Sara Aviel, Principal at Margalit Strategies LLC
August 25, 2020
Q. Your career began in international development, where you led advocacy programs in Afghanistan and promoted financing for enterprises in developing countries. Why did you decide to begin your career in development, and what about it most excited you?
I began my career in international development out of a commitment to social justice. I traveled extensively with my family as a child and struggled then, as I do today, to make sense of the extreme disparities I observed. Yet I am also incredibly inspired by the resilience and compassion and ingenuity of so many of the individuals I’ve met through my work, from grandmothers caring for multiple AIDS orphans in Zambia to Afghan widows proudly voting in their first presidential election to Peruvian farmers and artisans creating new markets for their products. The work was always meaningful, challenging, and intellectually stimulating,
Q. Your career evolved toward government and policy, and you have served in the Department of the Treasury, the National Security Council, the World Bank Group, and the Office of Management and Budget. At OMB, you were the number 3 ranking official and oversaw the $4 trillion federal budget. What are you most proud of during your tenure in government?
It is hard to pick one thing but one thread that connects through all the roles I had was a focus on the most vulnerable. Secretary Geithner nicknamed me the “conscience of Treasury” because I was always pushing on whether we could do more to make policies more equitable, more inclusive, and more just. I’m proud that I retained that focus throughout my tenure in government, from advocating for greater accountability from financial institutions to increasing and improving our assistance to refugees.
I’m also just generally proud of having served under President Obama and having been part of an exceptional team that together responded effectively to crises, managed government competently and with integrity, and advanced critical reforms that succeeded in making our country and the world more prosperous, more equitable, more inclusive, and more sustainable. Effective leadership prevented the financial crisis from turning into a depression and the Ebola outbreak from turning into a global pandemic. While I’m proud of all that we accomplished, it is frustrating to see how quickly gains can be reversed. When government works it can be easy to take it for granted, but we shouldn’t, and I hope we are learning that lesson.
Q. You were also part of the Executive Board of the World Bank Group. What was it like to be nominated by President Obama, becoming one of the youngest women ever confirmed by the Senate?
Being nominated by President Obama was an incredible honor, as was the opportunity to serve as the voice of the United States at the World Bank. From increasing financing for the very poorest to deepening the World Bank’s commitment to social inclusion and fighting climate change, I am proud of the progress we achieved. I very much recognize that the ability to make these changes was due to the respect and influence President Obama engendered around the world, and the sense that the United States was motivated not by self-interest but by a true commitment to making a difference for all. It also required working closely with allies, and I’m especially grateful for the strong partnership I forged with my French colleagues. From improving the Bank’s capital position to strengthening its focus on fragile states, together we made a significant difference in the world.
As for being one of the youngest women, it was definitely quite the contrast. When I was going through the Senate confirmation process in 2012, the average age in the Senate was twice my age and overwhelmingly male. I’m proud of making it through the grueling confirmation process and showing that leadership comes in all different forms. It was also good preparation for dealing with my foreign counterparts on the Board of the World Bank, many of whom were former finance ministers and predominantly older and male. I found that being underestimated could sometimes work to my advantage by surprising counterparts with my determination, knowledge, and commitment. Over time, I found that building strong personal relationships could break through most perceived differences.
Q. What is the greatest challenge to running your own consulting firm, Margalit Strategies, these days?
The biggest challenge is having to quickly get up to speed on so many different issues, organizations, and approaches at the same time, but that’s also what makes it so interesting. From engaging investors on ESG (environmental, social, and governance) issues to helping governments identify local economic development opportunities to strengthening stakeholder outreach at a multilateral organization, the mix of perspectives and topics is fascinating. Yet even though each engagement is very different, I find that they often build on each other and collectively reinforce the idea that creating social change requires pushing on multiple fronts.
Q. You have a passion for wildlife conservation and sit on the Board of the African Wildlife Foundation. Can you tell us about any interesting travels to view wildlife?
I’ve enjoyed some really interesting wildlife travels including visiting the Arctic, the Galapagos, and Madagascar, but I think my single favorite wildlife experience was trekking to see the gorillas in Rwanda. There is just something so magical about coming face to face with one of our closest animal relatives and experiencing our profound similarities. The gorilla family we observed had a pair of young twins who were incredibly playful and energetic and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine my kids joining right into their game of chase.
The entire trip experience was also a wonderful demonstration of how conservation and sustainable development can be jointly advanced and led me to deepen my involvement with the African Wildlife Foundation. For example, the Sabinyo lodge we stayed in had been developed with the help of AWF and is now owned by the local community with all of the proceeds used to support sustainable livelihood projects. This in turn deepens community support for strengthening conservation efforts.