In the quiet basement of USAID’s headquarters, towards the end of a winding hallway, USAID’s image library sits among meeting rooms and storage space.  Sturdy, tightly packed boxes line the walls of this secured space. The files within contain official portraits and snapshots that help illustrate the Agency’s history with focal points that vary by mission, time and place. The innocent faces of children, jubilant adults exiting cardboard voting booths, people of all ages, seated and astute, captivated by books, a lecture, learning. Sepia tones, vivid color, working, farming, thriving. While I could spend hours exploring these files, during yesterday’s library visit I had a very specific goal: find images of Brian Atwood.

As the much-revered administrator of USAID from 1992 to 1998, I am told Brian strolled through the halls of USAID’s many DC offices–at one time totaling more than 10 buildings across the DMV– greeting staff by name with a quiet but sincere warmth that won’t be soon forgotten.

Among hundreds of prints and slides that span eras and continents, I quickly found images of Brian engaged in intense conversation, several of him walking with Nelson Mandela, and a variety of snapshots chronicling mission visits and addressing large crowds.  Photos that tell epic stories with concision.  Far off landscapes, rugged terrain, USAID projects in various stages of construction and practice. Armed with a few of these images, my notebook, and a handheld digital recorder, I left the library to meet Brian for the first time.

Traveling to the U.S. from Paris to present an examination of the country’s development programs and policies to the U.S. Government and development community, Brian graciously accepted my interview request.

As the head of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD/DAC), Brian represents this peer review intended to identify what’s working—and what’s not—to improve development outcomes.

But I didn’t ask him about the outcomes of this year’s review, and I didn’t ask him about our progress since the last review. I wanted stories.

With pictures reflecting the significance of our work and the profound change development inspires spread across the table between us, he summarized the challenge.

“Our primary clients are the poor in the developing world—one of the most difficult places to work—and no other government agency has our challenges.”

Regarding the current budget environment, Brian warned against the use of long term development resources as a solution for shorter term problems. He pointed to the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and the Presidential Policy Directive (PPD), which argue that the US Government must have the capacity to invest in long term development and that the greater development mission is inarguably a necessary one.

Look for more about my discussion with Brian Atwood—his most memorable accomplishments, advice on how we can retain our seasoned mission directors in the field and harness the power of the next generation of development professionals—in future posts highlighting USAID’s 50 years of saving  and improving lives.