Donald D. Cohen, international development official, dies at 77

August 18, 2012

Donald D. Cohen, 77, a retired Foreign Service officer who later led international development organizations, died July 29 at the Washington Home hospice in the District. He had complications from pulmonary disease, his wife, Jeanne Kersting Cohen, said.

Mr. Cohen began his career in 1962 with the U.S. Agency for International Development. He served as a program officer in Korea and Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s.

As USAID mission director in Thailand from 1978 to 1982, Mr. Cohen helped set up a refu­gee camp for Cambodians fleeing strife in their country.

From 1982 to 1988, he was a member of the State Department’s policy planning office and also served as the director of the Office of Economic Analysis.

In 1988, Mr. Cohen became chief executive of Volunteers for Overseas Cooperative Assistance (VOCA), a non-governmental organization that provided volunteers and services for rural and economic development.


Donald D. Cohen, a former Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development, who later led a non-governmental organization that provided economic and rural development services to many countries in the old Soviet bloc after the collapse of communism in the late 1980s, has died. (Family Photo)

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, VOCA received USAID grants to provide agricultural and economic assistance to many countries in the old Soviet bloc. Mr. Cohen visited more than a dozen nations that were adjusting to life after communism.

“VOCA was the first U.S. entity in these countries,” said Don Moores, who worked with Mr. Cohen at the time and is now an immigration lawyer in Bethesda. “He literally was the first person representing the United States to set foot in these places in the former ‘Evil Empire.’ ”

For his work in Eastern Europe, Mr. Cohen received the presidential End Hunger Award from George H.W. Bush in 1989.

Mr. Cohen left VOCA in the late 1990s, when it merged with another organization. He later served as managing director of the Washington office of Plan USA, an international humanitarian group providing services for children. He retired in 2007.

Donald David Cohen was born May 9, 1935, in Lowell, Mass. After serving in the Army in the mid-1950s, he graduated from the University of Florida in 1962. He was a research fellow in international studies at Harvard University in 1972-73.

He participated in civil rights marches in the 1960s, including the 1963 March on Washington, and established a bed-and-breakfast program to house people attending the “Resurrection City” encampment on the Mall in 1968.

Mr. Cohen lived in Chevy Chase for many years before moving to the District.

His marriage to Bettina Callaway ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 35 years, Jeanne Kersting Cohen of Washington; a daughter from his first marriage, Tamara Cohen Preiss of Arlington County; two children from his second marriage, Allison Cohen and Christopher Cohen, both of Washington; and two grandchildren.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.