Interview: Administrator Power with Times Group TV’s Blessings Mpinganjira

Speeches Shim

Sunday, July 3, 2022

MS. BLESSINGS MPINGANJIRAHello and welcome to this special program. Here on Times TV. My name is Blessings Mpinganjira. In this special program, I'll be talking to the USAID Administrator, Samantha Power. Welcome to the program. 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Great to be here. 

MS. BLESSINGS MPINGANJIRA: Thank you. Have you achieved your trip objectives to Malawi so far? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I think so, yes. I think, first of all, because of rising food prices in this country, I wanted to come to Malawi to bring several new initiatives that could help farmers and ordinary citizens do a better job meeting needs right now. So, we've brought an additional $12 million, begun talks with farmers, with the private sector, with government, about how best to channel those resources. Not a huge amount, but given the needs, every dollar I think counts, given the food security crisis that so many in this country risk facing. 

Additionally, we've launched a new nutrition program because when food becomes more scarce, nutrition is often the first thing to go. And there we're matching $23 million from USAID with an additional $23 million from the private sector. So over time, I think that can make a meaningful difference in the lives, particularly of under five children. And that's such an important growth and development period for those, for those young people. 

And then I wanted to come and talk to the government, as well, about its anti-corruption agenda. It's no secret that President Chakwera was swept into office after significant election irregularities and the need to shore up democratic institutions and elections, but also because of the pledges to tackle corruption. And so I spent a fair amount of time looking at the anti-corruption bureau and seeing the work that it's doing, talking to the ombudsman and seeing the work that she and her team are doing to try to root out corruption at the local level, but also wherever one finds it. And as USAID Administrator, what I most want to do when I go back to the United States is hustle up interest in coming to Malawi. And in thinking about making investments in nascent sectors, like making Malawi a peanut capital of the region. But, the economic investment, that we as the United States seek to draw here, and that so many Malawians would benefit from really, is linked to that anti-corruption agenda, because it's very hard for businesses to come here and invest with confidence if they're worried that they're going to have to pay a bribe here or that there's impunity. And so as we think about meeting economic needs, generating much greater prosperity than this country has had, and that it and its people so deserve, we have to see that anti-corruption efforts go full speed ahead. 

MS. BLESSINGS MPINGANJIRA: Okay. Thank you. Are you happy with how Malawi is fighting corruption? You just said that you visited the anti-corruption bureau. Are you happy with how Malawi is doing in fighting corruption? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, let me say that Malawi has gotten attention actually all around the world and might surprise people here for the set of commitments that it has made at a very high level and by the articulation of an intention to rid the country of the corruption that has held back its economic growth for so long. So, that's one of the reasons I came was I've been hearing, okay, they really seem serious about fighting corruption. Now, of course, once you fight corruption, you're going to find corruption. And so it's no secret that there are a lot of headlines here as well about corruption allegations. And now that you see those institutions working, you see crackdowns, you see enforcement of the laws that have been on the books for a long time, but often ignored. 

So you know, I would say that it's the independence of institutions like the anti-corruption bureau that are so important to retain that do stand the chance over time, I think, to give investors confidence that there are checks and balances on corruption wherever it may exist. Because in a lot of countries, you can see some enforcement of anti-corruption provisions, let's say, in the private sector or at the local level, but that enforcement doesn't extend to central authorities. Here, I think what the world is seeing is that the law is meant to apply at least equally to everyone.

So I really admire the bravery and the determination of people who constitute those anti-corruption institutions. And, of course, it's going to require not only a whole of government crackdown on corruption, but a whole of society crackdown where people come forward and feel confidence that if they, for example, are a journalist and they write a story about illegal logging or about permits that are granted because of bribes that someone will do something about that, that it's worth taking that risk and raising that voice. 

If you are an ordinary citizen who's been abused by your local authorities in some fashion in the community, that you feel confident bringing that forward to the ombudsman, you know that progress is going to be made. So, it's definitely going to take time. But, one of the other announcements I made while here was an investment of an additional $12 million from USAID in parliamentary oversight and in ensuring, again, that the checks and balances become stronger across the board. Because it can't just be one anti-corruption bureau or one ombudsperson. You have to see the committees in parliament working. You have to see new laws that are drafted that are going to allow assets that are seized to be given back to the people from whom they've been taken. And you have to see the independence of those checks and balances enshrined in law. You have to see the regulatory environment improved so that we can attract private sector investment here. 

So a lot needs to be done, and it won't just be the executive branch responsible, but we also need to see Parliament stepping into this role of strengthening democratic institutions and fighting corruption as well. 

MS. BLESSINGS MPINGANJIRAFor so long Malawians have been trapped in poverty. What does the U.S. offer in support as a development partner? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I hope that the Malawian people have seen over time the impact of at least some of our programs here. Obviously, we wish that more people had been pulled out of poverty given the years of partnership that we've had. But we've seen, for example, under-five mortality cut by half in just recent years. We've seen, I think nearly a million people get access to HIV/AIDS treatment. Then that access and that treatment might not otherwise have been available in all likelihood. 

I think you see when an emergency strikes, when you see massive flooding or severe drought, you can count on USAID to be looking about providing emergency humanitarian assistance. And right now, of course, the government is involved in very delicate negotiations with the IMF around a credit facility. And we, our experts – sit down with Malawi and government experts and try to support the government as it tries to put forward the best possible plan to get the country back on a much more sound financial footing and to deal with the debt that has been carried over for so many generations without yielding the kind of assets on the ground or the kind of economic investments in the people that the people have been hungering for. 

One thing I'd say, Blessings, that's really stood out on this trip, maybe more than any that I've taken in my time as Administrator, is how engaged the public is in the fate of democracy and the fate of this anti-corruption fight. How carefully they are tracking, you know, what is happening. Whether, again, in the national government or at the local level, that's the same citizen engagement that caused the original stolen election or fraudulent election to be overturned and run again. So, I shouldn't be surprised by that, but it's very rare to see that kind of citizen determination to get what they elected, to get that corruption rooted out at the community level and all the way up to the top. And I think that bodes very well. So because, again, the economic development that people seek, the need to be rid of poverty, the need for mothers now to give birth to children who will have a brighter economic future, farmers who are going to be able to grow more, not less, in spite of climate change. All of that is going to turn on the framework in which those efforts are made. You can't just have economic programs or anti-poverty programs if you're not also building the rule of law at the same time. 

MS. BLESSINGS MPINGANJIRAOkay. Let's talk about good governance now in Malawi. Are you happy with how our government is doing in good governance? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, there's a long way to go, needless to say. And you see that in public perceptions of officials and whether officials are looking out for them. It is when bribery becomes a means of doing business in any country, and I've seen this in a lot of countries, it's very hard to scale that back because many people do not feel confident saying no when they're asked to pay a bribe. They worry they won't get the job or they won't get their child in school. Or, I mean, it's very, very basic in terms of access to basic necessities. So I think that's why I keep coming back to institutions, not individuals. There you have amazing individuals in Malawi in really important roles, who are doing extraordinarily important work to crack down on corruption. The long term destiny for this country lies in the institutions themselves and making sure that the laws on the books aren't just out there in nice words on paper, but that they are enforced in the courts, by the police, and that when laws are susceptible to abuse or misappropriation, that those laws are replaced, that the parliament steps forward and says, this isn't meeting the needs of the people right now. So again, our job is not to give progress reports or grades, but rather to offer support for those catalytic reformers that are really serious about getting this job done. 

MS. BLESSINGS MPINGANJIRA: And we should also talk about nutrition in Malawi. I know this is one of the pillars that you must improve to ensure that Malawi is up there when it comes to nutrition. Any interest in the nutrition sector? 

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think this is why we've brought this new $46 million nutrition program that I mentioned earlier. Again, really geared toward the youngest children in Malawi when food and fuel prices and fertilizer prices go up, as they are right now around the world because of climate change and COVID. But also now because of this terrible Russian war against Ukraine, which is happening really for no reason. Often it puts mothers in an impossible situation of just not having enough nutritious food to give their loved ones. And so we think it's extremely important to invest in infant feeding, in nutritional diets, which in some ways is also about community education, to make sure that the parents are alert to the most nutritious way to care for their kids. But at the same time, again, we view the nutrition programs as going hand in hand with broader food security. 

I just came from an agricultural farming enterprise that USAID has supported, and one of the things it's doing is looking at how given high fertilizer prices, how can we add lime to fertilizer to make sure that it goes further, that it increases the yield, that there's not fertilizer waste because Malawian soil now is very worn down. How do we make sure that the extension services go out and that farmers know how to rotate their crops in a fashion that will nourish the soil and leave it better in the next planting season to actually yield something? How do we adapt the seeds to account for the fact that, lo and behold, the rainy seasons are often much shorter than they were? Well, the seeds that people are used to using in many parts of Malawi are seeds that anticipate the old rainy season before climate change really started to wreak havoc. 

So the one thing I would say is when it comes to nutrition, increasing exports because Malawi's exports have been diminishing over time, or basic food security, is going to need public-private partnerships. We are going to need the private sector to be part of the solution. We're going to need to draw on the best minds in Malawi, but also from all around the world, to bring new seeds that are drought resistant, disease resistant, new tactics and techniques so we're not wasting food when it is so scarce. And I think that's what USAID programs seek to do. And that's where we're looking for partners in the private sector and an environment here where the government puts in place laws that make it easier, not harder for the private sector to operate. And that's something, you know, that there's a mixed record on over time. 

MS. BLESSINGS MPINGANJIRA: Thank you. Remember you're watching a special program right here on Times TV. In this program, I'm talking to USAID Administrator, Samantha Power. We'll be right back. 

MS. BLESSINGS MPINGANJIRAWelcome back. There is a controversial subsidy program that targets other poor farmers. It is generally viewed as inefficient and creates fiscal pressure through government. And government thinks it is a key problem for food security. What's your view on such subsidies and the best way of doing them in Malawi?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, let me say a couple of things. I mean, first of all, I think that part of the reason Malawians came forth in such large numbers to demand a change in government is they were frustrated with corruption across the board, across government programs at the local level, everywhere. And so I think every program needs to be scrutinized with the people's will in mind. And if there are inefficient programs, the tragedy of that, at a time of great food insecurity, is that people who need the food won't necessarily get access to it. People who might really stand to benefit from a social safety net may be the ones that actually fall through the cracks. And so I think there's – in difficult economic times and we are definitely globally in a very, very difficult economic time, and one that could get even harder in the months and even year ahead, that's when it's really important to have efficient programs with good oversight so that you reach the most vulnerable people. And I think that's a good rule of thumb in the United States. And I'm not sure we always live by that. We have our own work to do. And certainly here you hear a lot of complaints about certain programs. 

At the same time, we also know that this is a time where a social safety net will be important.  And certainly from talking to President Chakwera, there's a lot of interest in thinking through how best to protect those people that will not, in the natural course of things, be able to fend for themselves. And so finding the right balance there with great urgency, because this is a now problem. It's not a six months from now. It may well be a six months from now a problem as well, but there are people already feeling the effects of what it means to have to pay 30 percent more for food and double for a bag of fertilizer. And so getting the protection right and making sure that those scarce resources are not lost to corruption is really, really important. 

MS. BLESSINGS MPINGANJIRA: Any last words before we wrap up the program?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, just to thank the people in Malawi for giving me the most generous welcome I can imagine. They say it's the warm heart of Africa. I definitely felt that with the sun shining down, but above all, with the singing and the beautiful and warm welcomes. This is a tough time economically, but I guess my message for the Malawian people is that you've inspired the world by insisting that your votes be counted back at the time of the election. And wanting your votes to be counted is really about wanting your voices to be heard. And sometimes it's tempting to say, well, we'll make our voices heard around election time. But I think the way that anybody in government, and I'm a government official back home and here as well, of course, but all of us improve our performance when you raise your voices not just at election time, but throughout the year. You are the people that make us improve our performance, bring more creativity, more ambition to the work that we do every day. And so keep it up. This kind of citizen engagement is really special, and I'm very inspired by it and something I'll take back to the United States. 

MS. BLESSINGS MPINGANJIRA Thank you for coming through.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, Blessings. 

Last updated: July 05, 2022

Share This Page