TALAL AL-HAJ: Samantha Power, United States Agency for International Development, USAID Administrator, welcome to Al Arabiya.
ADMINISTRATOR SAMANTHA POWER: Great to be here.
MR. AL-HAJ: I would like to start by asking you about your trip. You left to Chad on May the 19th, you traveled to the Capitol N'Djamena and from there you went to Abéché and then to the Gaga Refugee Camp in eastern Chad. You met with Sudanese refugees who had recently crossed the border and observed the humanitarian response to the urgent needs generated by the ongoing crisis in Sudan, where descended more than 60,000 Sudanese refugees, mostly women and children, have poured over the border into Chad since the hostilities broke out in Sudan on April 15, seeking safety in Chad, which is one of the five poorest countries in the world, as described by the annual United Nations Human Development Report. Can you share with us, and our viewers, what you saw over there?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much for asking, and we can't forget about what is happening inside Sudan or the effects of the flow of Sudanese refugees into the neighboring countries. The situation in Chad, as you might imagine, is very bleak when it comes to the border areas – it's a vast wasteland. And one of the biggest worries that the United Nations and other humanitarian responders have is that the rainy season is going to hit in about five weeks potentially, and the prospects at that point of bringing Sudanese who come into Chad far enough away from the border that they will be safe, that prospect diminishes a lot. So the refugees I met with had come across the border a couple of weeks ago, and then had been transported by the U.N. inland so that they would not be pursued by the Janjaweed, or the Rapid Support Forces, or any militia inside Sudan. They all told stories of the family members that they had left behind. All the refugees that I met with, and this is a matter of dozens, this was not their first trip to Chad.
In previous cycles of violence, starting with the genocide in Darfur back in 2003-2004, two actually recent killings as recently as three or four years ago, they had sometimes taken refuge in Chad and then when they thought safety allowed it, they went back to their home communities. In this instance, they indicated, it's not going to be safe in Sudan anytime soon, we are staying put. But they said that their family members also wanted to come. But first, were concerned that there weren't enough provisions actually in the camps, in Chad – and that's something, as USAID, we're trying to address and make sure that there is food and shelter for people who arrive into a very poor country like Chad. But then they also describe Sudanese militia lining up at the border and trying to extort people who were trying to cross into Chad, and many of their family members just didn't have the money to be able to bribe their way to get across the border. So that's something that's going to be a subject for the talks in Jeddah and any subsequent engagement, of course, with the SAF and the RSF, is to say this is completely outrageous, not only you fighting one another bringing your country, you know, to such a horrific humanitarian crisis, with civilians dying in mass, but now you're not even letting people leave or your Forces, you know, that you have a responsibility to control are blocking their departure.
So I think for those that have fled to Chad now, provisions are there. I announced an additional $103 million in humanitarian support for all the neighboring countries, including $17 million for Chad, that will help buy some of these tents, some of the foods, some of the health supplies that the families need. I met mothers who were caring, you know one child had had a fever for 22 days and she was desperate to find medical care. Another woman had had her eye gouged by one of the Janjaweed, and she was looking to see would she even be able to recover eyesight. So this is a combination of, you know, health calamities that stem from displacement, and a lack of supply and outright violence against these refugees. And we, as USAID, and other donors need to make sure that the camps have provisions to tend to these people. But at the same time, we have to recognize that the only fix for a humanitarian crisis of this gravity is political, is fundamentally the SAF and the RSF coming together, putting their guns away and finding a political way forward that ultimately hands power back to the civilians in Sudan.
MR. AL-HAJ: What you have just said reminded me of my trip when I accompanied Kofi Annan in 2004 to Abéché to see these refugee camps from Darfur. And we also saw some camps within Sudan's borders near the Chadian borders. And the scenes doesn't seem any different, hasn't changed. All these 19, 20 years. It's very, very sad to hear that.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Just to say, to meet with families who have lived that recurrent story of displacement, I agree with you. It is chilling, and it's depressing because they were building new lives, they had started new crafts, they were farming land, even having been displaced from their original homes, and with the civilian transition that occurred a couple of years ago that the AU brokered, they actually had hoped for the first time that they could build permanent lives in Sudan. And now, all of that is up in smoke, quite literally, as soldiers from both of these factions wreak havoc on civilians.
MR. AL-HAJ: According to SRSG Volker Perthes of UNITAMS, the fighting in Sudan never stopped even for one day since April the 15. In spite of seven truces that were arranged and signed. The last one, of course, started last Monday night of this week with the help of the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And for the first time, a remote monitoring mechanism has been set up. 16 million people relied on humanitarian aid even before the fighting broke on April the 15. This number has gone up by around 60 percent to about more than 24 million people now in need of aid. This week, the U.S. said it would allocate $245 million in additional support to Sudan and neighboring countries impacted by the conflict bringing the total United States in humanitarian assistance commitment to Sudan and neighboring Chad, Egypt, South Sudan, Central African Republic to nearly $880 million in 2023. Will there be more assistance coming from the United States to Sudan as conditions dictate?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, needless to say, there are colossal demands on humanitarian resources. Right now, if you look at the humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan, in the Horn of Africa, which has suffered, I think now they're at six straight failed rainy seasons – I hope that that's a situation that's going to improve. But we have had to invest mammoth resources in staving off full-fledged famine. So, you know, the message that I know that our negotiators are sending in Jeddah is this conflict needs to end. There is not an infinite supply of humanitarian assistance to provide people in need, even if we wish there were. This has got to come out of somewhere. Already, South Sudan was a major recipient of humanitarian assistance – as you noted. Already in Egypt, excuse me, already in Sudan prior to this conflict, you had 16 million people depending on humanitarian assistance, so that when you look at Central African Republic, look at Ethiopia and the crisis in Tigray, which finally you have a cessation of hostilities, but you still have people who didn't plant their seeds, aren't able to harvest their crops, because the conflict took offline so much of the economy.
So again, when a conflict is relatively new, and this builds on old tensions, but broke out, as you said, on April 15, this needs to be nipped in the bud. If this spreads further, if you start to see, you know, not 60, 70, 80,000 people fleeing into Chad, but five times that number, if the same is true in Ethiopia, in Egypt, in South Sudan, the toll that that will take on those civilians, the toll it will take on the communities that have been incredibly welcoming, but can only do so much, and that have their own needs and that themselves were dependent on humanitarian assistance because of climate change, or because of conflict in a place like South Sudan, or Ethiopia. You know, the system just can't sustain conflicts getting added, and nothing getting taken away. And so again, which is why peace in Ethiopia needs to be shored up. But also why these political talks between these leaders are so important, and why it's so important those leaders finally put the welfare of their people first. That's a long answer to your question. But of course, we are always going to be looking at needs and acute needs and we want and are proud of being the first responder and the world's largest humanitarian donor. So we will always do what we can. But there has to be a recognition that other donors, including untraditional donors, including donors, you know, from the Middle East and the Gulf and beyond, that they step up as well. Because, again, the needs right now are exceeding what any one country, or even any traditional gathering of countries, can meet.
MR. AL-HAJ: Do we have assurances from the five countries to keep their borders open to Sudanese refugees?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I think that's diplomacy that we do every day. Certainly, I met with President Deby in Chad and can speak personally to that. And he made very clear that just as they had in the past, that they would keep their border open. And that involves not only allowing humanitarian organizations to set up shop, but also the generosity of Chadian families. I think we've seen that broadly across the region, we hope that will continue.
MR. AL-HAJ: Is USAID on the ground in Sudan, and surrounding countries to help or do you mainly support UN agencies and humanitarian partners who are already there and have infrastructure?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: It's a bit of both. I mean, obviously, we did an evacuation of U.S. personnel, and actually also facilitated the evacuation of many of USAID’s own Sudanese staff. But the U.S. Embassy, of course, still has local staff who are operating there who were very helpful in making connections for us as we try to adjust our programming. We mainly work through implementing partners whose Sudanese staff are doing heroic work right now, not only braving conflict to reach vulnerable people with medical services that have been cut off because of the bombing of hospitals, but also even fighting the Sudanese bureaucracy, which is legendary, it’s infamous, for being a really difficult area to get visas, you know, to get permissions to move humanitarian assistance from one place to the next. So again, these are all topics for Jeddah because all of that needs to be streamlined in the interests of humanitarian welfare.
MR. AL-HAJ: There are around 843,000 internally displaced people within Sudan, IDPs. Who helps these people?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, of the $103 million that USAID announced, for example, $50 million of that will go inside Sudan. And you mentioned some of our implementing partners are the big U.N. partners that we work with all over the world, like World Food Programme, but we are also really doing our best to find Sudanese local organizations that we can support. We know that the resilience, the resistance committees that cropped up that brought about the civilian transition in the first place, have become very active volunteering in order to support some of those displaced. But, you know, it's a population that our partners on the ground really have to get to know, get to know what their specific needs are. Are they on because they've suffered sexual and gender based violence? Is it because they couldn't get to a hospital clinic because the hospital clinic was destroyed? And they need now to turn to an NGO for some medical support? Or is it just basic food and water to get through the day. Every one of the people that I've met in my life who've been displaced, wants to go home. But in many of the cases, their homes may have been destroyed, and that might have been what would cause them to leave, or they may be being targeted because of some perceived political viewpoint or affiliation. And so we need to get to know that population and that's what our 29 partners on the ground are seeking to do every day.
MR. AL-HAJ: The $3 billion, the United Nation Humanitarian Response Plan entails raising that sort of money. Would you be surprised if I tell you that the response plan is only funded until 21 of May? Only 12.4 percent, why do you think the funding is so low?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: In fairness, the number of needs around the world are utterly unprecedented – the number of displaced persons around the world unprecedented since Hitler and World War II. The number of conflicts happening around the world unprecedented since the end of the Cold War. So I think countries, donors are struggling to take fixed budgets and figure out how to allocate them in a way that reaches people in need, as best they can. Would it surprise you if I told you that most large donors have actually increased their humanitarian budgets and yet, for most people living in difficult circumstances in South Sudan, in Syria, in Somalia, in Afghanistan, they feel that the budgets are getting smaller. And that's just because, again, more conflicts keep getting added to the ledger, more people who need to rely on services that should be provided just by being able to seek employment or should be provided by social services by the government. But in so many cases, either because of natural disaster, or because of conflict, governments have been unable to meet those needs.
MR. AL-HAJ: SRSG Volker Perthes of UNITAMS is very worried, and he said that in the Security Council this week, about this conflict becoming sort of inter-communal based on Arabs versus Africans, like what was like in Darfur in 2003-2004 until 2005, does that worry you?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Absolutely. Not only do you have that history of violence, but again, from the individuals that I met with in eastern Chad, we heard the same stories that we heard 20 years ago, when that ethnically-motivated violence was being perpetrated against principally African tribes. So every day that this goes on, the greater the risk that it spreads within Sudan and the greater the prevalence of ethnically-based, tribally-based, targeting of populations.
But alongside that, I have to say, the amount of banditry and criminality, you know, you've seen reports in the last couple of weeks of somebody actually burning down a factory that made that ready-to-use therapeutic food that is for the most severely malnourished children. Those children, one can visualize, you know, who are on death's door, there is a miracle paste called ready-to-use therapeutic food. And a factory was right there and with the burning down of the factory, enough food to feed 14,000, severely emaciated children, who could be brought back to life really with this paste, that was burned and destroyed. And so again, ultimately, responsibility for ending this conflict lies with the two military leaders who have descended now into this factional violence. But in the meantime, the risk of, what you described, of the return to ethnically targeted mass atrocities, and the risk of just the rule of law going out the window, and everybody grabbing for themselves, who has a gun, what resources he can grab, I mean, that is a world that is going to be devastating for civilian life in Sudan. And so these talks have to succeed, but the parties are going to have to compromise and put the people first.
MR. AL-HAJ: Well, last question, quickly on Syria. We lived the Syrian crisis in 2011 onwards, and you were here the United Nations following it step by step, day by day. Now that Syria has gone back to the Arab League, how do you view the possibility of working with the Lebanese government? Because, Lebanon, half the population now are Syrian refugees. They are, of course, in Jordan, in Turkey, in other countries, but Lebanon had extreme challenges, both political and economical. Is it time, do you think, that the world community, world organizations work with the Lebanese Government and possibly the Syrian Government to start talking about organized safe, secure, return of refugees to their homeland? And voluntary on my side of course.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, first let’s just say what you already know, which is that, the United States does not believe that Syria merits readmission to the Arab League. We are not in the business of normalizing relations with Assad, we don't think that the Assad regime has taken the steps needed to warrant this kind of recognition and acceptance. That said, we know that members of the Arab League have said that they intend to engage the Syrian Government in the hopes that that progress will be forthcoming. Again, I think one has reason on the basis of many, many years of watching the Assad regime to be skeptical.
I was in Lebanon not that long ago and met with some of those Syrian refugees. I know very well the generosity that Lebanon has shown Syrian refugees. I think you put your finger on the key, the key word, which is voluntary. It is very rare that you find Syrian refugees in any country really, who are talking about their enthusiasm for going back, because the reason they left in the first place is either because their homes were bombed, or they felt that they were being politically targeted. And that's where this problem of there not being progress with the Assad regime actually acknowledging any wrongdoing, holding any perpetrators of the atrocities accountable, instead rather, you know, operating with significant impunity – that's not exactly a welcoming signal to people who were targeted before.
And so we will continue to work with the Lebanese government. We hope there can be political progress in Lebanon, because Lebanon has its own challenges, well and apart from those associated with sheltering and providing homes for so many Syrians. But you know, fundamentally, again, our position is our relationship with Lebanon is a strong bilateral relationship. We invest, as USAID, in Lebanon's economy, in its clean energy transition. You know, we have provided food security assistance, not only to Syrians, but also to Lebanese who have really been very severely affected by Putin's invasion of Ukraine, because so much of Lebanese wheat came from Ukraine and Russia. So we will continue, again, to provide that support. And, you know, I think it's very, very important that all countries, you know, stick to conditions based voluntary return policy, or you could end up again with very severe maltreatment of any individuals who are sent back, which of course none of us would wish to see.
MR. AL-HAJ: Thank you so much, Samantha Power, USAID Administrator. At the end of this interview we want to thank you for taking time to sit down with us and for your insights. And most of all, we want to thank you for all the good and humane work that you do through USAID in my region and the rest of the world. Thank you so much.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, Talal. Great to see you again.
MR. AL-HAJ: You too, thank you.