Administrator Power with NDTV’s Maha Siddiqui

Speeches Shim

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

USAID Chief Samantha J Power, in an exclusive interview to NDTV, appreciated India's key role in mitigating the global food crisis and helping Sri Lanka during its ongoing economic crisis. She also stressed the need for media freedom and said that it is a necessity and not a luxury.

MAHA SIDDIQUI: I have with me the Administrator for USAID, Samantha Power, who is in India and has met with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, and she's also met senior Indian government officials, and engaged with the civil society. Maha Siddiqui speaking with NDTV. My first question is with regards to food security and especially, in the context of the war in Ukraine. Now, even though India has said that it's committed to the World Food Programme and the export will be on a case-to-case basis, but the U.S. has been critical of India's wheat export ban. Why so, and what's the issue, please?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, absolutely, we discussed food insecurity. I wish we could say food security. We discussed food insecurity at great length. We discussed some of the exceptions that have been made for humanitarian emergencies to the export ban. And, of course, Indian officials shared the significant needs that exist here in India, given the smaller than expected wheat harvest brought about by the heatwave in March. So, look, every country has to make sovereign decisions, and, of course, all of us look out for the well-being of our citizens. That's natural. I think we have observed through the years that sometimes these export restrictions don't go the way that they are intended, even in terms of domestic wellbeing. But what's really important is just that the process be transparent, that it be equitable, and that we find lots of additional ways to work together to address the food security crisis. So, I do think India will make its contribution for 50,000 tons of wheat that are on their way to Afghanistan, if they haven't arrived already. But, you know, Indonesia just had an export restriction on palm oil, and was able to lift it quickly, seeing some of its domestic effects, but also its global effects. And so, we are hopeful that any of the countries -- and there are 24 countries so far that have been placed on export restrictions or bans -- that the time will come where they will feel that they're viewed simultaneously to advance the welfare of their own citizens, and bring that food back up to the global market.

MAHA SIDDIQUI: So, do you think the situation is going to ease up now, since there has been an agreement between Ukraine and Russia, brokered by UN and Turkey, to lift the wheat from Ukraine via the Black Sea?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, it could be a very important agreement. 20 million metric tons have needlessly been trapped by Russian forces who are patrolling in the Black Sea, blocking the export of wheat, which is so critically necessary around the world. I was just in Somalia. Somalia is on the brink of a famine. More than 50 percent of their wheat comes from Ukraine and is trapped there in the ports. So, this agreement can be very important. But I think in light of the fact that President Putin said he wasn't going to invade Ukraine, then said it was only going to be a special, time-limited military operation, and now we're heading into five, six months. He said he never hit civilians. We’ve seen massive casualties in schools, hospitals, theaters. So, you really can't trust the words. And, indeed, when the agreement was signed, within 24 hours, when the ink was not yet dry even on the agreement, and Russian forces bombarded the Odesa port, and that infrastructure that is critically important to getting the grains out.

So, I think one can bring a healthy skepticism born of recent events and more long-standing events, while also recognizing that this could be a lifesaver. If these grains can be freed, it will actually free up storage areas where Ukrainian farmers will then be able to move the next harvest. And so, that gives them incentive to plant. If they see that those grains are trapped, they have no incentive to plant, and you'll have food stocks depleted in a much longer term sense. So, we credit the United Nations, Turkey, for sticking with it. We credit Ukraine for being willing to move forward with the agreement, to try to get ready to ship these commodities, even after the bombing. And I actually credit Indian diplomacy, because I think the Indian voice behind the scenes, urging that these grains be liberated, was probably one of several factors that influenced the Russian Federation at least to come to the table.

MAHA SIDDIQUI: You took a position that India's statement has helped in some way to keep the channels of communication open?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, we have a difference, obviously, and it's a difference we discuss often behind closed doors. And everybody knows our position, which is that when one sovereign nation, and one member state of the United Nations, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, we know how important that is, and that aspiration is to India, well, Russia has one of those precious permanent seats. And to use its stand, its position, its heft in the international system, to also block any kind of sanction in the UN Security Council, the premier body to promote international peace and security. And to gratuitously, needlessly, just invade a neighbor, making up conspiracy theories about threats that were nonexistent. Ukrainian forces weren't even positioned to respond to the threat, never mind constitute a threat to Russia, and so many lies, and false pretext. And so, when something like that happens, the United States feels so strongly that we, all members of the international system, have an interest in joining together and condemning actions of this gravity and savagery, really.

India has a long tradition of being not aligned. And it has made tremendous progress making its own sovereign choices for itself. Of course, we believe that the more countries that stand together, the more likely we will be able to assert influence collectively over President Putin's calculus, because we want this war to end. We want him to cease these attacks. But understanding, again, that every nation makes decisions for itself, we definitely appreciate, as well, the channel that India retains with the Russian Federation, and especially when that channel is used in promotion of humanitarian objectives.

MAHA SIDDIQUI: So, if there's an understanding from this position, is there understanding of India's decision to take discounted oil from Russia as well as the increase in taking fertilizer -- important fertilizers -- from Russia as well?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, we think, again, it's essential, if we are not to live in some chaotic Hobbes-ian world, where countries are invading other countries and bombing theaters, and ports, and railways, and civilians -- we think it's really important that a price be paid for those kinds of actions, for that kind of aggression.

And sanctions is the mechanism that the United States is pursuing to try to ensure that the day comes where Putin says, "You know what? The cost of this invasion, for me and the things I care about -- my wealth, my personal wealth, the wealth of my nation, the standing of Russia -- that cost is now too high to bear. I want to come negotiate and enter this room" -- because that's where this war has to end, is at the negotiating table.

So, we want all countries to join in and respect the sanctions, as India actually has a great tradition of doing, by and large. We, of course, understand that now, of all times, is a really, really tough time economically, after more than two years of COVID and all the economic shocks of that, all of the family tragedies that have been experienced, the exhaustion that so many feel here, feel all over the world. We understand the fuel prices and food prices are up, and that places a great strain -- again, on all countries, but especially in a country that still has many millions of people who are living very close to the poverty line or below it.

And so, again, every country is grappling with how to balance the need for accountability for this really -- I think -- monstrous and very, very dangerous invasion that could set a terrible precedent if it is not met with the needs that the people have domestically.

And in the United States, of course, President Biden is even looking at a price cap, potentially, knowing that some people, again, are feeling that they have to purchase gas and fuel, but really wanting to limit the extent to which Putin could perversely profit for brutalizing a neighbor and then having sanctions put in place for that, but then seeing prices go up because of lesser supply on the market. So, I think there's some creative solutions being worked through now.

MAHA SIDDIQUI: Was there any discussion, briefly, on the price cap issue?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: In the discussions here? I don't want to weigh in on the discussions I had privately. But in our bilateral dealings, this is definitely a pressing topic of conversation.

MAHA SIDDIQUI: There's a situation developing in India's neighborhood, with Sri Lanka. India has stepped up, helped its neighbor. But is there anything else that India and perhaps USAID or the U.S. can do together to help stabilize the Sri Lankan economy?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, first, just let me say how important what India has done so far has been to extend $3.5 billion in lines of credit. There weren't a lot of countries or institutions coming forward to do that, and the Government in Sri Lanka, of course, needed that desperately. I think $16 million in humanitarian assistance from India.

We have contributed, since the crisis started in May, $32 million in humanitarian and development assistance. Again, it's something -- I think we're in very close touch in order to coordinate, to make sure we're not duplicating the kind of assistance. There's so much need; it's pretty hard to duplicate at this stage, honestly.

But I think, now, what Sri Lanka is doing is trying to work through some of the debt that it has carried over, and that's one of the reasons that they're in this terrible bind. And there, I think, for all creditors to come together and to support the debt negotiations that are underway there, we do need Beijing, as well, to come urgently to the table. So, I think, for every country -- especially powerful countries, like India and the United States -- to be sending that message on behalf of the Sri Lankan people, are very important.

MAHA SIDDIQUI: One final question. Before being an Administrator, diplomat, you were a journalist. In that context, have there been any suggestions or any conversation with regards to the need to protect journalists? Because India has gone down in its rating in the World Press Freedom Index by eight points.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Look, press freedom is, I think, not a luxury. I think it is a necessity, I think, because it is the means by which people in public office -- like I'm now privileged to be again after four years when I was out, in the previous administration -- I'm back in, and I am held accountable. And I am better at my job because I know I'll be held accountable. And I think that India's strength over so many decades, as it pursued and achieved such profound economic growth and returns -- a lot of that is rooted in healthy debate, and criticism, and being held accountable. So, it is really important, and it's something that we have had ups and downs with as well in the United States.

It's something President Biden, of course, stands firmly behind, even though it's no fun. But I think, you know, for the longer-term economic stability and the continued development and progress that our respective democracies both want for ourselves and for each other, it's a critical need.

MAHA SIDDIQUI: Journalists are getting into trouble for their tweets as well. There's been a case with a fact-checker in India. What do you have to say about that? Because the UN Secretary-General's office said that journalists should be free to tweet.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, again, we believe wholeheartedly in press freedom. And the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and, of course, the Declaration of Human Rights -- in these international instruments that are foundational in our international system, are these protections. And I think they're really important.

MAHA SIDDIQUI: Thank you very much.


New Delhi, India

Last updated: August 02, 2022

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