Barry Riley

Senior Foreign Service Officer Barry Riley, 81, died peacefully in his sleep on December 28, 2020, in Ithaca, NY.  

Born in 1939 in Texas, Barry moved to Southern California as a young child and grew up there. He obtained both a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from Stanford University and then pursued a doctorate in African Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). After completing doctoral research in Somalia, he traveled around East Africa, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan before returning to Washington to work as an Africa specialist at the Library of Congress.

In 1967, he entered the Junior Officer Trainee program.  Afterwards, he and his bride of two weeks, Esther, departed for Uganda, where Barry served as Assistant Program Officer in the first overseas assignment of his 26-year career at USAID.  The following year he was transferred to Kenya to be Regional Program Officer for the East Africa Office of Regional Affairs and then Assistant Program Officer for the USAID Mission to Kenya.

Barry subsequently served as Program Officer in Ethiopia, from 1973 to 1977. In Ethiopia, he and a few young colleagues successfully sounded the alarm over an unfolding famine in Wollo province that was being covered up for political reasons.

Barry’s next two assignments were in Washington, as Desk Officer for Peru and Ecuador for a brief time, and then back to the Africa Bureau as Chief of the Economic Analysis and Evaluation Division in the Office of Programs, where he strengthened the methodology of evaluations to better predict projects’ effectiveness and conducted training sessions for all USAID missions in Africa.

Returning to East Africa in 1979, he served as Deputy Director of USAID Tanzania (1979-1981) and as Deputy Director of USAID Kenya (1981-1986).  In addition to his management duties, he chaired the U.S. interagency drought famine response effort during the devastating 1984/85 drought which fed more than 2 million destitute Kenyans and spurred food production in the following years.

From 1986 to 1990, Barry was Director of the Office of Policy, Programs, and Management in the Bureau of Food for Peace and Humanitarian Assistance, where he helped bring about a consensus that food aid should be developmental aid aimed at providing food security–an objective defined by the 1990 farm bill.

In 1990, Barry was seconded to the World Bank, where he was Senior Projects Officer in the Food Security Unit, Africa Technical Department. After officially retiring from USAID in 1992, he continued to work at the World Bank as a full-time consultant for a year until he moved to California. From his home in Fairfax, California, he consulted for many organizations, including the World Bank, UNESCO, USAID, the World Food Programme, and a variety of NGOs.

After retiring from consultancy work, Barry returned to Stanford University as a visiting scholar at the Center for Food Security and the Environment in the Freeman Spogli Institute. He spent several years researching and writing on the political history of U.S. food aid, examining the tug of war between competing interests, some of which he had personally witnessed during his career. The resulting book, The Political History of American Food Aid: An Uneasy Benevolence, published by Oxford University Press in 2017, is regarded as the definitive book on the subject.

After more than 25 years in California, Barry and Esther moved to New York in 2019 to escape the increasing fire risk and to be closer to their daughter and her family.  Living fully until his unexpected death, he was hard at work on a second book, researching the effects of rapid climate change on food security and how to mitigate them.

In addition to his professional contributions, Barry will be remembered for his zest for life. He loved to travel and explore, and greatly appreciated good food, coffee, wine, and conversation. He was a voracious reader, avid birder, technology enthusiast, aspiring hammered dulcimer musician, and energetic walker. He also had an entrepreneurial side, founding a small business in the late 1980s called the Foreign Affairs Buying Service (FABS), which shipped books and small items to people overseas.

Barry is survived by his wife, Esther Shull Riley; their daughter, Malaika Imani (Jasdev); their son, Brendan Riley (Nikki); and four grandsons. The family can be reached through Esther at 145 Honness Lane, Ithaca, NY, and by email at Any donation in the areas of food security or the environment would advance his interests. He especially admired the work of WFP.

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