Prime TV, Lusaka, Zambia
TABULA CHIFOKOLO: Power began her career as a war correspondent in Bosnia and went on to report from places including Kosovo, Rwanda, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. She was the founding executive director of the Carter Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and has been recognized as one of the Time’s 100 Most Influential People, one of Foreign Policy’s top 100 global thinkers, and by Forbes as one of the world's 100 most powerful women. Power is an author and an editor of multiple books and recipient of the 2003 Pulitzer for nonfiction. Samantha Power was sworn into office as the 19th Administrator of USAID on May 3, 2021. Welcome to this interview. I am your host. My name is Kelvin Tabula Chifokolo, and my guest is Samantha Power. Samantha, thank you so much for affording prime television an opportunity to interview you.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I'm delighted to be here.
TABULA CHIFOKOLO: Let’s start with our interview, or our discussion. You’ve been in Zambia for the past four days now. Can you give us an overview of your trip, what you have done, what you have seen, and also what are the objectives of your visit to Zambia?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much, Kelvin. Thank you for having me. Obviously, I’m delighted to sit down with you. I’m also really encouraged to see the kind of media freedom that is increasing in the country.
You asked why I came. Now is a very difficult time in the world for a lot of countries because of rising food prices and fuel prices. It’s also a difficult time for people in a lot of countries because there is an awful lot of democratic backsliding going on, namely crackdowns on civil society, crackdowns on the rule of law, leaders who want to distance themselves from their people rather than answering to the people. And Zambia really stands out in the world as being unusual and moving in a more democratic direction – or seeking to. And I was very struck by the election in 2021, by the fact that the opposition in that election didn’t really campaign in the way that they wished. It was very, very difficult to kind of get around. And yet young people got very, very excited at the possibility of bringing about change, and that kind of broad movement to fight corruption. To get Zambia on a better economic path, to create more jobs for young people not only got my attention and the President’s attention, President Joe Biden really was noticing what was happening in Zambia again, in part because globally it is so rare amid this democratic backsliding that we see in other places.
So I wanted to come see up close what’s happening in Zambia – is it what they say? And also, you know, in a world of scarce resources, but where there are a lot of needs. As USAID Administrator, to come to see what can we do to support these reform efforts, whether political reform, economic reform. And given some of the food challenges that the continent as a whole is facing, to see what more we can do in the area of strengthening food security, given that this remains a big issue for very poor Zimbabweans.
TABULA CHIFOKOLO: We are told that you focus on four interconnected challenges, which include COVID-19 pandemic and the development it has gained, climate change, conflict, humanitarian crises, democratic backsliding. And I know that you’ve talked about this now, the United States supports democratic strengthening across the world, including Zambia. Can you tell us how you intend to work to make sure that democratic, you know, beliefs are strengthened, like you’ve mentioned, towards the 2021 elections, which was back and forth. And you mentioned that the opposition then was not afforded the chance or an opportunity to campaign. How would you intend to achieve this goal?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, let me be clear. This is not my goal to achieve or not to achieve. And I can't ensure anything. I'm an outsider; this is a country belonging to the Zambian people, where the Zambian people rose up and said, “This is what we want. This is the mandate that we are giving this new leadership, this new administration.” So my job is to work with our team on the ground that has been, of course, in Zambia for decades, has done such important work in trying to strengthen and spur economic development over time. But right now, there are a lot of different areas, I think, where the people have said we want support. So let me give you a few examples.
Yesterday, I got to go out and witness the decentralization agenda up close. Witness the fact that the government now is moving many more resources to the local level than had occurred in the past. But the inspiring aspect of this that I got to see, and that we, USAID, support is community ownership over how that money is spent. And honestly, Kelvin, that’s one of the most exciting things that I’ve seen in all my travels as USAID Administrator. Because it was the local people from the zone within the ward, within the province saying, “Okay, here are some ideas for how we can spend the money. Here’s our – here are our candidates,” people raising their hand, putting it on a list. And then what happened? The people voted. The people voted, they wrote the names of renovation of a health clinic, the creation of a police post, the adding of desks to a school. And every villager who turned out was given three pebbles and they got to–the name of the idea was put on a piece of white paper on the floor, and a person got to vote among what were the finalists and put down their three pebbles on three different projects. And that is how the decisions were made about how the money would be spent.
Now, will there be challenges in implementation? And do the people have to be there on the back end to monitor how those projects are implemented. To make sure that nobody is taking a cut, that it really should be going to the desks or to the clinic or to the police post? Yes, absolutely. And that’s where USAID comes in as well. Are there ways that we can support those organizations or those community members who want to play that accountability role on the back end? So that's an example of a reform that was promised that is being done. It’s probably not happening as quickly as people at the local level would like. But the dramatic increase in national resources that are going to the local level necessitates a comparable increase in accountability. And that’s what the people in the community that I visited were instituting.
The other thing that’s happening, of course, is that Zambia is suffering again. Those same higher food and fuel prices that countries all over the world, including the United States, are suffering. So one of the things that I have brought is additional resources to try to support trade, because there is so much untapped potential in this country. So we have announced a new program called Trade Boost. And the idea here is, you know, Zambians shouldn't be the only ones who get to enjoy Zambian soybeans or legumes or corn. With a food crisis, especially in the region, we need to think about how we accelerate Zambia’s reach into neighboring countries. I like how the President Hichilema talks about Zambia not as landlocked, which is, you know. I think the way that many of us were taught to think about countries that didn’t have access to the sea, but land linked, you know, to be neighbored by eight countries. Those are eight markets that Zambia could be tapping and because, in part, of corruption, but also because of some laws and an enabling environment for business that makes it quite challenging to work here. That potential has not been tapped. Zambia could be the breadbasket for the region, as you well know. You have the soil you have, the weather you have, the industrial work ethic of the people.
All that needs to happen is corruption needs to be dramatically fought and eliminated. The business enabling environment needs to be strengthened and improved. And we and others who have connections in other countries need to just facilitate the connection. You know, we can maybe be a matchmaker here or there, as can other organizations. And in so doing that will then help deliver on the economic dividend of democratization. Because you asked, what are we doing for democracy? Yes, we’re helping fight misinformation, strengthen electoral reform, and strengthen the media, recognizing that these checks and balances are so important. USAID has programs in each of those areas, and I announced an additional $4 million on democracy support.
But the key with democracy that we found over these last years where it’s been struggling globally, is that it delivers for the people. Yes, they want to see these political reforms and we, the United States, as friends of the Zambian people, would like to see those reforms accelerated for sure. But what we know is that when people look for more democracy, they’re also looking for jobs. They believe that more democracy will deliver jobs. They believe less corruption and more rule of law is going to deliver economic opportunity.
And so USAID – I feel really lucky as administrator of USAID, because we have programs not only in the political domains in order to try to help the decentralization, help with the corruption fight, help strengthen elections, help strengthen, you know, media freedom. All of that is incredibly important. But we also then can help small or medium sized enterprises get loans. We can help women farmers access markets that they’ve been shut out of. So I think to combine the economic and the political like the government is trying to do. For us to come in and support that with other institutions like the World Bank and other donors, I think that can really strengthen the hand of the reformers.
TABULA CHIFOKOLO: I know that you’ve talked about the democratic reforms and the current president, President Hichilema, when he was in the opposition, he promised the Zambian people that was going to embark on democratic reforms. So far as an administrator for the USAID, are you encouraged? Are you satisfied with the commitment so far? And what are you doing to make sure that he delivers on the promises that he made to the Zambian people?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I’ll come back to the point I made earlier, which is I'm pretty confident that the Zambian people are going to be the ones day in, day out, pressing for delivery on that set of high level political reforms. I’ve had two days of meetings and discussions with him and his team within my visit. And what I will say is, I think that the temptation, of course, when times are tough economically, is to focus on the economic needs of the people. That’s a temptation globally, you know, that's just because, you know, you only have so much time of the day. You only have so many initiatives you can lead at any one time. I’m really encouraged by what I've heard from your President every time I’ve talked to him, which is a recognition that you cannot get that economic dividend that everybody is seeking. It will be much harder to blunt the economic effects of the supply chain crisis and food security crisis if the political reform doesn't happen hand in hand with the economic initiatives.
So I think what I sense is, you know, a recognition that the President and his team are coming on to a year in office I think around 10 months now since the August election. And I think they are feeling, you know, a renewed energy in pushing forward things like the right to information bill. You know, looking at the Public Order Act, trying to institute enhanced independence for the media. And to be honest, Kelvin, the thing that has really struck me that I hope remains true, is that in each of the conversations I’ve had with the Zambian president, he has made a point that a lot of leaders quickly move away from when they become elected, which is when you’re trying to figure out what legislation to put forward and what reforms are necessary, you can’t think about that agenda only from the standpoint of “I’m in power, what are the laws that I think are needed when I’m in power?” You have to think to yourself, “if I were not in power, what would I want the laws to be?”
You have to always put yourself in the shoes of local people, you know, local farmers, small scale farmers, medium sized enterprises, you know, startup entrepreneurs, young people. And put yourself in the shoes of the opposition candidate you once were and say, okay, I want to make sure that the next time there are elections in this country – not just the next time, but 20 years from now – that no other opposition candidates get arrested just for campaigning. And you know that, you know, the misinformation that is out there is contested. But also the people can speak freely and that the lines are drawn in the right place between encouraging free speech, free association, but also, of course, never wanting to see an incitement to violence or hooliganism or media being used to stir people up in a matter with their neighbors.
So that’s what encourages me. There are two aspects of the conversation that encourage me. One, the recognition that the economic dividend goes hand in hand with the political reforms that need to be accelerated. And two, the recognition that one can’t just rely on the good faith of particular individuals in office at a given time. One needs to institutionalize reform and build those checks and balances that are going to last the Zambian people well into the future.
TABULA CHIFOKOLO: Food insecurity is an increasingly, you know, global problem, and Zambia’s not been spared. As an administrator, how are you planning to help Zambia? Because we're taught by the means of our culture that we are not going to record a bountiful harvest and the people of goodwill with fear say, okay, we’re going to start receiving reports of some regions or provinces that they’re likely to face, you know hunger and other issues of food insecurity. How do you intend to help Zambia overcome these challenges of food insecurity?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, let me just say that yesterday when I left Lusaka and went out into a much more rural area, I talked to some farmers, small scale farmers and emerging farmers. And this is a very real issue for them. They literally go into the store today to pick up their fertilizer and they can buy half as much fertilizer today as they could buy this time last year. And for many of them, that requires, it necessitates impossible choices to use less fertilizer and risk, you know, having growing less money, but expanding that and your risk of crop failure altogether. Or do you narrow down the plot of land on which you work? That was certainly an answer I heard from some of them. Many are scrambling and being very creative and thinking about how to use natural compost or manure in order to supplement the fertilizer that they have. So, you know, they’re being scrappy out there to try to make up the difference in having to pay these higher food and fuel and fertilizer prices.
I think it's going to be a combination. I’ve announced on this trip an additional $9 million to help strengthen food security in different ways, mainly programmatically, helping people target, use their fertilizer in more efficient ways, using soil mapping to make sure that they’re choosing the right plots of land. When fertilizer is scarce, one can let nothing go to waste. Enhancing food storage. So because food waste is a big issue in this country as it is in so many. But alongside that, again, working with international financial institutions that have created funds that farmers and agricultural ministries across the continent will be able to tap into. So the African Development Bank has created such a fund. The World Bank has created such a fund.
And there I would just say that we are just standing in great support of the Zambian government as it seeks to restructure its debt. Because part of the challenge that the current administration faces is it inherited so much debt. And much of it, you know, I wish I could say that in traveling the country that I’ve seen the result of incurring all those expenses. But as you know, I think many in this country say we see the liability, but we don’t see the investments really on the ground. A lot of that was lost to corruption, which is unbelievably sad. And now in face of the food crisis, to imagine what could have happened in this country if all of that money and all of that expenditure had actually been invested in the people. But the past is passed and now as Zambia seeks to restructure its debt, those talks take on an added urgency because concluding those talks will then put Zambia on the new path on, you know, the new dawn will be formalized in so far as also the government will have more space to be able to expand social safety nets to meet the needs of people who are facing this crisis. So anything we can do in support of that effort through the common framework and the negotiations that are under way, we seek to do.
TABULA CHIFOKOLO: Free press is very important in a democratic society. Now, you know that you’ve had interactions with the president and, we covered this story as prime television where the President – you had an interaction with the President was talking about, you know, giving the media freedom to report on a number of issues. The time that you've been in Zambia, what is your assessment on the press? And also how important, according to you, is the free press in a democratic society?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, let me say that I’ve had a number of press encounters here, and I do something a little bit cheeky, Kelvin, which is, often when I'm being interviewed and interviews over, I interview the journalists to find out how it’s going in terms of that feeling. You know, is there a chilling effect still from some of the harassment and intimidation that has happened in the past? And I think what I’ve heard is actually no, I think people feel freer. They feel safer. They feel that they can ask, you know, what questions are on their mind. And, you know, I think every journalist wants more access to leadership. And, you know, I know that’s something from talking to the president that he is very interested in, kind of, reconstituting some of the spirit of the election campaign from 10 months ago. You know, being out about and being accessible in that way when you’re managing an economic – a whole set of economic challenges and traveling abroad to try to attract foreign investment, you know, your time is obviously in high demand. But, I but I'm hopeful that in – we’ll start to see more of that, more accessibility. Certainly in the United States, people always complain that President Biden doesn't have enough time for the media. But I do think that being answerable to the people in the form of their proxy – journalists who ask tough questions is really important for all of us. And so I think that, of course, more access and exposure will be important over time.
I think when I’ve asked journalists these questions, after they’ve asked me their questions, what I’ve heard back is some version of “we feel free, we aren't scared of asking the wrong question per se. But it’d be better if some of these protections were really written in stone.” That is, you know, maybe not for this leader of this particular President, but maybe some future leader will come along and he will have a different view of them. He won’t view the media as a proxy for the people to hold him accountable. But he’ll view the media maybe as we've done recently, the President of the United States who has even referred to the media as the enemy of the people. You know, people sometimes view the media that way in democracies. And so that's why the laws and the enabling environment for journalists, the distance that, for example, you know, independent broadcasting and other institutions have from the executive, extending those differences, insulating those distances, insulating the press from political interference.
Those kinds of reforms over time will institutionalize the freedom – the greater freedom, I’d say, because nobody probably feels they have perfect freedom – but the greater freedom that the journalists feel right now. Because, again, the lesson of democracy is that it’s not about any particular personality or any particular leader. It's about institutionalizing checks and balances so that one privilege to serve in public office, as I am and as people here in Zambia are, cannot abuse their power. That there’s – just that if they are tempted to do so, if they are tempted to intimidate the media, that there will be consequences. If they are tempted to steal from the people, that there will be institutions that will catch that, catch them, and recover the assets and give them to the people. That’s the journey Zambia’s on. It’s not just a stated commitment to democracy, it’s the instantiation of those checks and balances and those – and that accountability across sectors.
TABULA CHIFOKOLO: There is also an issue of, you know, freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This administration, the 10 months that the President has been in office, together with his administration, he promised that supporting the opposition that I'm going to give you some freedom to express yourselves. And now, seemingly, people are ready and able to criticize the government and able to call the President all sorts of names. He seems to be very okay with it. But again, some of what his supporters and Zambians say no, no, this freedom is too much. What is your take on that?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think that, again, in every democracy, there is a question about, you know, when freedom of speech or the use of your speech freedom drifts into something else, you know, drifts into incitement of violence or, you know, lies that could harm the health of citizens. And you both deal with disinformation, for example, around the COVID vaccine – lies about the COVID vaccine – which can save lives. You can actually, you know, prevent hospitalization and allow people to live longer and healthier lives. So this question of, you know, how to allow freedom of speech and certainly how to allow criticism of elected leaders, I mean, this is, if we are not able to be criticized, where will that accountability come from? Right? Then it has to come from our peers. But our peers may have, government may have, you know, their own interests, they're working on their own day job. I'm afraid they may not be looking at us, offering us the need to do our jobs better.
So that kind of feedback is essential. And of course, you know, so too is preventing, you know, incitement to violence and so forth. I think that, you know, one of the messages that strong leaders send is, I’m okay, I’m okay. “You know, thank you for having my back and for looking out for me but, you know, I can use also words to counteract lies.” I can use words like if I’m the President of the country and this is something your president has said many times. You know, I have the pulpit, I have the ability to correct the record. And so, you know, I think there are other tools besides, you know, the tools of the last administration here of kind of locking people up because they were critical of an elected leader.
I will say, again that this exercise of speech to you know, it's not just about being able to be critical of the President of the country. And it’s, of course, very, very important that the president continue to encourage feedback of that nature, even if – even if people aren’t, you know, thrilled. You want to hear that, like, that's good for you as a leader. I know that firsthand. And I’ve seen President Biden also, you know, after several years of having an elected leader in my country who kind of discouraged the press from speaking its mind, you know, now you have President Biden, even when they're being very hard on him, say, “I’m glad you're here. I need to hear this.” And I think that's very important.
But the point I want to make is, you know, it's also really important at the local level. And so that's again, where this institutionalization comes in is local officials, too, need to be able to tolerate that kind of criticism, view it as democratic feedback. And sometimes in the capital, people can feel free, but it can take some time for that kind of liberalization to occur at a local level. And so that's where, again, it's not just decentralization of resources that this government is attempting to pursue. It’s not just decentralization of agency and choice about how money is spent that this government is attempting to pursue. But it’s really important that we see the decentralization of these freedoms.
TABULA CHIFOKOLO: You spoke about corruption and when you had a meeting with the President, he spoke about corruption and he promised you the new administration that is going to make sure that he follows the law when it comes to fighting corruption. And there are those that have been called to appear before you. Who have cried foul, that they're being intimidated and they still fight against corruption. What do you make of the President's commitment to say he is going to follow the law and is going to give independence to law enforcement agencies to make sure that they work on these matters and make sure that they didn't cover something for money that was stolen from the Zambian People?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well this is definitely, you know, one of the first issues he raised with me is, you know, looking for support in tracking down, you know, where did the money go? Where did it all go? I mean, if you’re going to have this amount of debt, again, you would expect to see much more on the ground that came out of, you know, these large expenditures–and that evidence on the ground is not there. And therefore, it begs the question of who took the money and where they put it? So I think there is full sincerity in the desire to track down those resources.
It’s challenging, you know, we’ve seen corrupt networks grow very sophisticated in how they hide their money. You know, you’ve seen companies crop up or, you know, here in Zambia, one doesn’t even know who owns a company that's under somebody whose name. That person actually has no affiliation with the company or is maybe just a guise or you know, a kind of cover for a wholly different kind of enterprise. And so I think I keep coming back to the same point, which is how do your laws change? Because he said, to follow the law, of course, but are the laws strong enough? Is the enforcement of the law what it needs to be? You have actually a decent, beneficial ownership law where the names of the true owners of companies should be known, should be public. And yet I think the vast majority are not known – of actually the companies, the enterprises, you know, people just don't even know who the true owners are. So how are you to track down taxes and actually have the system kind of working in that manner?
You have an asset disclosure law, as I understand it, where public officials are supposed to actually be answerable to the people and to say, you know, these are the stocks that I hold, this and these are the accounts. These are my expenditures. Very few elected officials are actually complying with that law. So, again, within the laws, as they are, there's probably a tightening of enforcement that is needed. At the same time, everybody’s entitled to due process. That’s part of the rule of law as well, not being corrupt and there being enforcement against corruption is part of the rule of law. But so is giving somebody a chance to defend themselves. And, you know, because there was a lot of corruption associated with politicians, you know, of the past, you know, who had positions of power. I think the President is also sensitive to the risk of not wanting to look as though there’s politics involved, but rather, you know, just looking at the law on the books, seeing if those laws need to be strengthened, seeing if the individuals who enforce those laws need to be replaced, because sometimes those individuals can bring bias to those positions. We see that in every country. And over time, clawing back resources that belonged to the people that were unjustly taken away from communities that really could have used that money, whether to build a clinic or a borehole or, you know as I heard yesterday in Mungule, yes, we want to use our new funds to buy desks. But the problem is, are we going to put the desks under the trees because we also need a bigger building in order to have the classrooms and so forth. Well, you know, enough money was spent in the last decade where that should not be an issue, you know, in a province that has, again, people who want to invest in their community in these ways. And yet it is because money was stolen.
So enforcing the laws on the books, tracking down that money, holding accountable those individuals who stole money from the people, and now spending wisely and transparently. making sure that government procurements are known to the media, known to the citizens, and making sure that in addition, again, to cracking down on what has already happened, things get cleaned up so that every penny that is meant for the people, meant to strengthen and revitalize communities, meant to meet food security needs, is actually dedicated to that task and not to somebody’s personal enrichment.
TABULA CHIFOKOLO: You talked about misinformation when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines. How is the USAID working with the Zambian government to make sure that more people get vaccinated?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Let me just say that Zambia has made huge strides in vaccinating its people, huge, just in the last four or five months. And indeed, you know, you got to a point in May, which is just last month, and now I guess a month and one day ago where Zambia was vaccinating 100,000 people a day. That’s a million people in 10 days. And Zambia has gone from, I think in December, 5 percent of the population being vaccinated to 41 percent.
I think–I hope we helped. We invested $60 million in helping you get shots in arms. The most effective way to get people vaccinated is through campaigns. And we donated 5 million vaccines, really top flight vaccines, mRNA vaccines, and didn’t just help the vaccines, I hope, on the tarmac, but really sought to work with your health ministry and with local health workers, community health workers to get the word out that these vaccines were safe. And for those of your viewers who still have skepticism of the vaccines, we were just talking, you just got boosted. I just got boosted, actually, last week as well.
You know, these vaccines just give one a peace of mind, and, you know, when you look at your loved ones, your older parents, people in your life who might have underlying health conditions, when you look at your kids–soon kids will, as young as five, will be able to be vaccinated here in Zambia. Just that peace of mind and being vaccinated gives you is really something very, very special. I feel really, really privileged that science has brought to us something that can be this lifesaving and this soothing. And so hopefully we will continue. We’re looking to find new resources to help extend those campaigns out into provinces where the vaccination rates are still low, even for elderly people and those with preexisting conditions. Those are really the people we want to make sure get vaccinated because if they get COVID, it can be deadly.
TABULA CHIFOKOLO: Samantha Power, thank you so much for coming on Prime Television to interview you.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, Kelvin.