID, the US government has invested more than USD 30 bn in Egypt’s development. Together with the Egyptian people and government, we’ve built an incredible legacy over the last 40 years.

When I first wake up, my husband and I like to walk our dog Cleo (Cleopatra) through the quiet streets of Maadi before the world has kicked into full gear. We usually walk a few miles, grab a cup of coffee along the way, and muse about current events or work ideas.

These days, a lot of my day is taken up by virtual meetings, with an occasional in-person or virtual event. Our team has been really creative about developing virtual field trips. This way, in spite of covid-19 restrictions, I’ve been able to see what USAID partners are up to outside of Cairo, whether collaborating with the Social Solidarity Ministry to provide support to survivors of violence against women or working with agricultural input providers who are working with smallholder farmers to increase yields and incomes. I can’t wait until I can get out there to see more in-person.

We WFH to the greatest extent possible and prioritize keeping our staff healthy and staying flexible so that people can meet the needs of their families during this global crisis. In a collaborative organization like ours, this has been a dramatic shift, and we are still adjusting. Our programs have shifted, too, to meet the changing environment and to meet emerging needs. On the whole, however, we have been pleased to see how much we can do virtually and how accelerated adoption of ICT tools has transformed how we work and what we do.

I love to be outdoors. I love walking, hiking, exploring, swimming — and I’m really looking forward to learning how to scuba dive. The Red Sea is calling.

Sometimes people confuse USAID’s development work and humanitarian assistance with charity. Charity is, of course, a wonderful expression of humanity. Development, however, is a discipline built on the premise that your well-being and mine are inextricably linked. We come at this from a place of humility, respect and, ultimately, mutual interest. If there was ever any doubt about that, I believe that the pandemic has made that truism abundantly clear.

The absolute best part of my job is getting out to meet those that USAID is supporting — and learning new things. When I first arrived in August 2020, I met Hagga Fayza, a farmer from Beni Suef who has increased productivity, reduced production costs, and become more lucrative because of a partnership pilot between USAID and Chipsy. Not only did I meet an amazing woman farmer, I learned a lot from the agronomist explaining how this model could be replicated and scaled up. And, when our acting administrator was in town, he, US Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, International Cooperation Minister Rania Al Mashat, and I met with young entrepreneurs at Flat6Labs who are starting up exciting new businesses, often with cutting-edge technology at the core. They were an impressive group and their potential is super exciting.

USAID shares the perspective that there is great power in the private sector. We will be supporting the Egyptian government’s efforts to improve Egypt’s ease of doing business scores, so that more private sector companies and investors choose Egypt, and we have created some feedback loops with the private sector so that we can keep tabs on progress. But despite the dynamism and growth, there are still great inequities in the country. We will be working to minimize these disparities, ideally in ways that close the gaps permanently.

When I first wanted to get into development, an Egyptian friend’s father advised me that I had two choices: The World Bank or USAID. Now, many years later, there are so many people and organizations engaged in development that we couldn’t possibly count them all — including the private sector. There are many, many challenges in the world and it will take all of us working together, bringing together our different perspectives, to address them.

I believe that my most important job as a mission director is to reignite the spark and to support each person’s leadership potential, so that we have 150+ people within USAID galvanizing the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of partners who themselves are leaders in their respective fields and communities. That’s how ideas become reality and real change can happen.

I just finished reading The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson, which follows Winston Churchill during the first years of his being prime minister. It’s a page-turning tale of the early stages of the Second World War, with an insider’s view of his leadership style — how he built coalitions, supported innovation, cut through red-tape, and deployed his incomparable communication skills to garner support for what was really an up-hill battle against the Nazis.

It’s easier to be organized when you are freed from clutter, and moving every few years compels us to divest ourselves of unneeded items. Not only do we end up with less “stuff,” but our outgrown clothes, extra furniture, unused household items, etc., are often just what someone else was looking for.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given actually came from someone I never met. There’s an inspiring quote from Benjamin Mays — one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mentors — that I usually keep at my desk: “The tragedy of life doesn't lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream … It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is sin.”

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