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NICK SCHIFRIN: The U.S. says 40 million people have become hungry since Russia invaded Ukraine. The war is combined with COVID, rising food prices, and the worst drought in a hundred years in East Africa. A Senegalese minister recently warned more people could die from the food crisis than die from COVID. Among the most acutely affected: Afghanistan where 20 million people, more than half of the country, are experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity; Yemen where 19 million are food insecure, and the Horn of Africa where the UN says there is 37 million people suffer from acute hunger. That is where USAID Administrator Samantha Power recently visited to give a major speech about food insecurity and she joins us here in the studio. Administrator Samantha Power, welcome back to the NewsHour.


NICK SCHIFRIN: Let’s start with Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia, as we just said, there’s a new deal to allow Ukraine to export once again. Ukraine and Russia combined make up a quarter of the world's wheat exports. How big of a difference will that new UN-brokered deal make?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well already, even since the deal was brokered, you saw an impact of global wheat prices. I mean that’s how significant it could be. But that was on the basis of the aspiration for the deal to stick, for implementation to go forward, and for the ships to start to move. We have seen one ship so far, as you know 26,000 metric tons of corn on that ship heading to Lebanon – a place that is massively food insecure, a place that gets more than 80% of its wheat from Ukraine. So that is very significant, that is 26,000 metric tons that would not otherwise have gone to Lebanon if Putin had stuck to the blockade in the way he had been. But that’s one ship and Ukraine used to put into the global market, before the war, six million metric tons a month, so we have 26,000 metric tons, very important, can’t discount every part of that but it gives you a sense of what the throughput needs to become if you’re going to get close to that six million metrics tons and really start to see the impact on global food prices and the reach of Ukrainian sunflower oil, wheat, barley, and corn. 

NICK SCHIFRIN: There are no U.S. sanctions on Russian exports of fertilizer or food but there are U.S. sanctions on the transportation companies that would take that Russian grain out, insurance companies that would protect the grain, and the Russian banks into which people would pay for that grain. Do you acknowledge that, at least a little bit, U.S. sanctions have contributed to the increase in global food prices? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: What has caused the massive spike in food prices that we’ve seen since February 24th is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and this completely willful blockade, I mean all that had to happen is actually a security guarantee for any ship that was flowing, then you would’ve seen the insurance rates reflective of security guarantees. Instead, even in the wake of this deal, you see Russia actually bombarding Odessa, which then of course has a massive chilling effect on insurers. So I think that’s really where the focus should be. In addition, you have seen the Russian foreign minister travel, for example, recently since my trip to sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s just disappointing. There’s an awful lot about who is to blame for global food prices but not a lot, not any in fact that anybody can see, any assistance. Words, misinformation, lies but no actual support to countries like those in the Horn of Africa that are facing this incredible hour of need. 

NICK SCHIFRIN: So, let’s move to east Africa. Some of the largest buyers of Ukrainian and Russian wheat are in east Africa, where as we said tens of millions of people are currently suffering from various levels of hunger. Food prices have risen dramatically, there’s a historic drought. You went to Kenya and Somalia and announced $1.2 billion in assistance. In some ways is that a drop in the bucket for what’s needed? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, it’s a lot of money and it is going to buy a lot of food and a lot of assistance. Prior to the trip I also announced an unprecedented investment in so-called RUFT, the therapeutic food in pouches, packets for very very malnourished, acutely malnourished, very small children under five – and that’s the largest investment in RUFT that has been made – but also we’re doing a fundraising drive to get others to match that.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Because others do have to step up…

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: And it is the rare form of food assistance where if young, under five, children don’t receive these pouches 90% of them will die if they are severely malnourished but if they get those food pouches, 90% of them will survive. So for anybody who wants to contribute, UNICEF is managing this effort that’s incredibly important. So this assistance is key in its own right as I said, but it is also key as a marker for other countries because we need other countries to do, frankly what they did the last time the Horn of Africa faced a less severe drought back in 2016-2017, which is to step up and right now the United States is accounting for more than 80% of the World Food Program appeal. That’s not sustainable, it’s not sustainable to the taxpayer here, and we had a major bipartisan support for this effort to meet food needs, but it’s also not sustainable because no one country can sustain funding for appeals that are gonna be this significant. So the scene is grim, Nick, and we are seeing just the precursors to what lies ahead. 

So, I met with pastoralists, you know who traditionally are herding their goats, their cows, and even their camels which are very resilient in tough climates, and many of them might have had 500 goats, cows, or sheep even six months ago, gone. Not one. 

And so, suddenly their livelihood is gone but also their fall back, their emergency reserve, right, is the actual food itself, the animals themselves. And there are suicides among these individuals but above all there is severe hunger, and so we have to combine the emergency food assistance with a recognition that climate change isn’t going anywhere, it’s only going to get worse in terms of the shocks, so for individuals like that who are dependent on livestock getting access to feed but also to water they are going to have to be alternative pathways for them as well in the long term. 

And that’s where USAID really specializes in, is food security resilience in a long-term and there again Congress has stepped up giving us more resources to invest in drought-resistant seeds, drip irrigation, the kinds of things that can withstand some of these conditions but other countries just aren’t in that effort in the way that we need them to be.

NICK SCHIFRIN: One country that is showing up in Africa, as you mentioned, is Russia. Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia just did a visit. The U.S. is the largest donor across-the-board when it comes to this stuff but nearly half of the African countries voted not to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. Do you acknowledge that in some ways your assistance doesn’t match your influence? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think the U.S. has tremendous influence across sub-Saharan Africa. And I will say that because the U.S. is the country that shows up first, just a year-plus ago, with vaccines to help vaccinate those in sub-Saharan Africa who wished to be vaccinated, then so soon on the heels of providing PPE, diagnostics, everything, and then the vaccines so soon after that to be showing up in this way leading the world and providing food security assistance to build resilience and also the humanitarian emergency food and health aid, I mean it is overwhelming that show of leadership right now. 

NICK SCHIFRIN: But Russia is, for example, offering a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. I mean, it says that it is. 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: You are right. Where has Russia been for the nearly 80-year history of the United Nations in opposing the UN Security Council reform? But putting that to one side, I think that what is clear is that some of the voices that make the biggest difference in actually bring it without the UN and Turkish brokered deal to let the grains go, as we say, to the end Putin’s blockade and his, in a sense, war on food and war on the poor around the world, it was actually African voices, developing country voices that made a difference. 

So whatever they’re doing in public, whatever their fears are about Russian retaliation, because there is a lot of intimidation that occurs when a UN vote is about to happen, there’s also a lot of inducement and bribery that goes on, but in the end those appeals behind the scenes, that pressure from those countries has gotten us to this point and needs to be sustained. 

NICK SCHIFRIN: Can I just ask about Afghanistan. Unfortunately I only have about 30 seconds, so very quickly. Half of the population is experiencing acute food insecurity. WFP says that actually the number of donations is going down, the price of food is going up to the point that only 8% of the country will soon receive food rations. Again just 30 seconds, I’m sorry. Can the U.S. do more to help the people of Afghanistan? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, we are the largest humanitarian donor by far. Since the fall of Kabul we provided more than $500 million in assistance in Afghanistan, humanitarian assistance. This is another area where we need untraditional donors, for example those from the Gulf and elsewhere who might have even ties to the Taliban regime, that of course we do not, to step up and to join us in providing assistance. 

NICK SCHIFRIN: USAID Administrator Samantha Power, I am going to end it there. Thank you so much. 


Samantha Power PBS Newshour 2022 Global Food Crisis
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