TOMMY VIETOR: Ben, our guest today really needs no introduction. She's one of the world's biggest Boston Red Sox fans, even when it's tough at times like these. She worked at the White House and the National Security Staff. She was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and she continues her government service today as the Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Samantha Power, it's great to see you.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Lovely to see you, Tommy.
TOMMY VIETOR: Do you watch World Series games when it's not our people?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I do. My baseball affliction is deeper than any one team, unfortunately.
TOMMY VIETOR: I was watching the Bears vs. Bengals until Hannah said, "Why are we watching this?" And I said, you're right. And we watched the show called Welcome to Wrexham, which I highly recommend, if you like soccer. But Sam, I digress. We're here today to talk about the work you're doing, I think, global food insecurity. And so, hoping we could start there. Because I think listeners hear us talk about this in sort of a one off way, like, there's man-made famines in places like Yemen and Ethiopia, because there's a war in the country, or you know, crop failures lead to food insecurity in some region of the world or climate change. But, with the Russian invasion creating food insecurity, what's your general sense at the moment of the scale of the problem, and the sort of number of people around the world who are in need of food assistance?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: It's bleak. I will say right off the bat that the Congress put the United States in an incredible position to lead in the response – the humanitarian response – because with the Ukraine supplementals that passed earlier this year, they actually gave us flexibility to provide humanitarian assistance also to those crises that were indirectly affected by Putin and his gratuitous and horrific invasion of Ukraine. And so, we are the world's leading humanitarian donor – and always are – but the gap between us and other countries, unfortunately, in many respects, is widening. But fortunately, in the sense that it is because of bipartisanship, actually, around the provision of that assistance. So, to your question, the needs are massive. The number of people going hungry in the world has risen by 150 million since the start of the COVID pandemic, according to the UN. And that’s the backdrop, then, against which Putin invades Ukraine and then compounds that hunger crisis by blockading food from leaving Ukrainian ports, by himself imposing a ban on Russian fertilizer exports for many months. And part of the issue, Tommy you and I've talked about this in the past, is that conflicts just don't end, people like Putin add nuances to the ledger. But, there remains millions of displaced people from Syria, because there is no resolution to that conflict. Sadly, the Yemen ceasefire that had been extended on a couple occasions has not yet, at least, been extended an additional time, meaning that conflict could really bust open again – compounding then the pre-existing conditions, which are climate change, and then – now a new pre-existing condition is, for many countries, dependence on food being sent into the market from places like Ukraine. Russia put in place a fertilizer ban before it invaded Ukraine, it now blames U.S. sanctions, and Western sanctions, on high fertilizer prices – that's just nonsense. They were the ones who held fertilizer back with their own export bans and export restrictions. But, it's kind of like a perfect storm of the tail end of the pandemic, where countries have borrowed to get through the pandemic, then higher temperatures, or more climate shocks, whether floods or famine, or floods or drought, I should say, and then throw on top of that, a war that has massively contributed to spiraling food and fuel prices. And you have as many as 150 to 200 million more hungry people this year, then you had last year.
TOMMY VIETOR: My god, that is bleak. Well, so what we're hoping to talk about today was something called the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Can you sort of explain what it is to listeners and why this is so important?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, when Putin invaded Ukraine, he went at everything at once. Recall, he was sending missiles as well into the western part of the country, he had great ambition to decapitate the Ukrainian government. In a matter of days, he really seemed – he and his generals seemed – to have thought they could actually take Kyiv, and might have forgotten that there's some Ukrainians who live in Ukraine, who got a vote there. But, part of the strategy was also to take over strategic assets, and he had already done that by occupying and staging an illegal annexation of Crimea, as many as now, eight years ago that was, but taking the southern parts of Ukraine with access to the Black Sea, very, very important to his war plan. And again, strategic access to water always being something that generals seek out, and even brutal dictators like Putin. But, part of the idea as well was, let me use the control that I have – I, Russian dictator – over these key areas to prevent Ukraine from being the breadbasket of the world – which it had been for so long, one of the most substantial wheat and corn, oil seeds, producers and exporters on the planet. And just to give a couple examples, Lebanon and Egypt each, more than 80 percent of each of their wheat comes, in fact, from the region – from Ukraine or Russia – and principally, from Ukraine. And so, in blockading the main port of egress for Ukrainian farmers produce and for their grains, you could do two things: one, hurt the global South, potentially then creating more pressure on the Ukrainian government or those like the United States, who support the Ukrainian government, to push for negotiation sooner. Because if you're hurting, and you're blaming the war rather than the invader, that could cause you, again, to pull away your solidarity with Ukraine, even if you don't believe it's a good thing that one country is invading another. If you're hurting, and your people are hurting, and you no longer have the fiscal space to borrow, to subsidize, for example, fertilizer purchases for smallholder farmers, maybe you can turn the global South into either a neutral force on this war, which would be good for Putin, or as a force pushing the Ukrainians to turn over territory, and just end this thing. So, that's one aspect of it.
But, the other thing he's doing with this blockade, which began right when the war began, is starving Ukrainians – Ukraine's farmers. And this was a major exporting country before the war, 20 percent of the GDP came from agriculture before the war in Ukraine, 40 percent of its export revenue came from agriculture. So, if you're Putin and 95 percent of Ukraine's agricultural grains flow from the Black Sea ports, you can actually deny those farmers their livelihoods by blocking those ports. So flash forward, President Erdoğan, Secretary General Guterres, got personally very involved, seeing the effects on global food prices, because irrespective of where the grains are going, just taking that amount of food off the global food market is going to cause prices to spike, and that's what happened. And they got involved, and they negotiated an arrangement where Russia agreed to this joint inspection process, where everybody could say, “Okay, it's not going to be arms that are flowing out, it's just going to be food,” and that verification could occur. And then, when Russia was the recipient of an attack on parts of its Black Sea port facilities, in response to that, Putin pulled the plug on this deal.
And I will say, for the period between August and late October, when he pulled the plug, when that grain deal was actually working, global food prices came down, and about a quarter of the wheat exports to low income countries actually came out of those ports. Putin has been saying, these are only going to rich countries, this food, it's all fake, it's not about the global South. That's flawed in two respects. One, a huge chunk of it is going to the global South, and that's incredibly important, like the countries that are traditional recipients of Ukrainian exported grain. But second, when you put more food out onto the global market, that's going to lower prices everywhere, and that's exactly what happened for that brief window in August, September, and much of October, where the Black Sea Green Deal was functional. Having now suspended that deal, what has happened is – we've already seen wheat and corn future prices go up. We're already – the FAO, the Food and Agricultural Organization at the UN – is already saying that food prices generally are going to go back up. Even the uncertainty, because there's still some question about whether it can be re-launched or whether it might be negotiated again in a manner where it can be resumed, but just even the uncertainty around it – you know how markets work – this is already costing people meals, for sure. Because prices go up, irrespective of whether food was about to arrive or not, everybody is projecting in their own market structure, so already, just in the few days since Putin has suspended Russia's participation, that uncertainty is having a very, very negative effect, again, already against that backdrop of such acute food insecurity around the world.
TOMMY VIETOR: Man, that is a brutally difficult problem. Because, I guess how do you tell the Ukrainians not to wage war against ships that are blockading their ports, that are launching missile and drone attacks against them, Russian forces in the region. But also, clearly, Putin is taking this as a pretext to pull out of the deal, but I don't know, maybe he didn't want to be in, in the first place. I'm not sure how you all view it. Seems like a hard problem.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I think there was a lot of question about whether the deal would be re-upped in November. So, we're now in the month that, in any event, there was a question about whether Russia would wish for it to continue, and there were a number of statements in recent days by senior Russian officials prior to the attack that, again, became Putin's pretext that gave one reason for some pessimism about Russia's enthusiasm to continue the deal. But, at the same time, even in that period, I think many in the UN system, for example, were very optimistic, because you have leaders from the global South, raising their voices – and again, this is before it was suspended – but even for the renewal, saying, “President Putin, you know, this matters for the world, this matters for hungry people, this matters for the global South.” And I would note, Tommy, two things. First, just to your point about pretext, Russia itself, Russia saying, “Oh, this has made the Black Sea, these attacks on ports of may have made the Black Sea now insecure, it's too dangerous”, this kind of alibi. Russia has hit Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea. So, the notion that this is what has made life in the Black Sea dangerous, needless to say, is specious. But the second thing, just to flag, is that I was struck – as a former U.S. official at the United Nations – at the statements in the Security Council, since Putin has withdrawn or suspended participation in the deal. I mean, hearing the Indian Ambassador, the Ambassador from Mexico, the Ambassador from Ghana, each raising their voices in a very, very pointed way to say, this is about hungry people all over the world, in a sense, let the grains go. And so, I think there is still hope that pressure from – it's one thing to hear that pressure from Western countries – but to hear it from Prime Minister Modi's Ambassador in the UN Security Council – India has been in a studied neutral position at the UN throughout this whole crisis – and to be vocal and to say, that this is really harmful to the world's poor, and to the world's hungry, And Modi's credibility in the UN system to speak to that message of all messages – that has got to be at least some factor in Putin's calculus.
TOMMY VIETOR: So, Sam, you were in Ukraine, back in October, I believe. Just curious how that visit compares to previous visits you made to the region, and also to Ukraine back in 2015.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I was back in the Capital – in Kyiv – at the beginning of October. And I will say, I was there just days – I think maybe four or five days – before Putin began this barrage of missile attacks on the Capital. So, I was there in a moment that I know so many Ukrainians are nostalgic for, before it really has turned even darker for people living in areas that are not proximate, at all, to Russian forces – that have liberated themselves. The Ukrainians are so proud of having won the battle of Kyiv. But when I was there, just a matter of weeks ago – cafes were open, culture was returning – you really had a sense that you were in a cosmopolitan, eastern European city. To be clear, this week, there are blackouts, there are sirens around the clock. Monday mornings are particularly grim as Putin seems to have decided that’s how he wants to usher in the work week in Ukraine – by just pulverizing civilian infrastructure, energy infrastructure. So, I just want to note that I was there at a particular time – at a moment in time – and things have really deteriorated because of Russian forces’ savagery and Putin’s own decision making. And seemingly deliberate desire to ravage energy infrastructure in advance of the winter.
TOMMY VIETOR: And water infrastructure.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Energy and water, exactly. So, having said that, what I do want to point to is – what you mentioned – which is the contrast between when I had last been there, which granted was a long time ago but, I’m proud because USAID and U.S. government have worked hand in glove with the Ukrainians in a number of domains that I was really, really struck had born such fruit. So, on the one hand, you can say that between 2015 and 2022, that’s seven years – that’s a very long time, on the other hand – it’s a blink of an eye. In areas like building an independent media. Just having a crew of journalists who are actually holding, even under martial law – the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian officials accountable. Obviously, they rallied around the flag as Ukrainians, to a large extent, but they are documenting war crimes right alongside some of the civil society groups that USAID has funded for a long time.
USAID has worked for years in strengthening the agricultural sector that we talked about earlier, and what's been amazing is doubling down on that work during the war. So now, helping them build storage silos or giving them grain sleeves – the farmers – so that they can store grains that, maybe now on a much slower timeline to get out of the country because of this on again, off again, blockade by Putin, helping farmers get access to loans, helping them get loans also that will help them recover machinery, farm machinery, equipment that Putin's forces destroyed. A lot of territory has been recaptured by the Ukrainians, helping with demining, working with the State Department and others.
One of the projects that I saw when I was there, Tommy, was a drone project – and drones now, of course, have taken on a very different connotation with the Iranian-supplied drones causing such harrowing loss of life and destruction. But, the drones that USAID is working with the Ukrainians to provide are drones that allow farmers to spray pesticide and to lay down fertilizer, while there is a risk of unexploded ordinances on the ground. And so, seeing these farmers bring this technology to bear, and being able to support that, I was just very struck. And this remains true, even with these barrages of missiles – and I met with President Zelensky – that they are so determined to get their economy going, even alongside this need to win the war and win various battles. And it stands to reason because they need tax revenue. Lots of parts of the country are stable militarily, even if now, again, there's much greater risk of incoming than there might have been even just a month ago, but that planning that the Ukrainian Government is doing – which we worked with them on – how to do procurement in a more transparent way, so there was less susceptibility to corruption, how to vet officials so that they have the kind of integrity you need. And we need this as USAID, because we're providing such significant resources, we need that oversight, we need that transparency, so as to ensure that taxpayer resources are going exactly where they're intended. But seeing over – just that relatively short period of time, since I was last there – how much more advanced these institutions are, and being reminded Tommy, that's what Putin hates. You know, remember that speech he gave before he invaded, that's the thing that makes him crazy – is that they are progressing and that it became harder for the oligarchs to do their dirty business there in Ukraine. It wasn't by any means perfect, but if you look at, again, the strides that have been made in integrating Ukraine's economy, and its export market to Europe and to markets elsewhere, and not just to the former Soviet Union countries, which is what it had looked like, really, until the last decade – all of that gave him and his cronies much less leverage over what was happening in Ukraine on the things that we all focus on – on security policy, and questions related to security arrangements, and NATO, and all the rest, yes. But this other piece of it, in many ways, got less attention. It was just remarkable how they had translated the professional workforce that they've long had, the incredible educational base, into a country that was really making inroads in building a tech sector, an IT sector, and again, strengthening those institutions in a way that meant that it wasn't just about what leader was in power or not in power. But seeing those checks and balances, which had been at quite a nascent stage, growing up and now trying to sustain them in wartime, which is what USAID is working with our partners on the ground to try to do.
TOMMY VIETOR: It’s impressive. Last question for you, sort of a change in gears here. So, you know, we witnessed Iran's Green Revolution together from the White House in 2009. I asked President Obama about that period of time recently and the U.S. response, and he said it was a mistake to not do and say more at the time, or at least sort of, like put our values on the table front and center. Fast forward to today, I'm just sort of curious how you have felt watching this new iteration of this incredibly brave woman-led protest movement in Iran, and what you think countries can or should do to support them?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I mean, my first reaction is one of awe, of course, I think like most of ours, and just to the bravery. These women and young men know full well what the Iranian regime is capable of. I mean, that's been a galvanizing feature of the movement is these remarkable, young women, and again, young men who've been killed, asking just for basic rights and basic dignity. So, every day they go out on the streets, or every day they mark up a billboard with graffiti, or pour red paint into a fountain, or hold up a placard demanding something as basic as the ability to choose their own destiny. They know they're taking their lives into their own hands. And so, it's just when I think, again, of the luxury of the world that I grew up in, and the rights and the privileges that I have been blessed to be able to take advantage of – I mean, they're just looking for opportunity to be able to, again, carve their own own paths and not be dictated to, and muzzled, and stifled in their human flourishing and development. And so, that's incredible, but it's also heartbreaking Tommy, because the weight of the state there, as we've seen time and again – and this is not the first and is not – it's continuing now we are at 45 days, it does not seem at all to be petering out. If anything, more families are getting activated by what is being done to their loved ones, and being engaged by their sons and their daughters about the future that young people need and covet. But again, seeing the hammer come down on these innocent lives, and all the talent and joy that is being extinguished is also searing.
In terms of what we are doing, the effort to pinpoint those responsible actors – make their lives much more difficult, make the operations that they are conducting much more difficult, the sanctions against the morality police and others – Treasury's effort to make it easier for American companies, also to be able to ensure that young people have access to the technologies they need to be able to communicate with one another. Our sanctions were pretty restrictive. And so, opening that up, I think has been important. But Tommy, it's also striking the silence on the global stage. More countries need to be raising their voices. Iran is definitely outnumbered, and certainly marginalized at the United Nations, there's no question. But those countries that have leverage behind the scenes, some of whom have their own human rights challenges, and that's part of the issue, they duck this. One of the singular moral questions of our time, right, is whether young women, young people, again, get to grow and flourish on their own terms. And so, I think part of what we are doing as the United States is working through Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield and Secretary Blinken and others, but to try to broaden the coalition of countries that is, again, making clear that in this day and age, these kinds of actions to suppress such basic shows of freedom and dignity, have no place in this world. But, the more company the better, the more that that regime – which is already feeling, I think, unprecedented pressure from bottom up – but to feel that as well in the international system in a much more intense way, I think can be important.
TOMMY VIETOR: That’s a really good point. Administrator Power, thank you so much for helping us understand what's going on. We appreciate it. It's great to see you, hope to see you in person soon.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: That would be wonderful, Tommy.
TOMMY VIETOR: Maybe come and visit in D.C., we can run around, I don't know. We'll figure it out.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: You are on the road, increasingly, which is wonderful for the masses. So, we're glad to see you guys back out there. Yeah, it's wonderful.
TOMMY VIETOR: All right, well, travel safe. See you soon.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you.