USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s Remarks at the Democracy in Action: Zero Corruption Conference

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Monday, June 7, 2021

June 7, 2021

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much. It's great to be back with Ukraine, if not in Ukraine. I'm thrilled to be a part of this forum and I credit the organizers for putting our collective ambition in the conference title: namely, zero corruption. I want to thank the Ukraine Anti-Corruption Action Center for hosting us, and especially Daria Kaleniuk and Dr. Hanna Hopko for having the vision to bring this conference to life.

Vision is such a critical thing. Fifteen years ago, Hanna was not yet the leading global thinker and anti-corruption force of nature we now know her to be. She was an environmental journalist, and as it happens, she participated in a USAID-supported training that was designed to help activists strengthen coalitions, build power, and use the media to broaden their influence.

Hanna built her power slowly but very surely. She began training other environmental journalists with the tactics she had learned. Soon, she branched out to become a leading public health advocate, and not long thereafter, she began developing a vision for a democratic Ukraine.

Then, during the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014, when hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out against the government and nearly 130 lost their lives, she was ready. She responded rapidly, and with a group of other like-minded advocates and politicians, helped to usher in a wave of anti-corruption legislation to increase transparency, build accountability, and strengthen Ukraine's public institutions. I don't have to tell you that that wave established the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office, the High Anti-Corruption Court, and the Asset Recovery and Management Agency.

Together, you have digitized over 30 public services, which cuts off avenues for corrupt officials to extract bribes. You've created a digital procurement system introducing long overdue transparency to the bidding process on government contracts, saving more than $6 billion over the last four years. Over one third of your prosecutors, around 4,000 people, have had to leave the legal system, unable to pass rigorous background checks and professional competence testing. Ten years ago, Transparency International found that nearly 40 percent of Ukraine's people reported paying bribes. Today, that number, while still high, too high for those of you at the conference, but that number has fallen to 23 percent while the country has climbed 35 spots in Transparency International's corruption perception rankings. So that's tangible. It's real.

Now, despite the progress, none of us are blind to how difficult the circumstances are in the struggle to expand democracy and root out corruption, not just in Ukraine but around the world. Malign actors, like Russia and China, are allying with powerful oligarchs to fight reformists, to twist the law, to rot democracies from within. The incredible gains that have been made over the past several years in Ukraine are under threat. Valuable public investments, as well as deeper integration into European markets and systems are being undermined, limiting the vital opportunities for all Ukrainians to pursue the future they seek.

We are also witnessing just how dangerous it is to be a democratic activist, how shameless illiberal regimes have become in silencing dissent. The Belarusian government's brazen hijacking of a plane is just the latest example of a disturbing trend in impunity demonstrated by autocratic regimes who are increasingly prepared to muzzle and brutalize their critics well beyond their borders.

But think back to 15 years ago when Hanna first attended that training. And now look at this conference, which has brought together leading voices in the fight against corruption, together with the President of Ukraine, who has labeled that fight his number one priority in office.

Think of the massive public support for weeding out corruption in Ukraine, where nine out of every 10 Ukrainians continue to rank a fully functioning democracy as a top priority, despite all that resistance from powerful, entrenched interests. Think about that progress and think about the odds that you have faced in securing it. Think also about the powerful allies you have in this battle.

President Biden issued a presidential memorandum last week identifying corruption as a core national security priority. This is the first time a U.S. president has ever elevated this issue in this way. The President's memorandum recognizes what everyone here knows: corruption cripples societies, it steals from the pockets of taxpaying citizens, it breaks down public trust in governing institutions, and it undercuts the world's decades-long investments to improve lives across every dimension of human society.

But make no mistake, the reason that certain leaders and certain individuals are pursuing those who do anti-corruption work in the ways you know that they are, is that corruption is their Achilles heel. Autocrats and oligarchs cannot concentrate power without concentrating wealth through illicit means. So our ability, together, to identify and expose that behavior needs to be at the heart of our support for democracy around the world.

That's why anti-corruption is the core goal of USAID's work in Ukraine, whether that is through programs that support the digitization of key public services that support decentralization, which puts government resources in the hands of local officials who will have the best sense of how to administer them equitably, or that support civil society and media reformers—organizations like the Anti-Corruption Action Center, and supports the trainings that we help develop for the next generation of Hannas and Darias.

I'm pleased to announce that today we're going to go further. In the coming weeks, USAID will stand up an anti-corruption task force that will elevate, strengthen, and integrate anti-corruption work throughout our whole Agency, drawing on the knowledge of top internal and external experts to counter corruption in Ukraine and beyond.

This task force is going to shape our anti-corruption policy commitments. We will conduct a comprehensive review of our programs to identify how our foreign assistance, whether it is for judicial reform or global health programs, can best be put to use to limit and prevent graft. And 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 the way Hanna and Daria did in 2014.

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.

I want everyone in this forum to know the United States stands with you as you bravely work to build a more honest, just, and democratic world. I want to thank you for your work. I can only imagine how demoralizing it can be sometimes for each of you, as for every two steps forward, it can feel like there's another step back. But please know that you are making a profound difference, that your vision of zero corruption in Ukraine and what that will mean concretely for your loved ones, your neighbors, your countrymen, and the inspiration you give the rest of us, that knowledge will sustain you in the toughest moments and will always win you allies to your cause.

Thank you so much.

Last updated: December 01, 2022

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