Administrator Samantha Power at the USAID Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Conference

Speeches Shim

Monday, June 21, 2021


Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening everyone. I’m delighted to join so many of you around the world to discuss what we can do together to advance the vital cause of democracy, human rights, and good governance. The work that each of you do every day is absolutely essential to our collective mission at USAID, to build a more just and peaceful world that upholds every person’s individual dignity.

In my first few weeks as Administrator, I sat down virtually with a number of leading activists and journalists, calling in from all across the world. I had not been serving in government for four years, and I wanted to hear firsthand how they were experiencing some of the grim trendlines, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And above all, I wanted to hear from them what we might do differently to elevate their efforts in a world where democracy has been on its back heel. Some of the conversations were dark, as you know from your own experiences on the frontlines.

However, in my early days, I also participated in a conference of wealthy nations designed to support Sudan’s civilian-led transitional government, cancel its debt, and attract private sector investment. That conference—which came about following the women-led revolution that toppled Omar Al-Bashir’s appalling regime—was impossible to imagine twenty years ago, when I was working as a journalist in the high-desert of Darfur, uncovering mass graves and hearing directly from witnesses about the genocide underway.

But Sudan’s example is a reminder that even the most repressive regimes, those that seem to have the strongest grip on power and act with the most impunity, are ultimately accountable to their people. And that the sweep of history, so often moving slowly or what feels like in the wrong direction, can suddenly deliver justice like a lightning bolt. This is why we are here: to have the backs of those struggling to shine a light in dark times, and to support reformers and those seeking to buck the trends and advance the cause of individual dignity.

Leaders and activated community members like those USAID supports every day are why we are all here today. We are also here because democracies—whether newly in transition or established for decades—are fragile. They must be continually nurtured and protected. There is not a single democracy on earth that is not a work in progress.

Too often in the foreign policy of democracies, we prioritize the security and prosperity of nations, without focusing on democracy—on good governance, anti-corruption, and the rule of law. But security, prosperity, and democracy are three legs of a stool—if any one of them is weak, the stool topples over.

So whether we’re responding to the humanitarian emergency in Tigray or the COVID crisis in South Asia, or improving economic opportunities in Central America and increasing energy access in Africa, the core principles of democratic governance are foundational to how effectively we improve lives around the world.

I have five points I’d like to make quickly today. First, the struggle for democractic expansion cannot just be about rhetoric. In the face of serious backsliding and rising authoritarianism, we must clearly and unequivocally demonstrate that democracies can govern competently and deliver real results for real people. And this starts here in the United States.

We must grapple with our country’s own legacies of inequity—against women, against people of color, against LGBTQ+ people, and against people with disabilities. Democracy can only function for all when all people are fully included, their rights protected, and their voices heard. Just as we officially recognized Juneteenth as a national holiday a few days ago, we must openly and honestly reckon with—and adequately redress—the difficult remnants of our past, in order to meaningfully move forward.

We also must show governance that delivers concrete services and improved welfare for our people. This is why President Biden’s economic recovery plan matters so much to the conversation we are having today. In creating 2 million jobs and in setting the country on a course to cut child poverty in half, the world’s most important democracy is delivering.

It is on COVID-19 that the American experience can resonate most globally. Before President Biden took office, the U.S. had one of the most dire COVID-19 records in the world. On January 20th of this year, five percent of adults were vaccinated, over 3,000 people were dying from COVID-19 a day, and infections hovered north of 185,000. Today, thanks to this Administration’s aggressive and well-run response, 12,000 people are testing positive and 450 people are dying a day—still too many, but far below where we were.

And after developing cutting-edge vaccines in record time, the U.S. has administered 300 million shots at home—and has now turned its sights on vaccinating the world, committing to purchase and deliver 500 million Pfizer vaccine doses to countries around the world. That commitment has inspired action amongst our allies, setting the groundwork for the G7 to commit to supplying 1 billion doses to developing countries. Serving as the arsenal of vaccines, creating 2 million jobs, cutting child poverty in half—these are the powerful actions that functioning and competent democracies can take to deliver real results for their people.

Second, we must not only show that democracies deliver; we must talk about what they are delivering, mustering evidence, highlighting bright spots, and recognizing that strategic communications is not an afterthought for authoritarian countries—it is, sometimes, the very point—making us doubt ourselves makes us weaker.

I don’t have to tell you that free and democratic societies—societies that protect human rights—have healthier citizens, less violent conflict, and more prosperous communities. It’s also no surprise that countries with ineffective government institutions, rampant corruption, and weak rule of law have a 30 to 45 percent higher risk of civil war… and a higher risk of extreme criminal violence. But you wouldn’t guess it from reading even mainstream media. Autocracies are disseminating powerful disinformation to advance a claim that autocracies get the job done in a way that democracies do not. But that narrative is patently false, and there is no serious empirical case to support it. In fact, the evidence shows otherwise. The V-Dem research institute cites several democracy researchers who have shown that in the 25 years following democratization, democractic countries increase their GDP per capita by 20% more than autocracies.

The truth is that, despite rising authoritarianism in recent years, democracy is still the most popular and desired form of government globally. Citizens across every region aspire to govern themselves and exercise fundamental freedoms. As many of you may know, in 2019, mass pro-democracy demonstrations reached an all-time high, higher than during the Arab Spring or the end of the Cold War. And in the last 10 years, the share of countries with substantial pro-democracy protests has increased from 27 percent to 44 percent.

Third, we must amp up our efforts to tackle corruption with the urgency and resolve that dismantling corrupt systems and networks requires. As I’m sure many of you have seen, President Biden established fighting corruption as a core U.S. national security interest, through the first Presidential Memorandum of its kind in history.

Corruption isn’t just another item on a list of global problems, however. It’s a scourge that makes it even more difficult to address other challenges—from humanitarian crises and food security…to economic development and education…and from confronting the climate crisis, to getting COVID vaccines into every arm. Economic elites and corrupt politicians are corroding democracies from within, and authoritarians wouldn’t be as effective if they didn’t have corrupt transnational networks to advance their interests.

Corruption also happens to be rampant in authoritarian societies, because consolidating power goes hand in hand with consolidating wealth. But corruption also has an Achilles’ heel—when it’s exposed, it makes people angry. As such, it serves as a true Achilles’ heel to illiberal regimes. I mentioned earlier the record number of protests we saw in 2019—more than half of them were protests against exposed corruption—and six led to changes in government, including the women-led popular revolution in Sudan. What links protests across countries as diverse as Sudan, Lebanon, Russia, Colombia, and others is the objection to leaders and elites enriching themselves to the detriment of everyone else.

That’s why the U.S. is making such a big, focused push on anti-corruption. Two weeks ago, I established an Anti-Corruption Task Force to elevate, strengthen, and integrate anti-corruption work throughout our whole Agency—and partner with the Departments of State, Justice, and Treasury to center our efforts across government. This Task Force will shape our anti-corruption commitments. We’re conducting a comprehensive review of our policies and programs to identify how our foreign assistance, whether for judicial reform or global health programs, can best prevent graft and enhance government accountability.

Most importantly, this task force is going to establish a rapid response mechanism so that we can quickly seize on crucial windows of opportunity for democratic and anti-corruption reform. President Biden's new budget commits $50 million for this new rapid response effort, and we look forward to expanding on these commitments and encouraging other nations to make their own at an upcoming International Democracy Summit that President Biden, himself, is going to chair. And we will continue to redirect funds away from government institutions and toward civil society organizations whenever we feel that money will be misspent or harms the progress of democracy in a country.

Just last month, as an example, we redirected assistance away from government institutions in El Salvador, where I recently visited, and instead toward local civil society and human rights organizations. We did this specifically in response to the Legislative Assembly’s alarming vote to remove the Attorney General and five Supreme Court officials.

In our anti corruption work, we will use our deep relationships with the private sector to offer incentives. Often what holds back serious private sector investment in foreign markets is fears of corruption, government impunity, or an unfair judicial system. In my role as Vice Chair of the Development Finance Corporation, I will work to offer loan guarantees and grants that unlock private sector investment and lending in countries that show progress on anticorruption, and embrace the separation of powers and the rule of law. These are investments that will empower local companies, create local jobs, and respect the local environment—investments that are fair and socially responsible, rather than predatory, corrupt, or extractive.

Fourth, beyond anti-corruption, we’re pursuing bold new thinking to modernize our democracy assistance across the board. We’re helping countries strengthen their cybersecurity and counter disinformation, while supporting democratic actors to defend themselves against digital surveillance, censorship, and repression.

We’re partnering with countries to promote a free and open internet, and to infuse democratic values and human rights principles into the adoption of major new technologies. We're working closely with innovators in the United States to encourage competition in 5G—for example through open radio access networks, which could help countries avoid being locked in to vendors like Huawei or ZTE. And we're also working with civil society around the world to prepare for the responsible, equitable, and safe use of artificial intelligence.

Working in nearly 40 countries, USAID’s Greater Internet Freedom Program seeks to increase the capacity of civil society and independent media on internet freedom issues relevant to country contexts. The program’s two primary objectives are: improving the digital security practices of civil society, human rights defenders, and media; and increasing the long-term and wide-ranging engagement of civil society on issues of internet governance.

Fifth, we need to right-size our investments to boost independent media. With the rise of digital and social media, market dynamics, and repressive governments who want to control narratives, independent media in many markets are facing what some are calling an “extinction event.” While the U.S. is the largest donor supporting independent media, global assistance to independent media is still less than one percent of USAID’s overall spending, so there is more we can do with our dollars. And aside from funding, we are exploring new ideas, like insurance and protection funds for whistleblowers and investigative journalists, so they can respond to lawsuits and threats when they expose corruption and criminality. The purpose of USAID’s democracy work is to boost the commitment and ability of democratic institutions in our partner countries, so they can best respond and adapt to changing needs and circumstances on the ground.

As I close today, I want to recognize what all of you have already accomplished to date, particularly under relentless headwinds and overlapping crises, not to mention the looming backdrop of rising authoritarianism abroad—and here at home. I cannot express enough gratitude and appreciation for your persistence, your resolve, and your ability to balance immense responsibilities. But when we face new setbacks or challenges, know that I am also working persistently alongside all of you—fighting for the admirable activists, journalists, and community leaders speaking truth to power…and putting everything on the line for their fellow citizens.

Thank you for everything you do, each and every day. I look forward to your questions and our discussion. Thank you.

Last updated: November 14, 2022

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