NICOLETTE MASHILE: Hello and welcome to the Financial Bunny TV. My name is Nicolette Mashile also known as the Financial Bunny. We are in Washington, DC for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and I have the absolute pleasure of sitting down with Administrator Samantha Power. Now, you will know that she is at the helm of USAID. But, of course, she's an iconic human rights activist and an award winning journalist. And she founded the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Administrator, thank you very much for taking the time.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: So glad to be here.
NICOLETTE MASHILE: I want to kick it off by talking to you about some of your travels. I know you've traveled extensively across the continent. How has that shaped your views on what Africa is about?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, as you know well, there are many stereotypes about Africa. There's a lot of lumping of one country with another country, one community with another. But one of my favorite expressions is “get close.” Once you actually get out past the capital into a particular community or down sitting with a farmer, looking at how the drought is affecting, you know, that farmers yield for the moment, or talking to a farmer when they just got back from the shop where they were hoping to buy fertilizer and they can only now buy half the fertilizer they were planning on buying. Or meeting some of the leaders actually, whether young people who are dynamic in so many ways, or even political leaders. And I know that's a controversial idea with even political leaders who are trying to strengthen – not weaken – the rule of law and try to expand enjoyment of human rights, fight corruption when you get in the room and then you hear them say, “here's my plan, here's all of the corruption from the previous regime I want to help clean up, and here's my capacity constraint.”
You know, we need more people. We need to attract young people into public service, into government, into politics. Politics has become, you know, a little bit controversial in a lot of circles. And when you hear that, it's fuel in the tank for me and for my team. 70 percent of USAID's staff that works in sub-Saharan Africa are nationals of the countries in which we work. So my greatest tutorials come from our Sierra Leonean staff, our Zambian staff, our Mozambican staff, our Egyptian staff. Those team members who've lived in the country, often worked at USAID for decades, two decades, three decades. They know everyone. They are the institutional memory. They know who's plugged in. They know who not to work with because there won't be good use of taxpayer money and it won't be good for the people in the communities in which we're working.
So, I just think it brings it all home. The human stakes are just different when you read about famine and then you see a mother who's actually been able to resurrect her child because of some UNICEF intervention that we funded, or you meet an entrepreneur who's helping that farmer actually know what weather is coming so that they can plan ahead months in advance, and plant their seeds at a different time and therefore increase their yield. So, it just – it brings home why the programming matters. It also gives you some spidey-sense, you know, about who to listen to or not. You know, you hope it helps refine your judgment. Then, it informs when I come back to Washington and meet with the Treasury Secretary, meet with President Biden or Vice President Harris or the Secretary of State, where we put our heads together to think what are the tools that we can unlock to support these change agents on the ground? Because once you've met them, all you want to do is give a little nudge here or there, and then they're off to the races.
NICOLETTE MASHILE: And you spoke about the rule of law, and I think that's probably the bedrock of any type of initiative we would like to see on the African continent. And, of course, also good governance, all of those things make a good mix for – if you want to bring in trade or other things, those things are very important. How do you see the U.S. helping strengthen that on the African continent?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, there's no way any outsider can dictate that, we can incentivize it as best we can. But at the end of the day, it is the people who again and again come forward and say, we don't want the old way. You know, we want strong institutions, not strong men. Obviously, there has been a fair amount of democratic backsliding, not only in sub-Saharan Africa or in Africa as a whole, but also here in the United States, so nobody is immune to some of those very worrying trends that we see globally.
But at USAID, part of it – one thing that we've done, very influenced by our conversations with folks on the continent, is we've actually created an anti-corruption task force. Because right now, sometimes you'll see a change of leadership where someone comes in, they suddenly see the debt that they are saddled with, that young people ultimately are saddled with. And then they look around and they say "well, wait, where's the infrastructure? We took that debt out, where – what happened? Where's the stadium? Where’s the hospital?" This happened in Zambia most recently. And so what they are looking for, the government is looking for, and with the citizens who elected a government on a platform of cleaning up corruption are looking for – is how do you track down those assets? How do you build checks and balances to ensure that – because you can, you know, no individual can be trusted, no government can be. You have to build institutions that are predicated on checks and balances, not trust. Right? And laws that get enforced, not the goodwill of any particular individual. So when you get that kind of turnover in that transition, there's a hunger for that kind of technical support. So, that's one example of what we do.
The other thing that we are trying to do is find the bright spots, find those reformist actors, whether at the national level or at the subnational level, and recognize that what they're looking for actually is not necessarily more democracy assistance. You know, the old playbook was, “oh, there's a democratic opening, let's, you know, send in more election support or more support in the democratic field.” Well we know that one of the reasons democracy is struggling globally is that there hasn't been perceived to be an economic dividend on democratic reform. So now what we at USAID are trying to do in places like Zambia, like Tanzania, like Malawi, where you have leaders coming in pledging to strengthen the rule of law. In Malawi, we even saw the vice president of the country recently relieved of his duties because of anti-corruption institutions getting stronger. We want not only to think about how do we support the anti-corruption effort, but how do we get the private sector to see that something really interesting is happening here, but also for all of us to recognize that these windows of reform are often quite fleeting. And if we don't seize these moments and show citizens that there is a return on political reform, there is an economic dividend – and it's really hard to show that now because of all the economic headwinds, then we could see regression to a much more centralized, repressive form of leadership. And that's what none of the citizens in this country want.
NICOLETTE MASHILE: Now I do – so my work that I do is financial literacy and I think it’s ultimately the one thing that is going to get us these equitable societies in the African continent. But I do have a slight bias towards women. So, I want to talk a little bit about how do you see the U.S. empowering politically and economically, women specifically.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, it depends on the country or the community that we're talking about. Obviously, we have programs in girls' education, we have programs also in financial literacy for women. And we refer people to your YouTube tutorials which are incredible including me, who needs some help as well. But, you know, one example I think that's very fresh and contemporary is we have a big agricultural program, food security program on the continent called Feed the Future. And instead of sort of having a bunch of agricultural programing over here and then having siloed women's programing here, we're actually just saying – wait, look at the vast percentage of smallholder farmers who are women. If we have microfinance loans to be giving through Feed the Future, let us look first to women – not even necessarily only because of considerations of equality and empowerment which we know are real considerations. But because we know that women pay back their loans at a higher rate than men, and so those loans are likely to turn over and we're able to reach more people. So it's becoming more and more – and I know the Gates Foundation is doing this too, gender is becoming a filter through which we are thinking about how to get the biggest return on all of our programmatic investments. And almost inevitably, it means looking to women first.
NICOLETTE MASHILE: It's quite interesting that you speak about women being able to pay back. In fact, one of the entrepreneurs [inaudible] I think she speaks about having a 99 percent payment back for a woman. That's quite a great one. But one more question for you then I've got something that I'd like to ask you to teach you from South Africa. Right? But before we get to that, I want to talk a little bit about our government, my African continent. We know our governments have quite a number of older people in them, right? And it seems like there's no succession plan to really bring in a new cohort of leaders. So in your opinion, what should young people be doing? What should they be looking to, what should they be, you know, investing their time in, in terms of really bringing Africa up.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, let me make a pitch.
NICOLETTE MASHILE: Okay.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: But I will say that I've made it in a number of countries. And I'm not feeling as persuasive as I would like to be. But I see the talent and the dynamism of under thirties, the under forties – even though thirty to forty you're deemed old in many communities. It's being unleashed with the number of software engineers, with the number of startups. You know, we see it out there even again in the realm of food security, as we see young farmers actually using satellite information, again, to predict or to think about their soil in a new way, to use their fertilizer in a more efficient way. So we see youth playing out everywhere. Where we don't see quite so much of in Africa is youth being attracted into politics and into public service. And it's just the solution. It's just a sense. I mean, it's in a way, “oh they’re old, they’ll never change. They'll never be a place for me.” They'll never be – or it's clearly you don't go into government, you know, to make the kind of return on your education necessarily, that you might in a startup where you can imagine, you know, some rough years, maybe at the beginning, but maybe making a big profit down the line.
But, you know, we see whenever a crisis hits the kind of solidarity – and you see families and communities – a kind of solidarity in Africa that is really exceptional globally. And yet that instinct around solidarity doesn't translate for a lot of young people into “okay, let me see about joining a political party and breathing new life into that party, and indeed bringing to that party youth issues and youth concerns.” So we have youth kind of on the outside, by and large. And there are exceptions, of course – but complaining about the old guard, but not yet really changing it. Now, that said, it was youth in the election in Zambia that got involved in getting the new leadership elected, that then is taking on this private sector agenda, that is taking on digitalization, that is taking on corruption and fighting corruption. So youth did play a critical role, but then when it came time to, you know, want to constitute the administration, then there's a sense, okay, we'll vote next time. We'll see how they do and then we'll judge them, and we'll be back out hopefully. But you know, what governments also – it takes two to tango. We need governments to make it more attractive and more accessible to come into the civil service, to come in on to a political list, to run for parliament. Because these parliaments, I mean, they're not reflective of the demographics in the countries and the communities that they represent.
NICOLETTE MASHILE: Yeah. Okay. Well, that's quite an interesting one. And I hope that everybody that is watching is listening. Guys, as the young people, we need to get involved. But one more thing. So, as I said, I'm from South Africa. We've got 11 official languages. I want to teach you something, if I may.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Bring it.
NICOLETTE MASHILE: So I'd like you to say Tlhokomela – say it after me – Tlhokomela
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Tlhoko.
NICOLETTE MASHILE: Tlhokomela.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thlokomela.
NICOLETTE MASHILE: di tokelo
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: di tokelo.
NICOLETTE MASHILE: tša batho.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: tša batho.
NICOLETTE MASHILE: So that basically means that you are the protector of people’s human rights.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, that's very self-regarding but –
NICOLETTE MASHILE: We are giving it to you, yes.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you. And I probably should have asked what it meant before I said it, but that's generally a good rule of thumb for giving interviews. But I'm glad it was something very kind. Thank you for being here. Thank you for drawing Africa's attention to what we're trying to do here at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. We really are trying to drive more investment to the continent to unlock the potential of young people because we know the sky's the limit.
NICOLETTE MASHILE: And we look forward to it. Thank you very much.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you.