Leveraging a Career Overseas to Run for Congress and Promote Climate Solutions

Tuesday August 24, 2021

By Meredith Miller Vostrejs

RPCV Dave Harden (Botswana 1984-86) is running for U.S. Congress. From rural Botswana to rural Maryland, and a successful Foreign Service career in between, he wants to leverage what he learned overseas to represent where he grew up, his home in Maryland’s First District.

Respect and Diplomacy: A Career in Service to America

Harden’s career started when he joined the U.S. Peace Corps, serving as a secondary school teacher in Chobe District in northern Botswana. Working in a rural village, he learned to treat everyone with respect, regardless of language or tribe; respect for others regardless of different backgrounds or opinions has continued to ground his work over the decades. “I loved the Peace Corps,” Harden states, crediting his Peace Corps service as kickstarting his international career “in service to America.”



Dave Harden teaching during Peace Corps

After Peace Corps Harden attended graduate school, earning an M.A. from Columbia University and a J.D. from Georgetown University, followed by a longstanding career in the Foreign Service. His work overseas included over a decade working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), primarily in the Middle East (Libya, Iraq, West Bank and Gaza, Yemen), as well as a stint serving as Senior Advisor to the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace. In 2016 he was nominated by President Obama to serve as Assistant Administrator of USAID’s Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he led the U.S. response to crises around the world. In 2019, upon retiring from the Foreign Service, President Trump awarded Harden the Presidential Award for Distinguished Service. His foreign service work transcended Democratic and Republican administrations; bipartisanship is a necessity of diplomatic work but may be indicative of how Harden would tackle wide-ranging, complex challenges such as climate change if elected to Congress.

Harden credits his overseas work with enabling him to work with different people around the world, as well as with Americans regardless of party affiliation. “I represented America,” Harden declares.  He hopes to apply his critical diplomatic skills to transcend the polarization gripping Congress, and work across the political divide. His overseas diplomatic track record is hitting the ground in Maryland as well; his Congressional campaign has received support from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump supporters, and everyone in between.  Perhaps Peace Corps and international development work – where accomplishments are dependent on listening to, learning from, and respecting local people – will be the secret to his success should he win his congressional race.

Climate Change: National Security Risk and Economic Engine for the Future

One of Harden’s key campaign priorities centers around climate change – both the necessity of addressing it and harnessing the opportunities it brings. At USAID Harden witnessed the effects of climate change as he helped lead the U.S. response to global crises. This included humanitarian crises, many of which are exacerbated by climate change. He cites Syria and Yemen as examples where climate and conflict are correlated: In both countries drought and limited water aggravated grievances, displacement, and ultimately conflict and civil war. The risk of climate-affected crises and conflicts may get worse as increased heat and humidity affect large swaths of humanity in South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa.  “These conditions are incompatible with human existence,” warns Harden. Yet his dire warning about the costs of climate change and its impact on humanity comes with the realist acknowledgement that, “rich people in rich countries can manage climate change better than poor people in poor countries.”

That said, “we’re not without risk in the U.S.,” states Harden. He has stated that climate change is a national security risk, and cites the disruptive effects of climate change in America, including on the economy, unemployment, and infrastructure. He also offers examples closer to home, such as land loss in Dorchester County, Maryland.  Yet Harden’s dire warnings about the cost of climate change to America and everyday people comes with an excitement about the opportunities it brings. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a climate change believer or skeptic. Capital markets, climate, and technology have made the decision to move to climate solutions,” declares Harden.


“It doesn’t matter if you’re a climate change believer or skeptic.

Capital markets, climate, and technology have made the decision to move to climate solutions.” 

Climate Solutions: A National and Global Imperative

Harden contrasts climate change disruption and a bleak future with one filled with climate solutions and promise.  For Harden, technology to address climate challenges is a bold pathway to a better future where Maryland can seize the future, and America more broadly can secure our leadership role in the world. To achieve this Harden cites the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Climate (ARPA-C), a working group recently launched by the Biden administration to accelerate research and development in climate change technologies. According to the White House, ARPA-C will, “foster affordable, game-changing technologies that can help America achieve the President’s goal of net zero economy-wide emissions by 2050.”  Harden likened ARPA-C to the modern version of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and its development of breakthrough technology during the Cold War that helped facilitate America’s rise in global power.  In Harden’s view, seizing climate solutions and their technological innovations is critical for ensuring US leadership and standing in the global hierarchy.

According to Harden, climate solutions can greatly benefit not only the country, but highly vulnerable places like the Eastern Shore in Maryland, where he wants to see significant investments in climate innovation, technology, and infrastructure. Harden views investments in climate solutions as an economic engine, with plans for his District to serve as an accelerator and incubator – and ideally national role model – for developing, building, and trading climate solutions to the world, while simultaneously reinvigorating rural communities and economies like his in Maryland. “We have a choice: we build it and sell it to the world, or we buy it from others who do,” says Harden in a matter-of-fact manner. He sums up what’s at stake succinctly: the countries who embrace and advance climate solutions will be “the winners for the next century.”


Dave Harden working in South Sudan


Running for Congress: Listening to Locals

Harden aims to leverage what he learned overseas in his run for Congress as a Democratic candidate for Maryland’s First District. His time at USAID built on the principles he learned during Peace Corps, including respect for others and the importance of working with locals. “We learned overseas that you can’t ignore locals…without locals there is no success.”

Domestically, Harden prides himself on listening to his District’s locals, including rural constituents and working-class people. He sums up his Congressional priorities as responding to what Americans want: “A fair deal.”  Harden’s fair deal includes a representative and fair democratic system where people can vote; an economy that offers not “handouts but a hand up” through investment, technology, and rural development; and opportunities that promote equality and inclusion. Key to realizing any of these goals is the ability to transcend polarized politics. Harden’s career, from Peace Corps to Foreign Service and the awareness and skills sets they provided, may be just what is needed to move his agenda forward.

Supporting Peace Corps

If Harden wins his congressional race, he will be joining a small minority of RPCVs who have served in Congress (currently John Garamendi (D-CA) is the only RPCV in the House of Representatives). He pledges to support Peace Corps through funding, visiting volunteers, and holding a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting to ensure Peace Corps Volunteers get what they need to be effective in their communities.  Harden also offered to have Peace Corps volunteers over for dinner…which in the end may earn him supporters both within and beyond Maryland. He invites RPCVs to connect with him and his campaign, and if you’re lucky you just might get that dinner invite.


Dave Harden in South Sudan for USAID


Meredith Miller Vostrejs (RPCV St. Vincent & Grenadines 1995-97) is the RPCV4EA Newsletter Editor. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, who she met in the Peace Corps, and their two teens. She works in the field of global health, which is increasingly impacted by changes to the environment.


* Author’s Note:  You can hear Dave Harden on September 25th during the Peace Corps Connect 2021 Conference, where he will be on the panel Climate Change and Migration: policies, people and proposed solutionssponsored by RPCVs for Environmental Action (RPCV4EA) and the Peace Corps Community for Refugees (PCC4R). More details about the conference and registration info can be found here.

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