Friday, December 2, 2022

The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, DC

DR. SHAH: Well, Sam, congratulations. Thank you. It seems you have a lot of fans in this room.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, these are my people.

DR. SHAH: We are your people and we're your people because this award is such a great representation of what you fought for your entire career and your entire life about America's values and extending them to the farthest corners of the globe.

In this COVID, post-COVID era, a lot of people have cut their travel back. You're not one of them. You are known as a road warrior, the video showed us you've been to, I think more than 24 countries since taking the role. Why do you feel the need to be there and what are you observing when you're out in the field?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, Raj, I don't have on hand the tabulation of all the countries you visited. But, let me say something that I know we know about honors like this, which I'm deeply touched by, but it's all about the team. It's all about USAID. 

This is an honor for this Agency, which has missions in 80 countries around the world, programs in 100 countries, that is trying to turn on a dime, as climate shocks intensify, as countries reel – not only from the pandemic – but from all of the debt that they've incurred from the pandemic. 71 percent of our staff overseas are nationals of the countries in which we work. They themselves are grappling with inflation supply chains.

So, I'm happy to be here and accepting the award on their behalf – and I know, back in the day when you were driving so much change at USAID, and so much change in the world that you'd feel the same way.

In terms of – it's tough, actually – what is the right balance of being on the road, and also modernization and retooling of an Agency that matters so much in America's toolbox – and I don't know that I have the balance right.

I think it's really important, for example – now notwithstanding incredible leadership, from Senator McConnell, from Senator Schumer, from Speaker Pelosi – I mean – we have managed to move resources to meet this moment. And to have America leading in every single sector that matters at a time of unprecedented, convergent crises. And we've done so with bipartisan support. It's been incredible – and we are leading the world.

And leveraging what we do to get other countries to come along – and that's absolutely critical – but for me, when I get out there in the places that you saw on the video and other places, partly – it's just human, it's motivation. 

You know, it's one thing to read about 800 million people going hungry. It's another thing to meet a mother who's gotten access for her child to RUTF – the paste that severely malnourished kids get – that turns that child and thus, I know firsthand, that mother's life around, and to meet that mother and to hear that. Well, then when I'm looking at how many calls do I want to make at the weekend to some European donor to try to get them to cough up some money for RUTF – I've got that mother in my mind – it really, really matters. 

I was just in Lebanon. And like so many of you. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about how to get grain out of Ukraine, out of the breadbasket that is Ukraine – and one thing again, to do that, and to think about transhipment and rail, and how do we get the barges to work on the Danube, so we're not relying on Putin and the Black Sea initiative, and getting everything out via the Black Sea – and all of that diversification is going on right now. And when the war is over – and Senator McConnell is so right that this war will be won – and when it is won, Ukraine is going to be so much more integrated into Europe than it was before February 24 of this year, because of all of this, but we do all this work to get the grain out. 

And then I'm in Lebanon, a country that now we have long been providing humanitarian support – as you know – to Lebanon and to host families, because of all the Syrian refugees that had been generously welcomed there. Now, because of the economic collapse in Lebanon, we're providing humanitarian assistance to Lebanese, and so there's no margin in a country like Lebanon right now when that wheat is no longer coming from Ukraine. 

So, by getting out of Washington and to Lebanon, and to the port – demolished port, but nonetheless a port – and to see a Ukrainian ship arrive filled with that grain, that is a powerful motivation lesson. Last thing I'd say – two last things – is just, I think, I probably am speaking to the psychology of many of you in the room, which is because the crises and the challenges are so interlinked, it's very easy to feel overwhelmed right now – just climate alone, and how that is setting back development gains, and the sort of forecasts about where that's going for a lot of countries that have made such strides. 

But when you go abroad, and you're with the USAID team on the ground, and you're hearing what we're doing, and you see the solar panels go up – because people, community members have come together to pool resources because they can't afford fuel prices right now – and so necessity is the mother of invention. 

You come in touch with one of my favorite sort of mottos, which is shrink the change – instead of getting overwhelmed by the big, what is the path that one can carve out and find – and the way you see those paths is to be out there in the world and talking to people. And lastly – and this gets to USGLC and all the incredible work done by Liz and the team – by going out and by bringing cameras as much as you can now – bring your own cameras on our phones – we show the kinds of things that Senator McConnell was just talking about, the kinds of things that Senator Leahy has stood for his entire life – that kind of things enshrined in PEPFAR – and George W. Bush's incredible, you know, impact, that he has had through that program. You show three things when you go overseas – if you can figure out how to do it – but I aspire to show three things. One, America cares. We show our compassion by being highlighted, by lifting up what we're doing on behalf of the American people and the taxpayers.

Two – and I hope I can say – okay to say this in polite company, we kick a–. We are – we do big things, right? We vaccinate the world. We bring solar to – you know – leapfrog electrification, so that offgrid communities can get access to energy – that health clinics can have electricity – I mean, we're America, we can do these things. And thirdly, and this is what again, Senator McConnell was just talking about, what happens over there matters at home. And we have to show that again and again – and you all have done the best job. I can't think of a network that has done more to make that connection between the work that we're doing abroad and at home. But, sometimes you have to go there to bring the cameras with you to tell that story in the most powerful way.

DR. SHAH: You're the first USAID Administrator to be a permanent member of the National Security Council. In many ways, it's so perfect for you in that role. I feel like I learned so much about how to be an effective moral advocate in that room – working with you and watching you work in a prior administration. 

What has that meant for your ability to lift up development – really seriously, as part of how we engage in the world and what do you think the outcome of that is?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, first, again, as you well know, you were a principal and incredibly influential – and USAID administrators, again, had been there as the need arose. 

What's different about 2022 is not Samantha Power. It's the world. It's that you can't think of a foreign policy issue or a geopolitical issue that doesn't connect in some fashion. Look what China's doing beyond its borders, with its checks and its investment, and its attempt to change, fundamentally, the international order and to redefine that order in its image.

I mean – to do a counterfactual – imagine a discussion or any policy process around Ukraine that involves discussions about the incredibly important security assistance and military support that we're offering these brave warriors. But, imagine that without talking about what Congress has made possible for USAID – to provide, to channel to the Ukrainians, which is direct budget support, to keep the lights on, to keep the health clinics going – to ensure that pensioners are not dying of cold this winter. 

Imagine all that assistance flowing without USAID is anti-corruption programming. What is a policy debate like, if you're not actually talking about the institutions in the countries where our interests are implicated? And where we are bringing other tools to bear you know it? 

So, I think for President Biden, it was less a kind of conception of, let's elevate development. It's just common sense at this time in our history. We think of the defining event – I don't know, of certainly of the last decade, arguably of this generation – a pandemic. Well, how do we bring a pandemic to an end, and reduce the risk of new variants that outmaneuver the incredible ingenuity of American scientists that gave us these vaccines? 

We got to be out there in the world, vaccinating the world, bringing down that risk and ensuring that we have the surveillance so that the risk of the future pandemic – at least, of spotting it early, and trying to smother it – that we have mitigated those risks. As well so, think again, about things that matter to American security, and American prosperity and imagine, puzzling over those things with like a couple tools in the toolbox – but not the full panoply that again, thanks to all of you, and to Congress – USAID isn't able to bring to bear – it just doesn't make any sense. 

So, I'm there. But I'm not kind of having to be, “Hey, look at me, look at me,” you know, in other words, the problem set is demanding this toolkit to be made on offer right alongside the other set of tools – and again, I don't need to keep buttering up the Congress – although it is in my interest to do so, but this toolkit doesn't come about on its own. 

It's come about because when they did Ukraine supplementals, they didn't just look to security assistance. They didn't even just look to direct budget support. They understood. They didn't just look to Ukraine. They also understood how critically important it would be – even just for Ukraine's staying power – to make sure that we had additional food security resources to deal with the knock on effects of this war in developing countries, to give us additional humanitarian support to try to keep up somehow, with the growing humanitarian needs and so forth. 

So, my job back as the head of the Agency, and our team's job is to expand the pie beyond what we're getting from the Congress. And that's where I think you pioneered an awful lot at USAID. We are trying to massively grow our conception of ourselves as a catalytic actor, where we are trying to think all the time, “okay, well, how can we leverage this.” I was just telling Senator McConnell that the Europeans now are voting on an $18 billion infusion of direct budget support to Ukraine. That would not have happened but for the United States leading, and it hasn't happened yet. But – and lots is going to happen in the European Union context – and stipulate but, you know, we always think of ourselves as a convener as leverage. USAID Administrator, I'm the vice chair of the DFC board – the Development Finance Corporation – has those as big ticket items that a lot of countries are hungry for and so we can't just think of USAID, its impact or development impact as a U.S. government as the sum of the programs that USAID is overseeing. We have to think about hustle, development, diplomacy. What is the problem set in the world that we need to address – how do USAID programs fit in – and then, how do we hustle our way to bring in a whole new set of stakeholders to take ownership of these challenges because we're all implicated.

DR. SHAH: Just to conclude with the last quick question. You are an extraordinary, moral voice, an outstanding USAID Administrator, and you're an extraordinary leader for our country for the basic idea that the best of our values projected everywhere makes us stronger and safer at home. We are facing 50-60 countries looking at a debt crisis, a continued food crisis, a continued health crisis. You're also an idealist. So tell us why and how should we be optimistic or what keeps you optimistic as you look to the couple of years ahead? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, again, this was implicit, I think, in some of the comments that are made by others this evening. But, there was a time when foreign assistance – the mere concept of – the mere idea that our fates are linked to the fates of others – where that was a contested proposition. Where this organization, this network had to come together and bring in all of these stakeholders – if you looked with that mindset in mind, and think back to those days where you had to defend the utility of this work, whether for the American people, or just as again, a show of American goodness and greatness at once. And imagine Ukraine hitting at a time where Americans are suffering significant economic headwinds with inflation – and other phenomenon – hopefully, abating. 

But, the Congress has pushed through these enormous, generous supplemental measures that have been sold – I mean, I know their challenges – and I credit the politicians for their ability to sell – I think we heard the best sales pitch we could conceivably hear here tonight – and there are elements of both parties, who were skeptical about this and the longer it goes on, the harder we're going to have to work to defend all of this. 

But, it just speaks fundamentally and I don't know if it's the pandemic that got us there, or Putin that gets us there, but to the growing recognition of these interconnected fates, and the willingness at a time when bipartisanship has been hard to achieve. And so many other domains of both parties to come together and recognize, again, that compassion, competence and conductivity that it is in our interest to act together overseas. I think that's been major. And last thing I would say is just – because one of the things that Congress also funded through a previous supplemental process, which is a COVID response, they lost enthusiasm for it sadly, in recent recent months – but we won't belabor that. But you know, we – while no one's watching, because nobody's interested in COVID anymore – the United States government has gotten nearly 700 million vet shots into arms internationally this year, while nobody's looking.

So we've got just this year from 15 percent in June in Tanzania to 94 percent of eligible people vaccinated and that's just one example. So we can do it. We can do hard things if we have that public support – if we have that bipartisanship behind us. And thank you, USGLC for always working so hard to sustain that kind of enthusiasm. Thank you.

DR. SHAH: Thank you and congratulations.

Samantha Power
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