Greg Collins, former USAID resilience coordinator and deputy assistant administrator for the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has been appointed associate vice president of resilience and international development at the University of Arizona.
In the newly created role, Collins is charged with leading the university’s transdisciplinary approach to resilience and international development; creating opportunities for faculty to influence and be in direct conversation with policymakers and practitioners in the field; and developing collaborative partnerships between the university, partner country governments, industry stakeholders, and communities around the world.
“While at USAID, I witnessed a disconnect between the research and innovation coming from universities and what practitioners are doing on the ground,” Collins said. “There’s an urgent need to close that gap. So, as I was looking for a new challenge, I saw this as the perfect opportunity to do just that as a means of supporting and empowering communities and countries to become more resilient at one of the most challenging moments in history.”
Today, climate change, conflict, and the COVID-19 have caused millions of people to backslide into poverty and hunger, and many of those who were already poor and hungry have descended further into crisis levels of hunger, Collins said.
“My vision for the University of Arizona is to leverage our disciplinary excellence while transcending disciplinary boundaries, because the nature of these problems demands it,” he said, adding that he was drawn to the university because the Arizona Institutes for Resilience (AIR), launched in 2020 and led by interim director James Buizer, had already begun to lay the groundwork for this vision.
“The university has already made an ambitious commitment to resilience-related research and innovation, particularly when we created AIR,” said Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell, senior vice president of research and innovation. Dr. Collins brings the leadership and the unparalleled expertise needed to expand on that commitment by strengthening our engagement with the governments, NGOs, and communities who benefit from the creation of new knowledge.”
At USAID, Collins led the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, providing strategic vision and oversight for the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative and USAID’s efforts to build resilience in areas of recurrent crises. Collins also served as USAID’s first resilience coordinator and, previously, the founding director of USAID’s Center for Resilience. He is a globally recognized thought leader on resilience and played a lead role elevating resilience at USAID and within the field of international development.
Collins’ tenure at USAID was punctuated by a series of large-scale drought events that led he and the organization to begin to think differently about recurring crises. In 2011, the Horn of Africa saw its worst drought in more than 60 years. In 2012, millions of Sahelians suffered food insecurity due to severe drought. In 2016, southern Africans experienced destroyed crops, dead livestock, and blackouts due to severe drought.
“Prior to these major drought events, we were going back to the same people and the same places every three to five years, spending billions on short-term humanitarian aid,” Collins said. “It became abundantly clear that we need to treat shocks and stressors like drought as fundamental features of landscapes.”
In that context, the concept of “resilience,” which Collins describes as a set of capacities that allows countries and communities to avoid devasting fallout even in the face of accelerating shocks and stresses, became the central focus of his career. USAID began strategizing around and investing in longer term solutions to these recurring crises, such as education, agriculture, water and sanitation, nutrition, natural resource management, disaster risk management and effective governance. This cross-disciplinary approach to strengthening resilience now informs the agency’s efforts to assist communities and countries adapting to the accelerating impact of climate change.
Prior to joining USAID in 2010, Collins spent more than a decade as an analyst and strategic advisor for a variety United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations, including the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, UN World Food Programme, UNICEF, and CARE International. He has extensive experience living and working throughout Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Caribbean. Collins earned his PhD in Economic Sociology from UC Davis, his MPH from Tulane University, and his BA in Anthropology from UC Davis.
“I’ve been told realizing this vision is going to be a big challenge, but I heard that at USAID too,” he said. “I’m up for it.”