Monday, August 14, 2023

Suva, Fiji



ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you all. I appreciate all of the apologies for the weather but you appear to have missed the most important part of my bio: I’m Irish. I’ve come home. So, I’m a proud immigrant to the United States, but the rain and being an Ireland girl are definitely in my roots. 

Ryan, thank you for MC’ing today’s event, and for your leadership of USAID’s Regional Mission in Manila. Leading this work from across an ocean is no small feat, nor is planning the first ever official trip by a USAID Administrator to Fiji – and yet your steady leadership, and that of your team, have helped this Agency fulfill its mission to advance human dignity by promoting democracy, safeguarding global health, and boosting economic prosperity around the world.

I want to thank President [Wiliame] Katonivere, Prime Minister [Sitiveni] Rabuka, and the people of Fiji for their warm and gracious welcome today. It is really an honor to be here in this country, one I will not forget, having even a small part in establishing USAID’s Mission here in Fiji.

Thank you very much to Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Lenora Qereqeretabua, for your remarks, for being there this morning, for sharing with me in a very heartfelt way, the customs and the traditions from the island that your ancestors inhabited – some of which I got a small flavor of today. Congratulations as well on your recent appointment. As someone who also comes from the media and communications sector, I think there’s a real value in bringing your background into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All of us have to do a better job telling the story of what we aim to deliver for the people of our respective countries and we are thrilled to have a chance to work with you, even more closely now. 

You’re also of course a trailblazer for Fijian women in government, and I think that thinking through how our programming advances more inclusive prosperity and opportunity will be a big feature of our dialogue. 

Thank you to Dr. Vivili, Deputy Director General of the Pacific Community. Our partnership with the Pacific Community has long been built on our shared commitment to democracy and to sustainability – and I look forward to a closer relationship between our two organizations with the establishment of our new Mission. And very much agree with your sentiment that some things are just right – this is just right.

I also welcome the many dignitaries who have gathered here from the Government of Fiji as well as other Pacific Island countries present today. I’m also pleased that Ambassadors and High Commissioners from partners like Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom, and Japan are able to join us today – that means a lot – as well as representatives from regional Pacific organizations. I’m looking forward to even closer partnerships with you all as USAID opens this exciting new chapter in our engagement with the Pacific Islands. 

I want to join the Assistant Administrator for Foreign Affairs in acknowledging the pain that the people of Maui, Hawaii are experiencing right now. So many families have lost their homes, their businesses, and their loved ones. And this island of peace and beauty – the lush green surrounded by the pristine blue waters of the Pacific – was so quickly engulfed in smoke and flames. So horrifyingly engulfed.

The fires in Maui, of course for the island here – lush green surrounded by the pristine blue waters – evokes as well a stark reminder of the scale of the challenges we are confronting together. As the planet warms, the extreme weather patterns that contributed to the disaster in Maui – strong hurricane winds, flash droughts, parched land – we know that these kinds of events are only going to increase in frequency and severity, subjecting more communities all over the world, particularly in vulnerable areas like this one, to such disasters. We are going to all have to work together ever more vigorously, relentlessly to combat this crisis, to protect human life, to build resilience in advance when these disasters befall communities. Fundamentally this is about human security and ultimately, as well, about stability and economic prosperity. 

Today, I will have the honor of presenting, on behalf of the American people, a Hawaiian Koa paddle to Prime Minister Rabuka of Fiji and Secretary-General Henry Puna of the Pacific Islands Forum. The inscription is of a Hawaiian proverb – which I will do my best to recreate. Ho'okahi ka 'ilau like ana – that translates to “wield the paddles together.” Wield the paddles together.

Hawaii, of course, shares with many of the Pacific Islands a rich tradition of voyaging, with seafaring communities exploring thousands of kilometers of ocean guided only by the wind, the sea, and the stars. It was by wielding their paddles together – combining their strengths and pushing forward together as one united force – that they could match the power of the ocean itself, and explore and settle islands across the Blue Pacific Continent.

As we mark the beginning of a new era in our partnership – one focused on supporting your efforts to chart that prosperous, inclusive, and sustainable future – these paddles represent the promise of what we can accomplish by combining our strengths. And they symbolize the United States’ commitment to a true partnership with the region – one where we listen to, partner with, and ultimately help you deliver for the people of the Pacific Island nations.

It is these three goals that USAID plans to accomplish in support of your people in the months and years to come – to listen, to partner, and to deliver. But really to unlock the spirit and the capabilities of the people who inhabit these islands. 

We’re listening to requests from the Pacific Islands – including many of the governments and communities represented here today. We are listening to the request first and foremost to be more present in the region. Most of the Pacific Islands portfolio has been based for USAID largely in Manila – and our team there, as I mentioned earlier, has shown immense dedication to serving Pacific communities. But as you can imagine, even in the era of Zoom, being across the ocean limited the Mission’s ability to meet regularly in person with the region’s culturally rich and diverse communities, local leaders, and government representatives.

So today, I am so pleased to establish USAID’s Mission in the Pacific Islands, which will be based here in Suva and will cover not just Fiji, but also the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. 

This Pacific Islands Mission will allow us to expand our staff presence here in Fiji while retaining our local offices in Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau. And it will work with the office I opened yesterday, I believe, the Country Representative Office in Port Moresby, to manage regional programs covering Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.

Our new mission here will allow us to expand our unique partnerships, that is the second objective, behind listening, to establish unique partnerships with the countries across the region – partnerships that have already had a meaningful impact.

In the past decade, the United States has provided more than $1.5 billion in direct support to the Pacific Islands – more than a third of that in the form of USAID investments.

We’ve helped vaccinate nearly a million people across 12 Pacific Islands against COVID-19, while also better equipping more than 600 health facilities serving remote areas in the region, and training more than 4,500 health workers.

We’ve provided more than $130 million in humanitarian assistance across the Pacific Islands, including in response to last year’s volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami waves in Tonga, and the extreme drought that struck Kiribati last year. We also have recently provided support to last month’s volcanic activity in Papua New Guinea. 

We’ve helped promote good governance across the region, for example, partnering with the Fiji election office to help make the country’s most recent elections, already historic in their own right, the most accessible for example, for people with disabilities – in history. I’m pleased to announce that USAID will provide an additional $600,000 in technical assistance and training for Fiji’s local government officials, so that they can implement reforms to boost the fairness, inclusiveness, credibility, and integrity of local elections coming up, the first since 2005. And a very important milestone for this country.

Of course, we’ve also made investments to support what we know is the single greatest priority of Pacific communities: taking on the existential threat of climate change. We’ve contributed more than $90 million in disaster risk reduction and resilience programming to help the Pacific Islands prepare for increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters. 

Tomorrow, I’ll be touring here a “Makerspace” – a space equipped with tools to produce, right there on the spot, critical relief supplies using 3-D printers and the like. The Makerspace is run by Field Ready, which is a nonprofit organization, funded by USAID that focuses on local production of supplies – an especially important initiative in the Pacific Islands, where assistance from outside sometimes can’t reach remote communities without boats or airplanes. 

We’ve also helped local leaders, and I think this is a really important initiative and something we need to do more of, secure themselves more than $550 million dollars to invest in climate adaptation. This is more than 22 times USAID’s initial investment of $24 million and this is about building capacity within ministries to be able to create proposals with bankable projects that large financing bodies, the private sector, the Green Climate Fund, can then make available. That money – that $550 million that has been unlocked is currently helping protect clean water for more than a quarter of the population of the Marshall Islands, and it is safeguarding the coral reefs and fisheries vital to Vanuatu’s economy.

Our Mission here in Fiji will allow us to build on these efforts, and to focus on partnering with Pacific governments, regional organizations and communities to achieve our final objective, which is to deliver on the priorities set out in the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent – driving inclusive economic growth, promoting fair and transparent governance, protecting the region’s incredible biodiversity, and fighting climate change.

As we open this new chapter in our partnership, our focus will be on supporting the extraordinary leaders across the Pacific who themselves are driving urgently needed change – and that change is not just for the benefit of their communities, it is for the benefit of the world. We want to learn from you, we want to help connect you with the resources to scale your solutions that you are already coming up with at the community level, at the local level, at the national level, to match the immense challenges facing the world today. 

Already your leadership is evident in commitments that have been made at a global level. You helped lay the groundwork for a major deal, struck at COP27 in Egypt last fall, that established new funding arrangements that will assist those developing nations particularly vulnerable to climate change.

In his 1993 essay Our Sea of Islands, Tongan-Fijian writer Epeli Hau’ofa tells a story that some of you may know – a story of a legendary athlete, an expert javelin thrower, who once launched his javelin with such strength that it pierced the sky and disappeared into the heavens. The force of his throw was such that the javelin still flies today, reappearing every now and then to streak across the black of night, just to remind us of his feat—and of the Blue Pacific’s power to leave its mark on the world.

As so many Pacific leaders leave their mark on the world, we hope to learn from you – your drive, tenacity, and vision for change. You urge the world every day to come together in the face of crisis, and work in tandem toward a more vibrant, more just, and more sustainable future. We are committed to following your lead. Thank you so much. 

Now I’d like to invite Ambassador Damour, Assistant Foreign Minister Qereqeretabua, Dr. Vivili, and Zema to join me on stage so we unveil the plaque together as a symbol of the partnership between the United States and the Pacific region that we are honored to all be a part of expanding here today. Please.

[Plaque Unveiled] 

So now I get to do something really fun – not that that wasn’t fun, that is to swear-in our new Mission Director in the Pacific Islands Zema Semunegus. Before I begin, I want to welcome Zema’s family and friends who are tuning in today as well as her brother, Dr. Hilawe Semunegus, who flew all the way from the East Coast to celebrate this occasion with us. Is that your brother? Thank you so much. And I hope for our Fijian friends, and others in the Pacific Islands, you see in that act of flying all the way here for this ceremony, just how much this means to us. How much it means to Zema, to our family, and to the American people. 

Zema has already had a kind of formal swearing-in ceremony that we do back at USAID, where we often attempt to roast those individuals who are receiving these wonderful responsibilities and these opportunities to lead USAID Missions around the world. But I honestly couldn’t miss this opportunity here to share a little bit about the individual, and the leader that you all have now living here in Fiji and working hand in hand with you to advance our partnership. 

One thing that stands out about Zema is her humility. Her colleague described her as “understated” – a peerless humanitarian and dedicated leader, who just doesn’t spend very much time thinking about herself or thinking at all that she’s all that special. One coworker and close friend, Anita Marghetti, remembers attending the swearing-in that we did back in 2021 when she was becoming Mission Director to Timor Leste. And Anita said “I know Zema incredibly well and as I sat in her ceremony, hearing about her, my mouth was gaping open.” She listened, Anita, in astonishment as colleague after colleague after colleague shared stories and details that, despite years of close friendship with Zema, Anita had never heard before.

These details make clear Zema’s commitment to this Agency’s mission, and to serving communities in a spirit of partnership and respect all around the world. As an information officer within what is now the Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs, but what is here in the region, I think, is known in this region as OFDA –  the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance – she traveled to the front lines of disasters and conflict in Ethiopia, Albania, Macedonia, and the Eastern Caribbean, helping coordinate and deliver lifesaving assistance. That is the humanitarian side of Zema’s past, which unfortunately, given the extreme weather events that occur in this part of the world, will be a background that she can draw upon.

But she is also an incredibly experienced development professional. During the 2014 Gaza War, she worked with the Agency’s humanitarian bureau to obtain crucial shelter and hygiene supplies. Her advocacy unlocked an additional $2.5 million in new funding to get 7200 metric tons of emergency food supplies to Palestinians in need. But again, that’s the humanitarian side. During that time in West Bank and Gaza, her negotiation and advocacy skills helped the West Bank and Gaza Mission avoid major Congressional holds in their efforts to reduce the Palestinian Authority’s debt burden, and this allowed the Mission to keep its focus on meeting the needs of their people. 

When violence broke out in July 2016 when she was Deputy Mission Director in South Sudan, and the Mission was forced to evacuate, she used the crisis management skills that she had built up over her years in the Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance, working tirelessly to help over 150 USAID employees and implementing partner staff, including 40 so-called Foreign Service Nationals, or local employees – she helped them safely evacuate to neighboring countries. 

Above all, Zema is fiercely committed to her own people – offering constant mentorship and advocacy for her teams. In her prior posts, she frequently held one-on-one calls and lunches with new Program Officers to get to know them and match them with seasoned mentors. She focused on empowering local staff, and here again our Fijian staff and our staff from other Pacific Islands, long before empowering local staff became a key priority for USAID. She entrusted Timorese staff’s climate working group, harnessing their expertise to help develop USAID’s strategy for promoting democracy and good governance in Ethiopia, and appointing them – local staff – to office director roles across the Missions in which she served.

She is deeply committed to making this Agency more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible. She has mentored young women Foreign Service Program Officers, she has chaired the selection panels for something called the Donald M. Payne International Development Fellowship Program – which has been a major recruitment tool for USAID to make our Agency more diverse and inclusive – and launching and leading the first Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Council at the Timor Leste Mission.

Reopening this Mission here in Fiji will require someone who will help their teams navigate challenging times, as portfolios are transferred from Manila and team members arrive to take up new roles. It can be dislocating at the beginning. Someone who will live the principles, not only of development, but of inclusive, sustainable development in everything they do. Someone who has demonstrated extraordinary commitment to helping communities chart their own futures. To follow their lead. 

There is no better person for this role at this time. No one is better equipped than Zema to take it on. And I’m so grateful to her and to her family, her friends, for loaning her to us in such a vital role that she will now be representing USAID and the United States in Suva and across the great Blue Pacific Continent. And I am confident that she will do a tremendous job and I hope all of you will take this occasion to hand her your cards so she can get moving as quickly as possible. It is now my pleasure to officially swear-in Zemas as our next USAID Mission Director in Fiji.

Administrator Power Travels to Pacific Islands - Aug 2023 Samantha Power
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