Friday, April 14, 2023

Washington, DC




MICHAEL FROMAN: Good afternoon. Good afternoon, everybody. I hope you've all had a great day. It's been pretty exciting and I'm so happy to see my old friend and former colleague Administrator Samantha Power. Thanks so much for taking the time.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Great to be here, Mike. And it's very much hipper than government normally feels.

MR. FROMAN: So, I was trying to think of like the opening question about what keeps you up at night, but everything keeps you up at night. I mean, you are responsible for everything from humanitarian crises, to climate change, to education, global health, democracy, et cetera. Let me start with democracy, because in many ways, that's where we first met. You were the founder of the Open Government Forum during the Obama administration, really bringing issues of transparency, and anti-corruption, and democracy, to the front of development policy. Now, I saw recently you published an article called, "How Democracy Can Win" in Foreign Affairs. Can you remind me who publishes Foreign Affairs?


MR. FROMAN: No, no. Some other organization. I don't know. Delighted to read it in Foreign Affairs. And you talked about how important it was to pursue democracy, in part by pursuing inclusive growth and economic growth as well. Tell us a little bit about how you see those two things working in concert with each other – and are we winning? Is democracy winning? Is this the biggest existential challenge of our time, democracy versus autocracy?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, many of you have seen – first of all, great to be here. We've had an amazing partnership, USAID has with Mastercard. And you've helped spearhead so much of that work, and we're going to miss you. Looking forward to your next life and working with you in that capacity, Mike. So look, I think this is a moment after 17 years where – by pretty much every metric – democracy has been on its back heel. And there's been this backsliding. This is a moment where we're seeing some counter trends. I mean, first of all, Russia, having launched this disastrous invasion, really complicates its ability to do all the other things it likes to do beyond its borders that are anti-democratic. There's a fair amount of buyer's remorse around some of the large debt that many developing countries have incurred, and questions about large infrastructure projects, and whether those have delivered meaningfully.

Often, there could be some short-term spike, even in economic growth rates where large infrastructure emerges. That's not surprising. But in the longer term, to be saddled with having to pay off interest payments – just year after year after year – has raised significant questions. And so even though Freedom House just published its report a couple weeks ago, and it showed that, sadly, democracy still is in decline – the rate of decline is the lowest that it has been in 17 years and you have almost as many countries showing democratic progress as backsliding. It's one short, so it's almost a draw, right?

But these forces are dueling one another, and I think that what I've brought to USAID – with the benefit of some distance having worked in the Obama administration on human rights and democracy promotion – is this recognition that often, when we have reform openings, when someone gets elected, dedicated, let's say, to combating corruption or strengthen the rule of law, or opening space for civil society – I know that's normally not what we see around the world these days, it feels like, but it turns out those examples are out there. When people take to the streets, when young people mobilize, they can change trends and can change leaders. But often as a government, you know – if it bleeds, it leads. If it's a problem case, you know, we'll have 16 meetings in the situation room. But if something is going well, it often doesn't get sufficient high-level attention. We may not be moving as aggressively as we might to catalyze private sector interest or awareness that – actually, the enabling environment, the regulatory environment is changing for the better, and we as government have a role in doing that.

So, we are taking a kind of bright spots approach, where when there is a reformist opening, not to flood the zone with merely more support for civil society or, you know, to support an election commission or body, like democracy support. We believe in that. We still do an awful lot of that, more of that now than we have in years. But it's actually, it's the question of the economic dividend. What is the economic dividend on a political reform opening? And so, that's where we try to come in with a partnership with Mastercard or with Citi for digital inclusion with you, or microfinance loans, you know, for women in the Dominican Republic, that we do, maybe in partnership with a government that's just doing asset disclosure for the first time. You know, we're really trying to show that the democratic world wants to come in and rally behind those who actually want to buck these trends. And so, the combination of, you know, where the authoritarian regimes are, and some great ambivalence about the model, and how it's doing, and how it's going, plus these reform openings and our effort to meet them – I think, puts us in a stronger position to be on offense for the first time in really almost two decades.

MR. FROMAN: Well, and you've put your finger on the role that technology can play in this overall process. And we certainly saw during COVID, post-COVID, just how important it was for people to be included digitally if they were going to be able to survive, and thrive, and then engage with each other in a constructive fashion. Tell us a little bit about where the digital transformation fits into USAID's strategy, and your vision of democracy and development. And maybe we can talk specifically about Ukraine, which you've been deeply involved in, and what the digital role there is as well.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, at some point soon, what I'm about to say about Ukraine, I think is going to become common knowledge – if it isn't already. And probably if I could see people's faces, there's probably more knowledge about what is happening digitally in Ukraine than we ever would have dreamed six months ago – never mind, you know, four years ago. But USAID – well before my time – invested heavily in something called the Ministry for Digital Transformation and an app, which all of you can look up on your phone, called Diia. And Diia started offering fairly simple services – as many apps that relate to government do. It was Zelenskyy's vision. He hired the now Deputy Prime Minister Fedorov, basically to say I want state services to be available through an app. It's a State in a box, State in an app.

And they started building this around 2019, with a lot of private sector support, and with a ton of support from USAID and, you know, Congress – ultimately. And it's gone from being able to get your driver's license on your phone, and your birth certificate, and sort of, just the documents that had been, you know, in someone's filing cabinet or, you know, certainly not a one-stop shop – to now having more than 200 government and other services available through this app. And for me, the culmination of the success of Diia came in Davos when Estonia – which is legendary, right, for its the sophistication of its e-governance, the envy of so many of us for what the Estonians have enjoyed, and the simplification of that for business, for citizens, and how they relate to their government. Actually, the Ukrainians did a handoff where they provided to Estonia the open source code for Diia. So, that's how far they've come.

It has 19 million Ukrainians are on it. That's a huge share of the eligible adult population. You basically now have to work on older Ukrainians. The war, instead of setting back this effort, has accelerated it. So now, you know, that your geolocation can tell the government whether you are internally displaced, and your place of residence has moved, your ability to file property damages. You know, half a million people have filed property damages. Corruption has been a huge issue over the years in Ukraine, as you well know. Now payments to pensioners, to schoolteachers, to health workers, all government payments to state officials or state-funded workers, they're all visible there, as are payments, again, to those internally displaced.

If you go – I think you and I talked about this once – if we – if we walk down the street and there's a building site, and there's going to be a ton of building in Ukraine, the permit will be up with the QR code, and you as a citizen get to go look at the QR code, see who the contractor is, the subcontractor is. We, USAID, also fund civil society, independent media, and so forth. You can dig into that and see – is it a crony or is it, you know, hopefully, somebody who's bid for that, you know, in a kind of open procurement process.

But this is the foundation, not only for digitization and for, you know, greater private sector investment in Ukraine. It's the foundation for the rule of law and the transparency that citizens need to hold their government accountable. So, it's the digital and democracy coming together profoundly, really, to change what citizens' expectations are of their government. And just to give you one other example, because there are so many services – you can start a bank account in under five minutes through the app. The cybersecurity protections are tremendous. But when Zelenskyy has a law that he wants to put before the Rada, or a regulation that he wants to issue, he posts it on Diia. And it's almost like the notice and comment period here on any rulemaking, you know, for the United States. Citizens, in an instant, can go thumbs up, thumbs down, offer feedback. These comments are – even in wartime – taken into account, synthesized, and then the laws and the regulations are adjusted.

And there are dangers, of course, to referendum politics. We all know them. But this amount of interface, where the citizen just comes to expect the government is going to provide services, do so simply and transparently, and that citizens don't have to wait till the election to offer feedback on how their local officials or their national officials are doing – it's really a game-changer. And I should say one of the most exciting things, if anybody's interested in Diia, you know, especially if you see it in your hand and how many things you could do through the app – we want it here. Of course, our system is so complicated, but we at Davos gathered heads of State and ministers from a half dozen of these bright spot countries that are pushing a reform agenda. And we, USAID, are now doing assessments as to whether those countries would like to bring Diia as a global public good, that the Ukrainians are offering, just as they offer their grain to hungry parts of the world – as the breadbasket of the world – so too now, they view this as a kind of brand for Ukraine, and an export that they're willing to offer for free. Now, putting it in and getting it set up and everything, of course, is not free. And so, this will have to be a public-private partnership, but other countries well beyond Estonia that already has all that infrastructure, who are at ground zero, in some cases, are really interested in the Diia menu, and they will start gradually, in bringing those services online, but really aim, you know, at some point into the future, to have this kind of citizen government digital interface. It's really, it's like nothing that's going on.

MR. FROMAN: And when are we going to have it here in Washington for the federal government?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I don't know. That's above my pay grade.

MR. FROMAN: After Zambia, is that it?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Yeah, Zambia first.

MR. FROMAN: Zambia first. Well, listen, you mentioned public-private partnership. And first, I should tell you this is a remarkable event – I'll say on behalf of the team that put it together. IMF and World Bank down the street, lots of really interesting meetings going on, largely kind of closed to the public behind the barricades. This is – you've got CEOs and other business leaders. You've got leading NGOs. You've got international governments here. You've got community leaders, academics, all coming together to really focus on concrete solutions to issues like inclusive growth. And it's been a terrific day and week already here. You know, public-private partnership is at the heart of it, and I'd love to hear your views. We've partnered on a number of things in Central America, in India, in Africa – we've partnered with USAID. But I'd love to hear your lessons, that you've drawn over the last couple years on what role the private sector can and should play. What do we need to be doing better as the private sector in order to be better partners to USAID and the rest of the U.S. government? And what do you think the government can or should do to make this work even better?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, first of all, the more people we have working in government who have private sector experience, the better. Because I do think we talk past each other often. Certainly, I wish in my role that I had that experience, and, you know, I'm lucky to be able to recruit, and draw that to me, and to have friends, and former colleagues, who can, you know, dumb it down for me to understand how best to partner. But what I know about USAID – and government generally – but to speak about what I know now is that, you know, the barriers to entry in working with USAID are high, too high. And so, we have launched, and actually President Biden has ushered this in across the U.S. government, but I think we and DHS are probably the furthest along, but a de-bureaucratization effort – a desludging effort to try to reduce the administrative and paperwork burdens that our teams themselves are laboring under.

Now, why does that matter? Because you can't hustle up a private sector deal if you're chained to your desk, you know, meeting a series of compliance requirements. And we're, of course, very conscious of the risk of, you know, and privilege of expending, you know, what will be maybe $30 billion in foreign assistance resources, you know, this coming year. That's incredible to be able to do that, and we take it very seriously. And we know that problems in how we spend those resources are going to mean fewer resources, so we have an incentive, of course, to do things right. But we shouldn't understate the risk of also keeping people so shackled to risk avoidance, that they aren't in a position to look out as to who the local banks are, local entrepreneurs, you know, the people who actually could come in on the ground floor of a local public-private partnership. And the same is true here at headquarters where people, again, are sort of swimming in forms.

But we also want, you know, working together, let's say, in Central America. I was just hearing from one of your colleagues that, notwithstanding the great partnership that we have there in terms of digital inclusion, and particularly with bringing women into the digital world, and giving them small loans and training, apparently we're still co-creating, and it's been, you know, 18 months. I mean, so that's not going to work – that's not a good private sector timeline. That's not a good citizen timeline, and it shouldn't be a good government timeline. So, you've been polite in not telling me that we are still in the act of co-creation 18 months later, but now I know, so I can comment.

MR. FROMAN: It took seven days to create, you know, the world. Eighteen months to co-create with USAID. It's all right.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: So, we're working on it.

MR. FROMAN: Everything in its time.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: We're working on it. We really are on a mission here, but it's going to take time, and we're going to need support also, you know, in Congress. I think – we've created something called the EDGE Fund just a few months ago, which really is trying to send a message, even in its brand. It's just, it's very small – to start – it's $50 million. But it's to say, you know, we love philanthropy, and we love, you know, when companies just are good citizens in the world, but we really like it when they use their comparative advantage and their business edge. And those are the partnerships that are, frankly, rooted in some self-interest, even if it's longer term self-interest, that are much more likely to be sustained. And so, that's – I think Mastercard is a great example of that because as you've put it to me, every time Mike and I are trying to hatch something up, I'm like, "What's in it for you exactly? You know, let me understand."

He's like, "Look, you know, in the short term, I don't know, I mean, you know, but in general, you know, if hundreds of millions of more people are digitized and are included, you know, I think Mastercard's going to do OK out of that, you know, ultimately." You know, but you know, is it satellite data that's being collected for some other reason that we can repurpose for farmers who are dealing with unprecedented drought? Is it the precision targeting of fertilizer, using again, that same satellite? Like there are things that are core to the business model of what private sector actors are doing that we most want to integrate into these partnerships. And I think that's not always the way we in the public sector have thought about public sector partnership, but that is the way of the future. And I should say we can't meet the development challenges far too easily, structurally impossible, if we are program managers alone. We have to look at the development challenges we're trying to solve, graft our resources against them, and then look at who the other players are, and how they can be brought in. But often, you know better than we do, how you can best deploy, and so, you know, just much more connection from the ground floor, I think, is essential.

MR. FROMAN: You're speaking our language – yeah, I hear people clapping. You're definitely speaking our language on what we call commercially sustainable social impact. Social impact, but it's got to be commercially sustainable so that we'll keep on investing in it, and we can scale it. I'm going to ask you a question that has nothing to do with your role as USAID Administrator. You were raised in Ireland. We have the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Accords. How do you feel about it?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I mean, I think – first of all, much as I love being here with you today.

MR. FROMAN: You'd rather be with President Biden in Ireland? Yeah, okay. President O'Biden?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: So, you're kind of hitting a nerve here, Mike. But I had committed. I keep my commitments. Thanks, Mike.

MR. FROMAN: I'm feeling really guilty now.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Not at all. But I came to America when I was nine. My mother came, I should say. I didn't come on my own and my mom dragged me along. And I think, look, I mean, first of all, there aren't that many feel-good foreign trips that we get to take these days. The world is a messy place. Just seeing the Irish people, which is, of course, a connection with President Biden, yes, but it's every American president. It's, you know, the Irish-American experience is so woven into the American experience. And so it, you know, takes some time to, I think – look at even the remarks that President Biden gave today before the Irish Parliament, it's beautiful. What was the question again? I'm now thinking about the trip.

MR. FROMAN: I think you've answered it. It's just how do you feel about it?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Oh well, the peace, the peace. No, I think, look, to the credit of this Administration, because this is – and to the credit of the Congress, and it was really quite bipartisan – I think, you know, holding the line on the Good Friday Agreement and the open border, made a profound difference. And the Windsor Agreement is a really important step toward solidifying what was achieved 25 years ago, but which has hit some seriously bumpy ground with Brexit, and with other factors in terms of domestic politics, in the north. And I'm hoping this trip and this anniversary, you know, which includes a lot of powerful documentaries reaching young people in a new way, you know, things that have gone viral about what the Troubles were, so many people born in both countries who never experienced that, and kind of take for granted the peace. So hopefully, even the anniversary itself can do some good in energizing the next generation's commitment to this next phase of implementation, because it has been a little bit rocky, and a little bit stuck, but I think, you know, now is kind of phase two, the next 25 years.

MR. FROMAN: Samantha Power, thank you for being here.


MR. FROMAN: And even more importantly, thank you for all you do at USAID.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you. Thanks so much.

Diia in DC


Join USAID Administrator Samantha Power, Ukraine Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova, and Editor-at-Large for New York Magazine Kara Swisher, and special guests for the first-ever Diia in DC event on Tuesday, May 23 at 10am, live from the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C.

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