Administrator Samantha Power at The Society for International Development-US Annual Conference

Speeches Shim

Thursday, May 26, 2022

“Progress, not Programs”

Ronald Reagan Building, Washington D.C.

 
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Good morning, everybody, it’s great to join you here. 

Wade, thank you for your leadership, thank you for that introduction. As someone who once indeed did serve in the role I am now privileged to hold, you’re one of the few people of whom I can ask this question: Why didn’t you warn me? 

I want to thank all of you for coming, thank you for your remarks, and for the decision to rebrand SID. It’s a pretty powerful message that you are sending—that America’s development mission cannot just be the province of people here in Washington, DC. 

And we all know that we have to take the case for American support for the world to Americans.

And we have to articulate to the American people that their country cares—we care when disaster strikes, we care when marginalized peoples are repressed, when children go to bed hungry, when millions die of preventable diseases. And we bear a special responsibility to act.

Because there are things in this world that only America can do. As frustrating as our bureaucratic inertia can be, as paralyzed as our democracy sometimes feels, perhaps no more so than this week, this is the country capable of hypercompetent, groundbreaking acts of innovation and progress: 

This is the country that is vaccinating the world through the massive distribution of safe, effective, free vaccines. This is the country that unified our partners and created one of the most rapid and effective shows of support to a country in peril—Ukraine—ever witnessed. This is the country that helped spread high-yielding seeds around the world, launching the Green Revolution, and is now working to accelerate the adoption of heat and drought resistant seeds as we grapple with a looming food crisis. This is the country that helped eradicate smallpox, helped snuff out Ebola in West Africa, and worked to roll back the tide on HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and TB. And through USAID, and the people in this room, this is a country that stares down the world’s biggest challenges and steps forward to tackle them. We have to remind Americans of that, too, and SID plays an absolutely critical role in doing so. 

The relevance of addressing development challenges abroad has never been clearer than now, as Americans grapple with a pandemic that started overseas, a growing number of billion-dollar-plus climate disasters here at home, a spike in prices at the pump after a brutal war launched half-a-world-away.

To work in development is to demonstrate this set of truths—that America, at its core, cares; that America can competently tackle global issues in a way no one else can; that what matters abroad matters at home. You all demonstrate the best of America to a world in need. 

And what need there is right now. 

From the COVID-19 pandemic’s continued effects to the worst drought ever recorded in the Horn of Africa to devastating spikes in global food, fertilizer, and energy supplies as a result of Putin’s belligerence. 

Yesterday, I was up on the Hill—I know you’re jealous—defending USAID’s largest ever budget request on Capitol Hill, which, if approved, would give us an awful lot of resources. It would give us $6.4 billion to deal with humanitarian emergencies, of which we see now an average of 75 a year. We’d have $2.3 billion to spur ambitious action against climate change, from bringing gigawatts of clean energy online to investing in the resilience that countries need to counter climate shocks. We would more than double the amount of money we have ever committed to gender, to support what we know are such impactful investments in women and girls. And we’d have $3.96 billion to fund our global health budget, powering exceedingly effective programs to suppress HIV/AIDS, counter malaria, and TB, but also to make long overdue investments to strengthen primary health care systems and health surveillance and security so we can prevent the next pandemic. 

What we won’t have, though, even if Congress embraces the President’s 2023 budget request, is enough money. Enough money to provide aid in all the humanitarian disasters that await us. Enough money to transform the lives of the nearly one billion people who remain hungry today. Enough money to help countries around the world escape the need for foreign assistance altogether—which is the ultimate aim of all the people here in this room, and all the partners we work with around the world. 

We won’t have this money even if the budget request is embraced, because there isn’t enough official development assistance in the world to do all that is needed. Budgets matter, public commitments matter. Our programs unquestionably save lives, spur the growth of economies, protect dignity, advance democracy, and create absolutely a safer, cleaner, more prosperous world for all of us to inhabit. 

But we also need to confront the limits of what we can achieve with budgets that look likely never to match the scale of need in the world; We need to be honest about the constraints of thinking about development largely in terms of our programming; and be far more ambitious in expanding who we work with, and changing how we work with them so that we drive the sustainable, lasting change that we all seek. 

And perhaps most importantly, we have to focus on driving development progress, not simply development programs, building on past efforts to spur catalytic investments and bring in new partners to our work. Despite our best efforts to extend our impact, too often our approach to development has narrowed the role of USAID and our partners to program implementers with an outsized emphasis on reporting. Instead of working hand-in-hand with partners, communities, and governments, building the relationships that are so crucial to driving progress, our teams these days are more often tied to their desks, robbed of the opportunity to leave their offices and do what they joined this field to do. And that is what we must change, together.

Perhaps the clearest articulation I can offer of a progress, not programs mindset is a story about, of all things, apples. 

The country of Moldova, which borders Ukraine and is not a member of the EU or NATO, is what you might call a bright spot. Against a backdrop of democratic decline and growing corruption and authoritarian tendencies, the people of Moldova came out in force to elect President Maia Sandu, who is dedicated to overturning oligarchic rule, taking on significant anticorruption reforms, and giving Moldovans a chance to participate in their country’s future without paying a bribe. 

Then came Putin’s war. In the midst of Moldova’s historic efforts, the President suddenly had to deal with a massive refugee influx, an energy crisis, and terrifying instability as indiscriminate Russian attacks creeped westward to Lviv and the port city of Odessa, which is very, very close to Moldova.

And of course, the Moldovans had to find a home for their apples. 

Apples represent one of Moldova’s top exports—nearly three percent of what the country sells abroad each year. And it turns out, Moldovan apples are delicious. For years, through our programs, USAID has invested in spurring the productivity of apple growers and establishing cold storage facilities, while supporting the growers efforts to secure the best prices on the market. 

But here’s the problem: in prior years, 98 percent of Moldova’s apples went to Russia. And with the global sanctions imposed on Russia after the war, Ukraine, which stands between Moldova and Russia, suddenly ablaze with conflict, and the blockade of Moldova’s closest port in Odessa, these apples risked going to waste—tens of millions of dollars of economic value sucked out of a country already experiencing a massive blow from Putin’s actions. 

No amount of programming dollars were going to find those apples a home. But, a few phone calls might. With the apples in cold storage, our Mission in Moldova and teams here in DC began searching for something we might be able to do with them. Our first port of call so to speak was the EU. It turns out Moldova only exports less than two percent of its crop to the EU—to Romania, Latvia, Estonia, and Bulgaria. But when the stakes are high, it can inspire a shift in thinking, so we joined the Moldovans in advocating to the European Commission to help Moldova lessen its dependence on Russia, and more deeply integrate its economy with the political body that they hope to join, ultimately resulting in an expanded number of trucking permits to Slovakia and Hungary, allowing them to more easily move their exports Westward. 

The effort didn’t stop there—our partners were able to connect Moldovan growers with retail shops in the Gulf, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and countries across North Africa, increasing Moldova’s export share to non-traditional markets from 20 tons of apples in 2021, to 4,000 tons of apples in the first quarter of 2022 alone. 

It also turns out that when you need help finding a home for food, it’s a good idea to call a chef. And if you’ve spent any time here in DC, as the organization formerly known as SID DC might well have, you’re familiar with José Andrés and his restaurants. We know about his restaurants, but we also of course, in this world, know about the decades of volunteer work that he and his team have done through their organization, World Central Kitchen. They show up seemingly everywhere people are in need to meet them face to face, extend a helping hand, and offer people who may not have eaten in days the dignity of a hot meal. World Central Kitchen has already served 25 million meals to people in need in Ukraine and in surrounding countries, and that includes Moldova. When I reached out to José, and he in turn huddled with his team, we were looking to see if he might and they might need a few extra apples for his meal preparation. 

We thought he might want some—but honestly, in that first phone call where he was somewhere and I was somewhere, in a million years I don’t think that we expected that he and World Central Kitchen would purchase 60 tons of apples, with more deliveries to come. As we speak these apples are being served to Ukrainian refugees and displaced peoples. And none of them will likely ever know that a healthy serving of apples once bound for Russia on the side of a meal from World Central Kitchen is also helping local Moldovan farmers sustain themselves during a brutal year of intersecting, interlocking crises. 

Thanks to all this agile work, Moldovan growers have already sold more than half their stored apples in record time—and they expect to be able to export the remainder of their entire crop by the end of June. 

None of this, these little interventions, cost us a penny, or sat solely within the bounds of our programmatic work, but by drawing on our entrepreneurism, our convening power, and our contacts both inside government and outside of it, we were able to make a meaningful difference that likely would not have happened otherwise. 

Once one adopts this lens to see the kind of good that can be done through steps taken outside our budget commitments and traditional assistance, you start to see powerful examples everywhere, and I know each of you would have many to offer as well.  

Take USAID’s response to the COVID-19 crisis in Pakistan. Like many countries, Pakistan was facing a severe economic downturn that threatened to shut the doors of the country's many, many small- and medium-sized businesses. At the same time, shortages of Personal Protective Equipment forced the country to rely on expensive, imported masks—an N95 mask at the start of the pandemic cost the equivalent of $17. There is no way Pakistan could have purchased enough masks for its population at that price, nor could they provide all their small businesses the kind of fiscal support many western countries rushed in to offer. So rather than think of a budget solution to these massive, existential problems, the USAID mission sought to strengthen the hand of the country’s dynamic private sector. 

We first rushed in to help migrate Pakistan’s small and medium businesses online. We convened more than 30 prominent business development organizations to help small-and-medium businesses start websites where they could display and sell their goods. We put up a little of our money, but primarily worked to get these businesses the technical assistance they needed to go digital, helping small businesses reach, not just people locked down in their homes in Pakistan, but an entire global market. In the end, our $2.8 million investment spurred a digital transformation that led to $61.8 million worth of additional sales, and exports of $34 million. It led to benefits that will long outlast the pandemic. 

We took a similar approach to Pakistan’s PPE problem, providing technical assistance to nine local PPE manufacturers to help them receive the international accreditation and ISO certifications that they needed to produce high-quality N95 masks in-country. The technical capacity was already there, short of some new equipment, but the expertise to maneuver through the bureaucratic licensing processes they needed was not. By offering them guidance on how to upgrade their production capabilities and win accreditation, they chose to invest over $6 million of their own money to expand production lines, purchase new equipment, and improve their distribution networks. Today, Pakistan is producing its own high-quality PPE, and a Pakistani-made N95 mask costs the equivalent of 40 cents. Rather than import expensive masks from abroad, we’ve helped turn Pakistan into a PPE exporter.

As you know well, stories like this abound from every region, where our collective refusal to see a problem only within the scope of what our programs can achieve, our ability to convene expertise, assistance, and policy reforms from beyond the traditional development space—our decision, and this is the essence of it, to focus not solely on our traditional lanes but on the problems that we are trying to solve—all of that together can lead to outsized progress that you cannot put a price tag on. 

We helped seven West African countries create a sustainable Shea Butter export industry, priming the pump with a little of our own money, to attract nearly double our contribution in private sector investment, resulting in a $62 million a year industry that now supports 400,000 women. We helped fill up American supermarkets with Peruvian asparagus, brought Guatemalan rum to the United States in bottles accented with woven fabric made by indigenous women displaced by conflict. We worked with the Department of Energy to install a 50 MW solar power facility in Ghana, enough to encourage the country to make significant investments of its own and triple its share of solar energy generation. 

Hustling as development diplomats, using leverage, crowding-in investment, seeking out new partners, pushing for policy reforms, and helping countries access new markets—these are all tools within our reach; in the reach of all of us as a development community. But to truly embrace the proposition of focusing on progress, rather than programs, we have to expand our definition of who we mean when we say the “development community.” 

The question before us as well is who will we welcome into our tent? Will we invite the private sector, and make them true partners of our development goals and not a piggy bank for when we want a project funded? Will we embrace religious communities who not only donate considerable sums to so many worthy causes but work around the world to put their values into practice? Will we finally, after decades of discussion and debate, and efforts by now, and counting, four different administrations, embrace the widely-held and resounding consensus that locally-led development—an approach that prioritizes and elevates the roles of organizations, institutions, and people of the countries we serve—that that is the key to delivering the kind of results that will be visible years and years in the future, long after our programs have wound down. 

I have spoken about the need to partner beyond our traditional community to get things done in other settings. I have been grilled about it in Congress by both sides of the aisle. And I have listened to countless experts, leaders, colleagues and collaborators as we at USAID try to shape our own locally-led development Agenda. I’m sure you know our goals at this stage—25 percent of our money spent directly with local partners by 2025, 50 percent placing local communities in the lead on co-design, priority setting, implementation, or evaluation before the decade is out. 

But the goal is not just some target or percentage of spend, to be clear—the goal is not programming, it’s progress. It is not building the capacity of local partners just to transform them into organizations that can win and manage USAID contracts. It is not pulling in a local organization as a subcontractor simply to win a bid, only to see them ignored or cut out later. It is somehow about changing a power dynamic which creates the impression that only the capital “D” development community can run development projects, that teams in Washington, including here at USAID headquarters, are somehow well-placed to dream up goals and objectives for partner countries. To do away with the idea, in essence, that only those with power can exercise power. 

Shifting to a model of locally-led development means ceding power over decisionmaking to those who know their problems best. Yes this is going to require meaningful budget shifts and increased staff capacity on our part, we know that—and with the support of our allies on the Hill, we did receive staffing and budget flexibility for our locally-led development efforts last year, and are requesting more of it in this budget request for 2023. But more than anything, shifting the power structure of development will depend on shifting the cultures within our respective organizations. 

I am beyond grateful that our agenda for locally-led development has received support from so many corners, from InterAction and the Council of International Development Companies, to some of the world’s largest International NGOs, to the Global Leadership Coalition and Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, to new advocacy groups like Unlock Aid—in addition to more than 1,000 civil-society organizations from the Global South. But transforming a system isn’t simply a matter of announcing targets, as I have done, or signing on to a letter of support; it is each of us going to work every day and asking each other the question, challenging each other: What are we doing to empower the people we support? 

What are we doing to deliver progress, not just programs?

SID-US, I thank you so much for this opportunity and the opportunities you all afford us at USAID with every day to try to make the world a more decent, a kinder, more prosperous place. And I couldn’t be more excited to work with you in the years ahead. 

Thank you.

Last updated: June 24, 2022

Share This Page