Tuesday, July 25, 2023


July 25, 2023

BEN RHODES: We are very very pleased to welcome back to Pod Save the World the best friend of The Pod, Samantha Power, the Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Among many other things. Sam, great to see you. 

ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: Great to see you, Ben. And to be the best friend – wow. 

MR. RHODES: Best friend. Number one friend. Indisputable – holds the belt. Well look, we are going to talk about your trip – your recent trip to Ukraine. Which was a very important several days. To set that up though, before we do, we’ve been talking a little bit on the podcast about Russia’s withdrawal from this initiative to allow the export of Ukrainian grain and frankly their subsequent attacks on infrastructure. What is the state of that and could you describe to people what the stakes are involved with what Russia is disrupting in terms of the export of agricultural products from Ukraine?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Absolutely. And I did travel to Ukraine, intentionally, around the around the time when we had hoped the Black Sea Grain Initiative would be reupped, so as to describe the positive stakes and the importance of getting grain out of Ukraine – one of the breadbaskets of the world, and particularly of the developing world. But I was there, of course, when Russia withdrew and the stakes are very visible on the ground and they are going to be very visible within days, globally. 

So, flashing back, before the full-scale invasion that Putin carried out in February of last year, agriculture accounted for about 20 percent of Ukraine’s GDP. So, killing the agricultural sector – seeking to – is also a way of gutting Ukraine’s economy and driving farmers out of business. We’ll talk about alternative routes and what USAID has done to support the Ukrainians in diversifying their export channels but there’s no substitute for losing access to the Black Sea ports, because those ports were exporting around five million metric tons of grains to the wider world. More supply means – same demand – means lower prices. But very specifically, a huge share of Egypt, Lebanon, Somalia’s grain imports came from Ukraine. And indeed, the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which the UN, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine were a party to until last week – that is something that has allowed the World Food Program actually to source 80 percent of its grain supply globally from Ukraine, in the last year. So if you just think about the flagship humanitarian agency that feeds the hungriest people in the world – that’s WFP – 80 percent of their supply came, last [this] year, from Ukrainian fields, very specifically their wheat supply.

So, if you look at the year that the Black Sea Grain Initiative was functional, two-thirds of the wheat that left Ukraine went to developing countries. I mention that because Putin, it will shock you to hear, lies and says that the Black Sea Grain Initiative only benefitted rich countries. As it happens actually, 20 percent of the grain exports went to China and so we don’t know exactly what is going on behind the scenes but certainly very hopeful that Beijing would have an interest in seeing the initiative get resuscitated. 

What I had not understood, or fully appreciated, before traveling to Odesa for the first time – this is the first time a senior U.S. official has been able to get out of Kyiv because of the security challenges – but when you are actually there and you see the centrality of the Odesa Port to the life of Odesa, you also – and I should stress we were there the day after the Russians pulled out, so the port was dead. But, you know, having it described, how many jobs, actually – I mean, because, you know, there's a Ukrainian economy that's chugging along, notwithstanding the pulverization, attempted pulverization by the Russian Federation. But, you know, the number of derivative jobs, not just those of seafarers and people who are going out or, you know, those who manage the supply chain. But the share of Odessa's economy that turns on those ports working. And, this Ben, I really – has really hit me just the last couple of days in seeing Russia target downtown Odesa, not just the grain silos and the other port infrastructure but downtown Odesa. Being part of this UN brokered enterprise had actually bought Odessa a yearlong reprieve from missile attacks.

So now the question of Ukrainian refugees, are they going to come home, are they not, which Zelenskyy is counting on in advance of the school year, so that they can go back to work so that it can be more tax revenue. So you see Putin killing, as it were, you know, multiple birds with one stone. He's, you know, really having a terrible effect on global food prices. You see the food prices up 17 percent since he pulled out of the deal. He is going to make it very hard for Ukrainian farmers, even with USAID support, to make ends meet, because the cost of exporting grain through other channels is so much greater. Again, we've diversified those channels. We are going to get the grains out, but it's much more expensive. So the profit margin for your average farmer isn't great. 

And then Odesa, this major town, you know, now finds itself in the rifle sites, and the missile sites, and the drone sites of Russian forces for the first time in a year. And that's its own devastating stake that I think people were very focused on food prices globally, maybe a little bit on the agricultural sector and the effects on the Ukrainian economy. But the idea that you now have a new civilian hub, a cosmopolitan city. I mean, Ben, you go there, you walk around, you know, right on the ocean and cafes, people out, art galleries. I mean, a very, very, you know, kind of hub of culture and economic and social life in Ukraine. And with such great history – a UNESCO's protected site – now being deemed by Putin fair game to strike and the human cost of that, you know, you can't overstate.

MR. RHODES: And what were you doing on your trip like? Tell us a little bit about what you set out to do. I imagine you were trying to find alternative routes for some of this agricultural yield. But what was the, what was the nature of your visit?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think that – there is a lot of focus rightly, on what the next weapons system is that the Ukrainians need, particularly as they slog ahead in this very, very difficult counter offensive. And, you know, what the Ukrainians say is defense and weaponry is humanitarian support. So, you know, it's obviously a huge, a hugely important part of what the United States is doing. But as we've talked about a little bit in the past, just as important is the other battlefront, which is the battle to sustain and even grow Ukraine's economy. And as the war rages on, to strengthen its democracy and the checks and balances.

And so I really wanted to get back there to see how some of those investments are faring. To hear from the Ukrainians directly about what their priorities are as they potentially head into another winter. USAID provided about $400 million of support to Ukraine as Putin was weaponizing the cold and trying to take out electricity and heat and force the Ukrainian public, to undermine its morale, and try to force it to press Zelenskyy to sue for peace. We swept in, swooped in there, with our European and other donor colleagues, and supported their efforts. You know, when the pipes were hit to repair the pipes, you know, within a day or two, to provide power stations and substations. Now we're looking at, you know, how do you protect some of that infrastructure now that we have lead time. We know what Putin is going to do in the winter. So a focus on energy with enough lead time to be able to make a difference, focuses you rightly said, on the agricultural sector. 

We, at USAID, had already launched an initiative going on a year ago now called AGRI-Ukraine, which was meant to expand Ukraine's storage capacity for its bountiful grains, provide fertilizer and seeds to the farmers, help develop these alternative routes, which involves dredging the rivers, you know, expanding lift capacity, changing the gauges on Ukrainian trains so that they are harmonized with those in Europe. You know, even creating speedier passage at road transit points. We’ve gone from two days now to two hours for commercial traffic to pass with USAID and other donor support.

So, you know, all of this work was important, but, you know, this is still the lifeblood of Ukraine's economy. The flag – I'm not even sure if that many listeners know that the yellow in the Ukrainian flag that is now so, such a hallmark of the flags that still wave across the United States – that yellow is wheat fields and the blue is the Ukrainian sky. So I announced on the trip an additional $250 million investment to do more in each of those areas that I just mentioned. And we've already increased the grain throughput or export movement by about 4,000 percent via river, which is incredible. But if the Black Sea ports are now out of commission for the foreseeable future, we – I talk to Ukrainian officials about how we capture that next million metric tons, let's say monthly. I mean, our goal collectively is to still be getting out five, five and a half million metric tons of agricultural commodities each month. And if the Black Sea ports are out of the picture now, we'll be at around three million, a little shy of three million. So we have a long way to go.

MR. RHODES: And one more true question. I just – because I was just concerned as your friend, because I saw you were in Odesa and I saw there were these strikes in Odesa. I mean, were any of the places that you visited targets of those strikes?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, as it happens – Ben, thank you for asking. We felt so grateful to the – you know what it's like when the U.S. government kicks in and offers such incredible intelligence support and security support. So we felt, certainly, as if we were in very good hands. And as we were traveling to Odesa, the Russians launched, I think, something like 35 drone – separate drone attacks, or 35 drones that attacked the port area, as well as I guess, there were some cruise missile attacks. We were able to proceed. So far, the Russians have mainly attacked in the middle of the night and it has allowed a certain kind of functionality because they're trying to – I mean, they’re certainly striking in the day in different parts of the country. But there was a view that we could proceed and proceed safely as we did. 

We held meetings with farmers to kind of hear what are the challenges in getting your goods to market because it has to be said, the Black Sea Grain Initiative as well – Russia has been slow walking it, not allowing ships in for inspections, you know, really reducing the throughput compared to what it was doing at its peak a couple of months after it came into force. So hearing from farmers about that, about landmines, you know, how do they till their fields when there are unexploded ordinances. The Kakhovka Dam explosion, that destroyed a bunch of arable land. So really hearing about the struggles. 

We did it in the port authority building. And we also met with Deputy Prime Minister Kubrakov and the Agricultural Minister and others to talk about our next steps about what more we could do. And then eventually, at the end of a very long day in Odesa, we got back on the train. As we were on the train heading to Kyiv, more strikes occurred, including on the grain infrastructure right next to where we were. And in fact, the very port authority building where we had held the meetings was badly damaged in that second set of strikes.

So, we did bring home how volatile it is, how no place is safe. I mean, you're down there in the port, sun is shining, you see the cranes, and the freights, and all the capacity is there just wanting to feed the world. And then a day later, you know, much of that infrastructure has been severely damaged.

MR. RHODES: Well, I'm glad you're safe, but that is a harrowing picture what Ukrainians deal with. So, this is a country that is literally fighting for its survival, so much at stake. We've been talking on our podcasts about some of the skeptics in this country who’ve called into question continued U.S. assistance. How concerned are you about maintaining bipartisan support for the assistance that goes to Ukraine? And how do you answer, if you have to – presume you have to go to The Hill sometimes – some of these people that throw these arguments at you that we're hearing with increasing frequency, you know, on The Hill, online, on the campaign trail.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Yeah. I mean, I listened to your pod last week as I was coming home from Ukraine and heard some of the clips, which I have been – 

MR. RHODES: Sorry about that.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: – not exposed to on the ground, thankfully, because would have been hard if I'd heard them, you know, in the media there, maybe it would have been not the happiest thing for Ukrainians to be hearing on top of everything else they have to deal with. But, you know, I'd say that – I should stress that USAID provides, in addition to the kind of programing that you and I have talked about in the past and talked about today – we also are the vehicle to provide direct budget support to the Ukrainian government, and that's not something we do very often around the world. But it is what is keeping the lights on for the government. It's what allows them, as I said earlier, to pay teachers, to pay health workers, to pay pensioners, first responders. I met with first responders who go into the rubble, you know, almost like the White Helmets and rescue people who've been buried in some missile strike. And so, we do that. The Europeans do that at about $1.5 billion a month, as we're down to about 1.2 billion a month. 

That is – I mean, you could have all the security assistance in the world, if your government can't stay afloat, if your pensioners can't pay the heating bills or, you know, have cash to feed themselves, that's going to create major, major challenges in sustaining the war effort. So that direct budget support is something we will need to go back to Congress for more of. And, you know, it is something that has been targeted by some of the critics of assistance as a blank check – it's not a blank check. There are a set of conditions that the IMF has imposed, that the European Union has imposed because Ukraine, of course, wants to get into the European Union. And we as well, in our latest tranches of assistance, are talking with them about the things that they need to do in order for this assistance to keep flowing.

But our ultimate objective is to use our development assistance, the kind of economic programing I've been describing, including for SMEs, which was Zelenskyy's, one of his number one topics for me in our meeting was him saying, “we need more support for SMEs, we need cheap capital,” you know, for them to be able to take the risks to grow their businesses. I mean, he's talking like the president of a country that can't afford to be only at war. That has to also be thinking about its economy. And its tech sector, Ben, grew six, seven percent last year. Ukraine's tech sector – during this conflict, I mean, it's incredible. 

So back to your question. Direct budget support, I think, you know, is something that people, those who criticize, have criticized. But I would draw your attention to something that didn't, I think, make big headlines last week, which is in the big debate over the National Defense Authorization bill, you had some of the loudest critics of foreign assistance in Ukraine trying to actually use the NDAA process to withdraw funding. And so you had Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia offering an amendment to strike about $300 million in Ukraine funding that had been authorized in the draft NDAA, and that failed 89 to 341. 130 Republicans in the House joining Democrats in voting against it. Another proposal from Matt Gaetz would have prohibited all security assistance for Ukraine along the lines of some of the clips that you played last week, some of the recommendations by certain vocal figures, and that failed 70 to 358. 

And to be honest, those numbers align with what we are hearing so far, again, from Republican leadership. What I don't know, and what is very hard to predict with regard to any piece of legislation, is questions about what vehicle at what time. And the president, President Biden, hasn't yet gone to Congress with the full scope of what a supplemental assistance package will look like. And of course, with the debt ceiling deal there's a lot of hijinks, I'm sure, that, that will occur. But in terms of broad public opinion, I would say that the bipartisanship that has been the hallmark of the United States, the strength of the United States’ response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, it has proven very resilient and appears to be enduring.

MR. RHODES: Well, that's good news for now, so it's good to hear that. One last question for you, which I'm more sympathetic to you, which is a tough question. Right. You – you're someone who I know cares about things beyond Ukraine. Right. And I have a lot of friends in Africa and Asia – Africa in particular, who point out, “why are you guys so focused on this relative to Sudan” or relative to any number of issues in the Horn of Africa. I know USAID has a lot of programs there, but obviously, you know, you have to put a lot of weight, bandwidth, resources into Ukraine. What do you say to people – because I know you travel to those places too. What do you say to people who make the argument, “look, okay, we get it. Ukraine is important, but why are you so focused on this relative to other things?” Like how do you make a global argument to a skeptical audience that this isn't, you know, out of proportion to other challenges in the world?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I'd say a couple of things. I mean, first. This kind of naked cross-border aggression  – you know, actually, in a pretty messed up global system – is pretty rare. When you think about it and it's – it does tap a kind of universal sense, particularly among small countries, that, you know, you need to live safe in your skin, safe within your borders. And other countries shouldn't be invading you and trying to lop off, you know, in the case of Ukraine, the entire country or large, large chunks of your country, as a lot of, a lot of countries have experienced in their history. And so I do think that there is something quite singular about the form of aggression that Russia is taking. 

I’m not saying that what I'm saying is entirely persuasive to those who bring, understandably, the question that you pose. But I think it is part of the answer is that if we are collectively to succeed on behalf of the principle of non-aggression and sovereignty, this is a powerful signal as well, you know, to aggressors. 

To be honest, Ben, your question is actually less hard for me as USAID Administrator to answer in July of 2023 than I might have feared when the full-scale invasion started. Because part of what the bipartisanship has yielded are not only significant, I mean, I should say huge supplementals that have enabled us to provide, you know, the scale of assistance that we've been talking about in Ukraine. But those supplementals, to the eternal credit of the Republican and Democratic leadership on the Hill, have been written broadly to give us scope to spend a very significant share of the quote “new money” on the global South.

So actually, some of our flagship programs like Feed the Future, which is, you know, helping farmers adjust to the ravages of climate change, getting new technologies to be able to predict the weather better, or climate resistant seeds. We have way more money this last year because Congress gave us license to deal – now we, you know, drew a dotted line to Putin's blockading of the ports and, you know, the loss of Ukrainian wheat exports to show that the ravages of climate change were being exacerbated by Putin. But at core, you know, we had a billion dollars in new money to work on food security in developing countries. 

I think it's been much harder for our European friends to answer that argument because they are spending in addition to $40 billion in Ukraine and on Ukraine of non-security assistance along the lines of what USAID does, which is much more than even the United States is doing, they're spending an additional $17 billion on Ukrainian refugees who’ve come to their countries, and all of that refugee money could have been counted in the obscure budget processes as domestic spending, but actually it has been counted as development spending. And so while countries like Germany have increased the overall size of the pie, by and large, for most European countries, it's been very hard to say that there hasn't been less to spend in the global South. So whereas – we had a kind of a surge of resources to allow us to plus up at just the time climate was going to be intensifying its effects as it is here in the United States anyway, we also had an additional $5 billion in humanitarian assistance that would not otherwise have been part of our budget, but for being able to secure it through the Ukraine supplemental. 

So between food security money and humanitarian assistance, that's an additional six, seven billion dollars that the U.S. has been able to bring to bear in the global South. But it's not well understood. And that's a message that I try to send everywhere we go. It's one reason I try to get out as often as I can to try to draw more attention to the investments that we are making. I mean, they could still say, you know, for a country of Ukraine’s size versus a country of Somalia size, is it proportional? But the U.S. is the largest humanitarian donor in just about all the most vulnerable countries, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, etc.

MR. RHODES: Yeah, no, that's a great answer. I mean, basically, you're not doing less. in fact you’re doing more everywhere.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: And that’s why it matters a lot, you know, people – a lot of the same people – who got behind the House appropriations bill for this coming year, are those who are telling us we need to stand up to the PRC, and, you know, why aren’t we outcompeting them in this and that. If the House bill were to stand, USAID's budget would be cut by 12 percent and there'd be no supplementals if their worldview, in a sense, were to go forward. So, you know, we could see very dramatic cuts. I may not be able to give you what I hope is a compelling answer within a couple of months, if we can’t embrace the recognition that standing up for this international order, leading in the world, showing an alternative development model to that practiced by the PRC, which is much more extractive and about building dependance. But all of that also turns on making actual investments and not thinking you can do it on the cheap.

MR. RHODES: So, Sam, I understand you also have one more announcement of a new initiative that you're pursuing. What's this about?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, we thought Pod Save the World was, with its young audience, and its tech friendly audience, would be a great place to share that one of the things we're trying to do much more of is private sector partnership. And we have partnered with a company called Skydio, which is a leading U.S. drone manufacturer based right there in California. And Skydio, with our ground team willing to support the deployment, is going to provide nine autonomous drones to the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine to help it document war crimes. 

And basically, these drones have 4K cameras that are going to be used to take photo and video content to document war crimes, including of mass graves, and other sort of forensic requirements. There are about 115,000 documented instances of destroyed civilian infrastructure – sadly, that number will be going up now with the attacks on the grain infrastructure this week. That's a classic example of intentionally targeting civilian infrastructure, but all the attacks on electricity, and heating infrastructure is part of this. And so these drones are now going to be at the service of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine to look at occupied frontline communities and liberated territories. And I think it's just a great example of going beyond the kind of old way of doing assistance to bring new tools to bear, to support people in need.

MR. RHODES: That's great. I mean, marrying technology with a focus on justice speaks to the innovation of both Ukraine and USAID under your leadership. So we're happy to lift that up, Sam. 


MR. RHODES: Well, everybody should continue to root for you and USAID, and consider careers in USAID, and urge Congress to give USAID the resources they need. 

Your Red Sox took a series to the Mets. I'll put on the table that maybe the 300 million plus wasted payroll of the New York Mets should go to USAID. Probably would be money better spent than some of it. But it's great talking to you, Samantha, and we'll keep in touch and continue to follow your good work.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, Ben. And thanks for just caring so much, and, you know, each week I can get my own Black Sea Grain update by listening to The Pod.

MR. RHODES: We’ll try, we try. Great talking to you


USAID Response in Ukraine
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USAID Response in Ukraine