Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Washington, DC

ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: Thank you for having me here. 

Thank you Ro [Tucci], for your leadership, for that introduction, of course, but also for really stepping up to lead USAID’s democracy and human rights work at such a vital time, both in the world and, of course – not coincidentally – in the run up to the Summit of Democracies. We wouldn't be where we are really without your tremendous commitment, spirit, and the way you work with teams and build and grow teams, so thank you. [applause] That's your team. That's your team insisting. 

I want to welcome Vianna Maino, who I think is here, virtually. Ecuador's Minister of Telecommunications, who is working to expand internet access to Ecuador's rural communities. Welcome to you. There you are. Nice to see you, Minister. 

I also want to acknowledge my friend, Ecuador's Ambassador [Ivonne] A-Baki, a longtime champion of economic equality in Ecuador. I'm very excited, hopefully, to get to see some of Ecuador's work up close very soon. 

Special welcome, as well to Ambassador [Sonia] Guzman, who is here with us from the Dominican Republic. It is worth noting, since human rights and women's empowerment go together with strengthening democracy, that Ambassador Guzman is the first female Dominican Ambassador from the Dominican Republic to hold that post. And I know it must be very gratifying for you, Ambassador, to see, as in Ecuador, leadership so dedicated to try to strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law. And it's just incredibly important to have you here championing that cause. Both of you, up on Capitol Hill have been as well, especially effective. So congratulations on that, I'd love your secret, if you wouldn't mind sharing it. 

Welcome as well to Scott Nathan, the CEO of the Development Finance Corporation, who's an incredible partner, to me, personally, to USAID, and, very specifically, in our Democracy Delivers Initiative, which is investing in countries, and I’ll come back to this that are showing promising signs, when it comes to, again, the effort to strengthen democratic institutions. 

So, it’s no secret that this is a crucial moment for democracies around the world to come together, to unite, because the truth is, we hear a lot about democracy being in decline – we actually hear less about the core fact behind that, which is that democracy is under attack. It’s under attack from within, and we know that, everywhere, from forces that want to divide our citizens and turn elements of society against one another. Undermine trust in institutions, in basic truth. Democracy is under attack from external forces, from authoritarians and corrupt actors who are collaborating to undermine democracy. We used to always talk about the need to share lessons learned and best practices. Authoritarians and repressive actors are sharing best practices and cutting and pasting from restrictive laws, repressing NGOs and journalists from one country to the next. They have learned from one another how to amplify propaganda very effectively, how to weaponize corruption, how to share surveillance technology to silence free expression and dissent.

So this is a crucial moment, given those dynamics, which are really disturbing, but, interestingly, this is a crucial moment not just because democracies are taking fire. It is also a crucial moment because autocratic regimes themselves are struggling to deliver for their people. They’re actually losing support on the world stage, and, as we see in so many parts of the world, whether, again, whether autocratic forces in play or there’s democratic backsliding, you see continued resistance from citizens who, in many cases, are even taking to the streets. Popular demand for democracy, as you’ve noticed, remains really strong from Sudan to Iran to Myanmar, where ordinary citizens have put their lives on the line to live in a freer society, claim those rights that are being denied them.

To seize this moment, we democracies have to respond with coordinated efforts of our own – partnerships built not on coercion, corruption, intimidation and violence, but on peace, cooperation, and a mutual commitment to self-determination and to the core of all of this work, which is individual dignity.

President Biden emphasized the importance of such partnerships at the last Summit for Democracy, when he launched the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal – for which he has sought nearly half a billion dollars to build stronger democracies.

Through the Democracy Delivers initiative, USAID is investing in partner countries experiencing democratic openings, which we know from history past and present, can be fleeting. So, to seize those moments in order to support reformist leaders who are working to build stronger democratic institutions. We will seize those moments and learn that we maybe didn’t pay enough attention to those moments, maybe taking for granted that they would last for longer than the corrupt and repressive forces would like them to last. So now, again, trying to swoop in as quickly as we can.

Together with the Departments of Labor and State, we’re investing a total of more than $120 million over two years to help unions partner with governments, businesses, and civil society to promote workers’ rights, which are essential to broad-based economic growth. So it’s a virtuous cycle.

And through our Powered by the People initiative, we are providing financial support to activists, civic actors, and peaceful movements for human rights and representative governance.

Today, USAID is continuing to expand these partnerships, specifically those that counter one of authoritarianism’s most menacing tactics – undermining trust in democratic institutions, in reformist leaders and in, at its core, democracy’s ability to deliver for its citizens. When communities don’t trust their governments to provide accurate information, to responsibly invest their resources, to serve up fair and impartial justice, and to deliver basic services, autocratic movements, extremist forces, can gain ground. 

Citizens need to trust their leaders and their institutions. They need to see and experience the power of democracy to meet their needs. This trust must be built, in some cases, or in other cases, it must be rebuilt, having been squandered or, again, besieged. 

So USAID is continuing to expand our partnerships in four critical areas: one, taking on the abuse of information; two, fighting corruption; three, establishing accessible and equitable justice systems; and, four, helping democracy deliver for all. 

First, we are helping educate communities to scrutinize and call out the manipulation of information. This is a powerful tool of fomenting distrust, and it is one, again, used by extremists, non-governmental actors and forces, as well as by repressive and corrupt leaders. 

In the country of Georgia, we are helping emerging tech companies, for example, develop groundbreaking new technologies to effectively build information resilience. A USAID-supported innovation competition, for example, resulted in Georgia’s first-ever speech-to-text transcription program – which helps researchers and analysts more quickly scan for and identify manipulated information.

In Indonesia, USAID’s Mission supported the development of a game, a video game, to train players to fact-check online posts – and this video game just won, in fact, a Webby Award this year. Which, apparently, in the Webby world, is a big deal.

Corruption, our second area of emphasis today, erodes public trust in democratic leaders and in institutions. Citizens can hardly trust leaders who are seen to squander taxpayer funds on romantic getaways or custom made mahogany furniture.

So we are helping build transparency and accountability in public institutions – like reforming procurement laws, as we worked, in the Dominican Republic with our partners there to do, like protecting whistleblowers working to reveal corrupt actors in Eastern Europe, like connecting journalists across Latin America investigating cross-border corruption and money laundering, which has been really hard, actually, to investigate in the past, in part because journalists tend to operate within their home communities and not be resourced to go further afield or to develop those networks. 

We’re also looking to eliminate the possibility of corruption when new endeavors are launched. Following COP27, we launched the Green Minerals Challenge to spark ideas to prevent corruption in supply chains that help power solar panels and wind turbines. This domain, of course, is going to grow massively, and that creates enormous opportunities for citizens to see the benefits of these exploding supply chains of green minerals. At the same time, with all of those opportunities come immense vulnerability. And the challenge is this Grand Challenge’s semifinalists – who I had the chance to speak with yesterday – are pursuing everything from digitizing payments which render those payments more transparent and less likely to be slipped under the table, in order to prevent those cash bribes, to opening up the licensing of the extraction of green minerals – opening up those procedures to public scrutiny.

Third, in order for communities to maintain that trust in democracy, they need a foundation, robust justice systems to hold institutions and leaders, and fellow citizens accountable. 

USAID, of course, has long supported efforts to strengthen judicial systems and institutions – bolstering judicial independence within government bureaucracy, or helping develop, for example, new sentencing guidelines or new criminal codes.

But, if we’re honest, we haven’t actually done enough to work to ensure that people can actually access judicial institutions — or to feel like justice is actually being done in their communities, at the local level. An estimated two-thirds of people around the world, in fact, face some difficulty in even accessing justice systems, and around 1.5 billion people are estimated to have been unable to obtain justice at all. So no judicial, no access to the judicial system.

So, as part of the Summit for Democracy, USAID is launching a new Rule of Law Policy. This policy balances our focus on building or strengthening institutions, working with new partners, with a new emphasis on people-centered approaches to justice and on closing this access to justice gap. We are already doing this work in some of our partner countries – like in Colombia, where we are supporting mobile justice brigades that travel around the country to bring courtrooms actually to communities. Our new policy, we hope, will help make this kind of work a primary part of our Rule of Law strategy.

And fourth and finally, communities must trust that democratic leaders can meet their basic needs – a goal that we are working to achieve through our Partnerships for Democratic Development initiative. 

This year, USAID will invest $55 million across nine priority countries to help leaders expand access to clean water, sanitation services, healthcare, and education. Spread across these countries, we know this is not a lot of resources, but for every dollar we invest, we are going to look to crowd in other partners, including private sector partners. We will connect those we work with on the ground with the private sector, with civil society, with community leaders to identify areas where trust in democracy is lacking – and design solutions to fill the gaps.

Today, I’m pleased to announce those first nine countries: Malawi, Zambia, Nepal, Timor Leste, Armenia, North Macedonia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and the Dominican Republic. These countries hold immense potential to strengthen their democracies – and USAID is committed to partnering with them to realize that vision.

Though we still have a long way to go, in the last two years, USAID has worked to expand our partnerships to rebuild trust in democracy. But the truth is, we are all partners in the effort to rebuild that trust – and we all have a role to play.

Governments, like our own here in the United States, face our own significant challenges in our own democracy, including in showing that democracy delivers at a time – enduring tough economic times, coming out of a pandemic, and beyond. We have to show that our governments remain open to dissent and open to movements that are pushing for reform – even reform that goes faster than governments may be able to accommodate. We need to look to those opposition and democratic forces for new ideas and as potential partners for progress.

The private sector, which is already supporting such causes as opening up supply chains or strengthening media viability, as I will talk about tomorrow with Brad Smith from Microsoft. The private sector can expand the meaningful support that companies are providing to local efforts to protect human rights and sustain democratic transitions.

Development organizations and donors can prioritize bottom-up community leadership and engagements in designing projects and determining priorities. So we know that democracy and development go hand in hand. Economic development and the strength of democratic institutions. But even in the way that we do development, democratizing the way that is done so that there is more of a participatory approach, where there is more local ownership, that is itself something that strengthens trust, again, in institutions, but also it develops a stronger civic society, stronger citizen engagement in service delivery.

And, beyond, again, donors, beyond the private sector, beyond our fellow development organizations, all of us who believe in government of, by, and for the people can recognize that protecting and promoting democracy is not the job of the few, but the duty of us all.

We all have a stake in the future of democracy. We actually have a moment now we can seize together, if we forge our own alliance, one that doesn’t just fight those trying to undermine democracy, but that works to rebuild trust in democracy. 

Thank you so much.

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