RANEEM BOU KHZAM: So, Administrator Power, thank you for taking the time to do this interview today.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Delighted to be here.
RANEEM BOU KHZAM: First of all, what was the purpose of your trip to Lebanon this week?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, it’s no secret here and it’s no secret around the world, how difficult times have been for the Lebanese people lately, especially with the electricity blackouts, the fuel prices, the food prices. I want to show solidarity, and to show up and say and show that America cares. I think we say it a lot, but I brought an additional commitment of about $72 million in humanitarian assistance, which I hope will help the Lebanese people, as well as some of the refugees who have been generously welcomed here. But, I also am going to talk later today with senior government officials as well, because the political paralysis doesn’t help. You’re not going to see the kinds of deep economic reforms that are needed to unlock additional investment, here, in Lebanon unless and until, there’s a government and so, politicians need to move much more quickly to put the people first.
RANEEM BOU KHZAM: Has it been what you expected?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I think there’s nothing like – even talking to USAID’s own Lebanese staff and hear about how they invested faithfully in their pensions over the years, and now the pensions are worth nothing – next to nothing. These are people who gave everything to support their communities and so, those kinds of things really hit home. I traveled, my first night here, to the National Museum to see the incredible history of Lebanon. How can I come to Lebanon and not do that? And to hear that there are real fears about some of the artifacts in the collection. Those, for example, that are made of bronze – that they might rust because you can’t do temperature control adequately when electricity is flickering in and out, and you have to rely on generators and erratic temperature control. There are fewer security guards. What does that mean for an institution like that one? So, just – everywhere you go, every person you talk to, everything you touch – even as a visitor, you get a sense of just how severe this crisis has been for people.
RANEEM BOU KHZAM: Sadly. One of the largest announcements you made during your visit here was related to food assistance, but as we sit here at the port and we look around, the need for additional international support to continue the critical provision of grain is obvious. So, what is the U.S. doing to ensure Lebanon's continued access to necessary staple goods?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, first, we're joining with countries like Lebanon in pressing the Russian Federation to sustain a deal that should never have been necessary. Grain should never have been blocked. When you have a country like Lebanon that is already vulnerable with the pandemic, with the economic collapse, and where 81 percent of its wheat comes from Ukraine – that grain should always have been able to flow. So, mercifully, there has been a deal struck by the United Nations and Turkey to get that grain moving again, but every day there is a new threat. People are reading Putin's body language to know, will he keep it up? Will he not renew it? This has to be non-negotiable, and it's one thing for the United States, which, of course, is raising its voice and providing support to Ukraine because of the war generally, but countries from the global south who cannot afford to see food weaponized in the way that Putin has weaponized it – raising their voices as well. Hearing from the Lebanese Ambassador to the United Nations, hearing from the Lebanese Prime Minister, where Russia is hearing from everybody how much this mattered, what the human consequences would be if further blockages. I think that's really, really important.
And then we, as USAID, we're so blessed and privileged to be able to work here in partnership with the Lebanese. Not only to provide this emergency assistance – that’s important. We know how many Lebanese are now dependent on food assistance. People who never dreamed of taking assistance in their lives – never wanted ever to have to depend on anybody. But, we also have to make investments in food security resilience, because with the pandemic, climate change, now Putin, you never know what the next shock is going to be, and Lebanon is very dependent on imports. So, one of the things I did yesterday is go to one of our food security projects, where we are trying to invest in Lebanon's own production of animal feed so that it doesn't have to pay the high prices of animal feed coming from outside when those prices are much higher, but can actually, create jobs and produce animal feed locally, which those who raise livestock here and are dairy farmers – where they can depend on local production. There needs to be much more local production and we think that there is the human capital, the innovation, the resilience here in the spirit of the people that, with just a little nudge, a little catalytic investment, those industries can be unlocked, and USAID wants to be a part of that.
RANEEM BOU KHZAM: Stemming from Lebanon's problems is important, but even more important is setting a strong foundation for the country's self-improvement, if I may say. How can the U.S. partner with us to chart a more positive path for Lebanon's future?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, there aren't a lot of bright spots right now, I know, for Lebanese who are struggling just to make ends meet day to day and to feed their families and heading into a winter that could be very difficult and with ongoing fuel crises – this is a very difficult time. But I do think, in the maritime agreement that was just agreed upon, you see the kinds of ingredients that lie behind success, and that will not pay instant economic dividends for the people of this country, I recognize. And I know people have needs right now, but the patience and the relentlessness around that diplomatic effort – many, many times in the years leading up to that agreement, people thought, "This will never happen." And yet, because Lebanese stayed in those negotiations, along with their Israeli counterparts, and because the United States also never gave up and invested diplomatic capital, and I hope, you know, it played a constructive role behind the scenes – now that agreement was made possible. We need similar ingredients when it comes to, for example, the long list of reforms that the IMF has said are needed in order to unlock three billion dollars of support at a time when it could not be more urgent. But, beyond the IMF reforms, judicial independence. You know, as you said, the path to self-improvement is going to lie in a path to ending corruption, and where there is accountability when there is mismanagement and malfeasance that costs livelihoods, and in the case of the port explosion, took lives. So many lives, needlessly. But that is going to lie in judicial independence, in a much stronger rule of law, in real accountability – so in a set of reforms that lie, even apart, from those that the IMF has already reached nominal agreement on.
RANEEM BOU KHZAM: Do you have sufficient partners in the government here to move these plans forward?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think there are steps that even a caretaker government can be taking – needs to be taking, needs to be acting with urgency – but at the same time, permanent leadership and structures are needed. We all, in our personal lives, know how we act when we know we are sticking around, and how we act when we know somebody else is coming in to do our jobs for us. Right?
RANEEM BOU KHZAM: There is accountability.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: And exactly. When we are going to be accountable to the people for our performance, and right now, when there is no president, when the politicians have not been able to come together to reach an agreement on something so fundamental, so foundational. When I arrived in Lebanon a couple days ago, at the airport I was in the area waiting for my passport, and there was the picture frame where, in every country when you arrive, there's a picture frame – including the United States – in many facilities, maybe, of a leader. And certainly, all around the world, we see the – and had I come to Lebanon before the end of October, I would've seen a picture of the president. But now, I arrive – the picture frame is empty. What signal does that send, also, to the kinds of investors that USAID is trying to get excited about coming back to Lebanon? It doesn't send the right signal. And to have a caretaker cabinet is better, I suppose, than having no cabinet, but having, again, permanent leadership – all of that has to happen in order for the country to truly get on a sustainable economic recovery path.
RANEEM BOU KHZAM: How does the U.S. government balance support for Syrian and Palestinian refugees with support directly to Lebanese citizens?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, the first thing we have to do at every opportunity is thank the Lebanese people for the welcome that they have given Syrian refugees. It has not been easy on communities. I was, yesterday, in a community in west Beqaa, where the town I was in, the original Lebanese population was about 20 – 25,000 inhabitants. Now, there are 30,000 Syrian refugees on top of that. We know the strain that that provides on the community, on the schools, on the health system, and one of the projects that we have initiated we think will also help ease some of the tensions between the populations because there's tension over water, and one of the projects that I launched yesterday was a new solar project – new solar installation that has now made water free for the inhabitants of the town in west Beqaa, and makes electricity available to populations that, otherwise, were lacking in. So, we, as a donor community, can't just give words. We have to show up with assistance – humanitarian assistance, of course, for the refugees and the host communities that are hosting them, but also for Lebanese that may not be in those so-called host communities – Lebanese that are just struggling as well. I think if Lebanese see the food assistance is only going to refugees or to host communities, that would make it seem like we care about one population over another. And so, part of the assistance that I've launched on this visit is to go to Lebanese families who themselves, now find themselves needing to work with the World Food Programme and other organizations that have been very focused on refugees and refugee-hosting communities but now have to broaden the focus to vulnerable Lebanese.
RANEEM BOU KHZAM: You mentioned the energy crisis. What is USAID and the larger U.S. government doing to improve Lebanon's access to electricity?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I mentioned that there aren't a lot of bright spots now. The maritime agreement was a bright spot for diplomacy and will have a lasting impact, I hope, on the economic fortunes and on peace in the region, but another bright spot, really, is what is happening with solar in this country. I must say, one of the things you asked what surprised me earlier and I gave you some of the sadder aspects of feeling the pain that is so prevalent in this country in light of everything that has happened in these last years, but one source of hope and optimism is the spread of solar, and they say – I don't know if you have an expression here in Arabic that is the same, but we say in English, "Necessity is the mother of invention."
RANEEM BOU KHZAM: Alhajat ‘ami al’iikhtirae
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Okay. So, necessity is the mother of invention. The energy crisis, the energy needs are causing communities to rise up and ask for solar investment. I announced 22 new solar projects that USAID will be funding on top of the 41 that we have already made happen in the last few years – this is a chance to end energy poverty. Some of these communities aren't, you know – even when things are going better economically in Lebanon – aren't enjoying proper access to electricity or to energy, but with solar, we can leapfrog so many of the phases of development that other communities have had to go through. So, USAID is very, very excited about the possibilities there, and I think, the more we can get the private sector excited, as well, to see that there will be a return on investment – the more we are going to see a thousand flowers blooming across the country in solar and other renewables.
RANEEM BOU KHZAM: Do you have any parting thoughts you would like to share, and when will you come back?
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I've been hearing about Lebanon for much of my life. My parents visited here when they were in their youth and sung the praises of the natural beauty and the hospitality of the people. I guess, my main parting thought is that you cannot bet against Lebanon, no matter how dark things can feel, because you cannot bet against the Lebanese people. The talent, the spirit, the fight of the people here – all that is missing right now is the ability to unlock that, and we really do need the politicians to do their job and put the people first, because the people will do the rest. The human capital is here like almost no other country on the earth. Certainly almost none of the countries where USAID works – you have this kind of education base, this kind of human capital, this determination to get on a better footing, and so I know when I do visit again that it is going to be in a brighter time for Lebanon, because the people will insist on it.
RANEEM BOU KHZAM: Thank you so much for your time.
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you.