Jeremy Konyndyk can gauge his daily priorities by the ever-changing maps on his office wall.
His team at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington, D.C., manages a never-ending series of crises around the world—of which the urgent ones get the most prominent real estate on the walls of his office.
The 1999 Calvin College graduate was appointed director of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) in September 2013.
He’s the second Calvin alumnus to play a leading role in the office. Bill Garvelink, who graduated in 1971, did so from 1988 to 1999, first as an assistant director for response and then as deputy director.
“Bill is a legend in this office,” noted Konyndyk. “It is rare to have someone serve for such a long time, and his era was one of tremendous development for OFDA. The spirit in this office was and still is affected by him.”
OFDA is the lead federal office responsible for coordinating the U.S. government’s humanitarian response to disasters overseas. The office works in coordination with other U.S. government entities such as the U.S. military or the Centers for Disease Control to save lives and alleviate suffering in the world.
The office responds, on average, to 70 global crises in more than 50 countries each year. Some are sudden natural disasters such as the Nepal earthquake. Other crises, such as armed conflict or drought, develop more slowly.
When disaster strikes, Konyndyk is in charge of determining how OFDA will respond.
“I have a phenomenal team,” said Konyndyk, “and the privilege of leading exceptional people, many of whom are foremost in their fields—from shelter and water experts to a volcanologist.
“My role is primarily to interface between this amazing group and the administrative policy process.”
Konyndyk was a European history and classics double major at Calvin. He thinks the skills he developed through earning a history major are invaluable to his complicated work.
“In history you have to critically analyze subject matter and think “big picture” about how history affects culture,” he said.
“There are often parallels to historical study in our work--for example, knowing how historical conflicts in the Middle East and Africa impact today’s security, political, social, and policy issues. You use the same set of intellectual tools.”
Of OFDA’s recent work, Konyndyk is most impressed with the effort to combat the Ebola virus. As harrowing as the epidemic was, with devastating effects, he believes the results would have been exponentially worse without the work of various U.S. agencies.
“There was no playbook for this crisis, no precedent to follow,” he said. “There’s a much clearer template now. The African people ultimately defeated the disease, but the awfulness avoided by the U.S. aid effort there cannot be understated.”
Konyndyk’s work is “energizing and exhausting”; the typical tenure for his position is about two years. He may surpass that mark because of his belief in the agency’s mission.
“We’re the ones trying to make things better,” he said. “We work anywhere there is hurt and try to claw back some goodness.”