Administrator Samantha Power On A New Vision for Global Development

Speeches Shim

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Georgetown University
Washington, DC

 
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much. Thank you. To be together, I don’t know that I fully appreciated how much I missed this. And to be in a classroom with students, particularly students of this incredible institution. Thank you Dean Hellman, for hosting us today and for your inspiring remarks. I really cannot overstate the impact that this school has had on America’s foreign policy and global impact, and I’m honored to address the young people who fill its halls.

Thank you so much, Liz, for that introduction, and for the longtime support and advocacy of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. When you first started this coalition, Liz, the United States Agency for International Development, battered by budget cuts, was arguably on the verge of extinction. We may not have had a 50th anniversary, let alone a 60th, without the work you and so many others did to rally our nation’s diplomatic corps, our military, our private sector, our nonprofits, and the general public in building broad bipartisan support for our mission and our funding.

Because, if we are going to eliminate COVID-19 and head off the next pandemic, if we are going to slow climate change and build the clean industries of the future, if we are going to reverse the decline in democracy we’ve witnessed for 15 straight years and carry freedom forward, then we need more than a big budget. We need a big tent.

In 1951, a young congressman had just returned to his Georgetown home, just blocks from this auditorium, after a seven-week whirlwind tour around the world. Prior to this man's trip through the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and East and Southeast Asia, he had been dismissed by many as a lightweight, with little to contribute in the world of foreign affairs.

But on his travels, this young congressman saw nationalist movements and struggles for independence taking hold. And time and again, he saw the United States backing its Western allies and their colonial ambitions at the expense of people’s aspirations.

He came away convinced that America needed a foreign policy rooted more in its values and more in listening to what people in the rest of the world actually wanted for themselves. In a radio address after his trip, he argued that the answers to the ills of the world lay in America’s own foundations: “its realization of the right of others to the independence that we cherish,” and “its passionate belief that man can deal effectively with his enemies, such as poverty and want.”

America needed to energize its approach to the world with fresh ideas and widespread participation. “Foreign policy,” he said, “is too important to all of us to leave it to the experts and the diplomats.”

His remarks were widely dismissed. His ideas were rejected as naive. His own father responded in a radio address where he ridiculed his son’s idea that America needed a new approach.

But ten years later, John F. Kennedy would become President of the United States, and in an executive order signed on November 3, 1961— six decades ago, this week—he would found USAID, and cement his belief in a world in which America extended its hand to those in need and when it did so, that world would be freer, healthier, more peaceful and more prosperous.

Across 60 years, USAID has been a remarkable force for progress in the world. We have helped nations eradicate smallpox, turn the tide against HIV, Malaria, and Tuberculosis and snuff out Ebola. We’ve helped billions—billions, escape fates of near-feudal poverty and deprivation, and helped transform societies from conditions of scarcity to abundance. We’ve responded to more than 2,900 disasters. And we’ve backed democratic transitions or supported elections in nearly 90 countries since the end of the Cold War alone, among many, many other accomplishments. It’s a phenomenal legacy, beyond what anyone might have imagined 60 years ago.

Yet, as USAID’s footprint and mission grew, and the demands on our workforce expanded, the Agency was forced to transition from undertaking projects directly with local communities to managing implementing partners; mounting paperwork meant less direct engagement. The Agency faced frequent political headwinds, its funding and staffing were frequently scrutinized and slimmed down, and its authorities were splintered during bureaucratic turf wars, even as its responsibilities surged in tackling a growing number of crises around the globe.

Like any institution buffeted by outside forces, it turned inward. USAID relied over time on fewer partners to execute its programs. It recruited from the same handful of schools —Georgetown, but not Howard; Johns Hopkins, but not Florida International. And despite its track record of inspiring results, most Americans didn’t know much about it or what it was up to.

Yet, never before have our fates been so intertwined with those of people around the world. The foreign policy community as you all know here, has been saying for decades that problems cross borders—we used to call them problems without passports—problems without borders, what happens abroad matters here at home—and though people understand that rationally—today it isn’t just an intellectual argument, it is a felt, lived experience.

It is losing our friends and loved ones, our grandparents and colleagues, to a disease that originated half-way around the world and forever altered the global economy. It is almost three centuries of carbon pollution leading to storms that flood our streets and subways, fires that darken our skies, deep freezes that break our pipes, and droughts that turn our farmlands to dust. It is oligarchs who raise our housing costs by buying up properties with laundered money, foreign hackers who infect our computers with ransomware, and autocrats who try to manipulate our elections and spread disinformation to sow division in our society.

But we must do more than simply argue the importance of international development to our lives here at home. We must also work to change international development. As John F. Kennedy said, we cannot leave it up to the experts and the diplomats. We must offer people, not a vision merely of international development but a vision of inclusive development.

I mean that in three ways: First, we have to broaden our coalition to allow people from more diverse backgrounds and partners of all kinds to participate in our mission. We must make aid more accessible. Second, we must shift our thinking to be more focused on the voices and needs of the most marginalized. We must make aid more equitable. And third, in confronting some of the biggest challenges of our time—COVID-19, climate change, growing authoritarianism—we must listen to what our partners in the countries where we work are asking of us. We must make aid more responsive.

These are the changes that I will prioritize during my tenure at USAID. So, first—this involves you all—we will need help.

Over several years, USAID’s workforce has been sorely depleted, and our current numbers of Civil Service and Foreign Service staff are well short of our needs, even as global conflicts are lasting longer, development needs are accelerating, and the number of complex emergencies we deal with each year has ballooned in the past 20 years from 16 to 44. As a result, USAID has created unsustainable workarounds to fill staffing shortfalls—some 90 percent of our positions in our Global Health, Humanitarian Assistance, and Conflict Prevention and Stabilization bureaus are on short-term contracts.

To this end, we will seek to increase our career workforce over the next four years. To build a brighter future, we need to staff our Agency for the future. But this means staffing up differently than we have in the past.

Today, Hispanic and Indigenous staff and persons with disabilities, for example, are significantly underrepresented at USAID. While the percentages are somewhat more representative with regards to Asian, Black and African American staff, they, like all people of color at USAID, are significantly underrepresented in senior positions and policy and technical roles.

If we want an Agency that reflects the best of what America has to offer—all our dynamism, all our fresh perspectives, all our best thinking—then we must prioritize the hiring and retention of staff that look like America.

Since joining USAID, I have been the beneficiary of tireless work that our career staff undertook to devise a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion strategy. Because of their groundwork, I was able to sign that strategy on my first day in office, and was privileged to host our first-ever Historically Black Colleges and Universities recruiting conference, followed by our first ever Hispanic-Serving Institution recruiting event.

Going forward, we will aim to increase our budget for paid internships by nearly 700 percent, to more than $4.5 million, because we know that unpaid internships can be a barrier to entry for candidates from underrepresented communities.

In partnership with Howard University, we plan to double the number of Donald M. Payne Fellowships, which help Fellows pay for two years of graduate school before receiving foreign service appointments at USAID—and I’m so excited to sit down with one of our incoming Payne Fellows, Katryna Mahoney after my speech.

Our most recent class of Foreign Service Officers is our most diverse class ever, and as we staff up, we’ve got to break that record year-after-year.

But recruiting diverse candidates into public service is only half the battle—we also want to retain them by creating the kind of welcoming, nurturing environment they deserve and supporting their opportunities to grow and thrive. For the first time, USAID will bring on board a Chief Diversity Officer who will report directly to me and help us hold ourselves accountable to these goals.

I will prioritize equity among our staff—regardless of whether they are hired as Foreign Service Officers, Civil Servants, locally-hired Foreign Service Nationals, or third-party contractors. Our contract staff, who I alluded to earlier, often dispatched to some of the world’s most dangerous places, deserve basic benefits like retirement accounts, parental leave, and health and life insurance. And our locally-hired Foreign Service National staff are the heart and soul of our Missions overseas. They provide continuity for our work as American staff rotate through, and are leading experts across a wide range of USAID priorities. Yet currently their opportunities for advancement are capped and their benefits are inequitable compared to their American peers. We are committed to opening up new pathways for growth and development for our locally employed staff, our Foreign Service Nationals commensurate with their experience and expertise.

In addition to making USAID more accessible in terms of who joins our ranks, we also want to vastly expand the groups with whom we partner, especially the private sector if we hope to make a sustainable difference.

USAID currently has 750 active private sector partnerships today worth about $60 billion, and for every public dollar we put forward, we’re typically able to leverage $6 of private money.

We’ve done this to enlist Coca-Cola, for example, to bring its logistics expertise—you literally can buy a Coke anywhere in the world—to move medicines across Africa. We have partnered with Keurig and Starbucks to support coffee farmers throughout the world. We have worked with Google to build fiber optic cable in Liberia.

But these projects tend to be one-offs, rather than being taken to scale globally; they're often too slow, we are often really too slow, and too bureaucratic for all but the most patient partners; and they ask too little of our business partners, seeking support for a project but not enlisting their help in pushing for broader reforms.

So today, I’m pleased to announce we intend to launch a centralized, flexible fund devoted to private sector engagement. Coupled with critical bureaucratic reforms, this will allow us to be far more nimble and strategic in mobilizing businesses around the world to advance our core priorities -- such as advancing women's participation in the economy.

To make it easier for America’s vibrant small businesses, NGOs, faith-based organizations, minority-serving institutions, diaspora groups and foundations to partner with USAID, today we’re also launching WorkWithUsaid.org. That site is our new welcome mat—a one-stop shop that let’s any organization know exactly how to pursue USAID partnerships, including, for example, online courses that will help you bid for our awards.

It is crucial that we engage more frequently and more intensely and sustainably with the broader range of partners that I mentioned, as they offer a scale that no single development agency can truly reach. So we have to lower barriers for these kinds of organizations and institutions to join our mission.

Now that’s especially true of the local organizations and companies based in the countries in which we work. When we partner with these local NGOs and businesses, we have an opportunity to double our impact—to not just manage a project and deliver results, which is important, but to grow the local capacity of that business or organization so its impact will be sustained long after its relationship with USAID ends.

Yet, in the last decade, despite numerous efforts, initiatives, and even support from Capitol Hill, the amount of USAID dollars going to local partners increased only from four percent to six percent. As recently as 2017, 60 percent of our assistance was awarded to just 25 partners. This is because, a number of reasons, it’s largely because working with local partners, it turns out, is more difficult, time-consuming, and it’s riskier. Local partners often lack the internal accounting expertise our contracts require, or they might lack the legal counsel needed to shape their contracts, many of which can run hundreds of pages long. So, clearly this status quo, as in the percentages that illustrate this, is tough to shift. There is a lot of gravity pulling in the opposite direction. But we have got to try.

Moving forward, we are going to provide at least a quarter of all our funds directly to local partners within the course of the next four years. To support the burden, and the burden is real, this will place on our missions, we will expand our capacity to issue and manage awards across the Agency, and expand the authorization for our Foreign Service Nationals, our locally-employed staff, to play a larger role in awarding and managing assistance.

We’re going to begin this effort here in our own hemisphere. Today, I’m pleased to announce the launch of our new Centroamérica Local initiative, through which we intend to devote $300 million dollars to work directly with local organizations in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to create locally-driven, sustainable progress over the next five years.

That last effort is so crucial, and brings me to my second point: If we truly want to make aid inclusive, local voices need to be at the center of everything we do.

We‘ve got to tap into the knowledge of local communities, and their lived-experiences. Otherwise, we risk reinforcing the systemic inequities that are already in place.

As Americans with a fraught history living up to our own values, we’ve got to approach this work with intention and humility. But the entire development community needs to interrogate the traditional power dynamics of donor-driven development and look for ways to amplify the local voices of those who too often have been left out of the conversation.

At USAID, in addition to a 25 percent target of our assistance going to local partners, today I’m announcing that by the end of the decade, 50 percent of our programming, at least half of every dollar we spend, will need to place local communities in the lead to either co-design a project, set priorities, drive implementation, or evaluate the impact of our programs.

We are also taking steps to strengthen the Inclusive Development office that we opened last year. In addition to our 50 percent local voices target, which I just mentioned, we are going to keep pushing forward with changes that will enable our staff to better focus our programs so they reach women and girls, and marginalized groups including Indigenous communities; LGBTQI people; persons with disabilities; and racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.

Today, very few of our Missions have a staff member focused on the specific challenges facing marginalized groups in a particular country. Going forward, we want every Mission to have a dedicated Foreign Service Officer whose primary focus is gender equality and inclusive development. That person will help us institutionalize this work and make a focus on aid equity not just someone’s intention but an important part of someone’s career.

When it comes to empowering women and girls—an investment that pays huge economic and security dividends—I plan to ask every bureau to at least double the percentage of their work that advances gender equality and report to me regularly about these efforts.

Finally, we want to make sure that we are deploying the latest insights in economics and behavioral science to make sure our programs have the impact on underserved communities that we truly intend for them to have.

Let me give you an example here, one of the biggest barriers that we face in trying to prevent HIV/AIDS around the world is social stigma. Women make up more than half the people living with HIV, but even though we now have pills that can prevent HIV infections before they happen, behavioral research demonstrated that taking preventive medication still carried with it the impression of illness. Still carried that stigma.

Now, rationally, if you’re thinking about rational man on whom public policy was predicated for generations, we would expect that people who need life-saving drugs—or, say, a vaccine—will take them. But as I hope we all know by now, we can’t assume that we know how people will behave and we can’t assume what works in one culture will easily work in another. To understand human behavior, we need concrete data, not intuitions or assumptions.

By actually engaging with the young women at risk of HIV-infections and hearing from them, we actually were able to redesign and rebrand the preventive medication. Instead of a pill bottle, it now comes in a container that looks like lip gloss. We are now saving lives, because we listened.

This is the core premise of behavioral science: that to make progress, we have to understand human behavior, gathering and applying evidence from the communities we serve.

And to deploy this kind of analysis in our program design, as well as to help us integrate insights from randomized control trials and other empirical assessments of potential programs, I intend to establish a new Office of Behavioral Science and Experimental Economics that will report to a new, elevated and expanded Chief Economist—a position your chair here at Georgetown, Steve Radelet, once held. And he’s cheering so I must be on the right track, I hope I’m on the right track.

So, here we go, we will make aid more accessible to people and organizations who want to participate. We will make it more equitable in terms of the impact it will have on the ground. But when I say we need to make aid inclusive, I also mean we need to listen to what our partner nations actually want.

Across all of our programming, we have a real opportunity to make our aid more responsive. Let me illustrate if I could, using three of the biggest challenges we face today—COVID-19, Climate Change, and the rise of corrupt autocracies.

On COVID-19, clearly we’ve heard that our partners want vaccines. Thanks to President Biden’s global commitment to become the world’s arsenal of vaccines, we are racing to deliver more than a billion doses of the Pfizer vaccine, as well as 200 million surplus domestic doses, to low- and lower-middle income countries, while pressing other countries to step up with their own vaccine donations.

Yet, the vast majority of these vaccines are produced by the world’s largest economies, even though the vast majority of need, not just on COVID but on disease generally, is in developing countries, making this gap one of the starkest problems poor countries have faced during the pandemic, and a risk to future global health and future global health equity. Well before the pandemic showcased this challenge, the entire continent of Africa, home to over 1.2 billion people, produced only one percent of the vaccines that the people in the continent consumed.

Countries don’t want to depend on others for vaccines any more than they want to depend on us for foreign assistance. That is why the United States is already working to significantly bolster vaccine manufacturing capacity abroad, in countries like India and South Africa, and looking to do far more. This will not only bring hundreds of millions of vaccine doses directly to the markets that need them most, but allow developing countries to respond more quickly and effectively to their own health needs.

We will also continue to use this global COVID-19 vaccine push to strengthen health systems in partner countries—strengthening cold chains, supporting the health workforce, and improving health information management. We have to get shots in arms today, we know, but we should do it in such a way that leaves countries better positioned to treat their populations tomorrow.

To that end, alongside our efforts to increase the supply of COVID-19 vaccines and strengthen local health systems, we will work with countries around the world to develop the global, regional and country-level capabilities needed to meet future pandemic threats. As part of this effort, we are doubling the number of partner countries we will support in preventing and detecting pandemic threats. And after receiving countless cries for help from countries in crisis during this pandemic, we are establishing a new and dedicated USAID emergency response unit to lead on infectious disease outbreaks, including by facilitating rapid surge capacity when an outbreak occurs.

With climate change, earlier this week, President Biden was in Glasgow where he cemented the U.S.’ ambitions to cut our carbon pollution in half by 2030, and reach net-zero by 2050. And we are on the verge of the largest legislative effort we have ever seen to make clean energy cheaper at home, create hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs, make our air and water cleaner, and advance the cause of environmental justice.

But environmental justice does not end at our shores. Poor countries, those that had the least to do with a changing climate but the most to lose in experiencing its effects, are asking for our help. As a wealthy nation, responsible for much of the carbon pollution currently in our atmosphere, we bear a special responsibility to help poorer nations with little emissions of their own, manage the worst impacts of a warming planet.

Later tonight, I am going to fly to Glasgow as it happens to support a major initiative President Biden announced to do just that: the President’s Emergency Plan for Adaptation or Resilience, or PREPARE. Together with the support of Congress, the U.S. government is requesting $3 billion annually for something poor countries have been asking us for—funds to help in some of the most vulnerable countries brace for a changing climate. We will help support more than 500 million people to adapt to climate change through efforts like scaling drought-tolerant agriculture, establishing early-warning systems for storms, and creating new insurance schemes that can support people when their harvests fail or livestock perish.

And finally when it comes to the imperiled state of democracy around the world, we must listen to those brave activisists, protestors, and journalists who are crying out for respect for human rights and appealing for our support.

JFK’s remark that the most powerful force in the world is humankind’s eternal desire to be free and independent is as true today as it was back then. Though we have seen democracies wither, and militaries steal power away from civilians in Guinea, in Burma, and most recently in Sudan progressive reform movements all around the world are working every day to show that democracy delivers.

In Zambia, Moldova, and nearby in the Dominican Republic, for example, we have seen landslide victories for elected leaders who campaigned on strengthening democracy, embracing the rule of law and fighting corruption. What we and other democracies need to do is show up—show up and help leaders show tangible benefits as they move towards freedom, more respect for human rights, and more accountability for democratic institutions.

Established democracies also need to help set global rules-of-the-road for surveillance technologies and digital disinformation as autocrats grow savvier in their attempts to control and manipulate people. We need to help support a free-and-fair global press to hold leaders to account. And we need to tackle, with all the seriousness it demands, the scourge of global corruption.

Corruption is basically development in reverse. It harms long-term economic development, scares away private sector investment, deepens inequality, and even harms the environment as a result of illicit logging, fishing, and polluting. It also disproportionately harms the most marginalized in a society; it is actually fully inclusive in its malignancy.

It also goes hand-in-hand with autocracy, fueling it, because it turns out those who centralize power, centralize wealth. And when it is exposed, it can elicit fury and drive people to the streets like few other issues. Of the record number of protests around the world in 2019, before the pandemic, more than half were protests against corruption and six led to changes in government.

President Biden has already announced bold new steps to combat corruption and shutter tax havens. And we will launch several initiatives to strengthen democracy and fight corruption at this December’s Summit for Democracy.

But today, I’m pleased to announce an initiative that responds to a request from a group of independent journalists I met with during my very first week at USAID. It turns out that autocrats and oligarchs often employ a crude but effective tactic to kill stories they don’t like: they sue reporters until those reporters abandon stories or go out of business.

As a result, we are launching a global Defamation Defense Fund to protect journalists against lawsuits that are designed to deter them from doing their work. We will offer them courage to survive coverage —excuse me I hope courage as well but they don’t need any courage these journalists—to survive defamation claims or deter autocrats and oligarchs from trying to sue them out of business in the first place. To counter the ever-changing threats to democracy, because they’re evolving, we depend on this sort of innovation. And it is the people on the frontlines who know best how we can support them.

We all remember JFK’s iconic line from his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” We can all recite that pretty much from memory. But do any of us know what Kennedy was asking of us?

It was not, actually as it may sound, a call for local volunteerism and domestic renewal, in fact, Kennedy was asking for Americans to commit themselves to global action—to struggle against “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

It was a vision of international development, offered not in some proclamation or barely-read policy directive, but in the most widely-watched speech President Kennedy would ever give. He spoke about foreign assistance because he wanted Americans to be proud of the role they were playing in tackling the world’s greatest challenges.

Today, Americans should know that for 60 years, USAID assembled some of the brightest, most dedicated, and most effective public servants in the world, and they can take pride in the impact American generosity is having on people in need around the world.

That is the Agency I feel so privileged to run, that is the Agency that I am excited to further unleash—not just as an Agency for International Development, but as an Agency for inclusive development. Inclusive of this country’s diverse talent and dynamic private sector; inclusive of the voices of those whom we are privileged to serve alongside; tackling problems abroad in a way that is responsive to our partners, that will save lives, and that will advance American interests and values.

Thank you.

Last updated: November 26, 2021

Share This Page