Press Briefing by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, USAID Administrator Dr. Raj Shah, Special Assistant to the President for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights Samantha Power, and Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra

Saturday, November 6, 2010

MR. CHANG: Good evening, everyone. Thanks for coming. Thanks for waiting. I want to kick off this briefing on tomorrow's expos as St. Xavier College. Briefing you tonight on the agriculture and food security expo will be Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and USAID Administrator Raj Shah. And after that, to brief you on the Expo For Democracy and Open Government, our Special Assistant to the President for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, Samantha Power, and Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra.

Both initiatives build on the themes of innovation technology and collaboration and partnership that define the evolving U.S.-India bilateral relationship, and frankly, they're just very cool.

So, without further ado, I'll turn this briefing over to them, and simply note that there will be some factsheets on each expo hitting your in-boxes momentarily. Thanks very much.

SECRETARY VILSACK: Earlier this afternoon I had a chance to sit down with representatives from a number of major American corporations that have business interests in India, Pioneer Seed, John Deere, Ingersoll Rand and PepsiCo Company. That meeting allowed me to understand fully and completely the importance of partnership between the United States and India, and the fact that we have had a partnership that has been built on in collaboration -- serious technical and research collaboration and a good trading relationship.

During the course of that conversation it became clear to me technology is absolutely and essential to increasing the productivity of Indian farmers, allowing them to be more profitable, which, in turn, will allow them to continue to maintain food security in this country.

The lessons that are being learned in India in relationship to technology are also applicable to the United States. We're in the process of diversifying agriculture in the United States and part of our diversification effort is to create a more local food system opportunity where we better connect local food producers with local consumers. So as we learn about irrigation systems, as we learn about low-cost farm machinery, as we learn here in India efforts to extend technology in a low-cost way but an effective way, those lessons can be applied to the United States.

So I'm looking forward to the opportunity to visit tomorrow the expo because I recognize that we're going to see examples of increased productivity opportunities here in India which obviously create new opportunities here, but also can be instructive in the United States. And between the two countries, as we learn about these local food systems and the use of technology, it can be applicable by both countries to other countries -- specifically in Africa, where we are challenged with serious food security issues.

Working, again, in partnership and collaboration, I look forward to visiting with folks at the expo.

We have a partnership at USDA also with USAID, and I'll turn it over to Raj Shah to talk a little bit more about that partnership and the expo.

MR. SHAH: Thank you. Tomorrow's expo is a really exciting opportunity for myself and the Secretary of Agriculture to visit with so many of the innovators in the private sector, the public sector, and representing international collaborations between institutions in the United States and India that are transforming agriculture here in India and have the potential to transform agriculture and food security around the world.

I'd like to share with you a few of the elements of what we might see and experience tomorrow, to give you a flavor for that. First, a number of the partners will represent the fundamental power of science and technology to transform the way the world produces food and to address some of the chronic malnutrition and hunger issues that still exist in a world where nearly a billion people go to bed hungry every night.

We'll see improved seed varieties that are developed in partnerships between the United States companies and relevant partners and academic institutions here in India and elsewhere in the world. We'll have the chance to see a cereal grains project, on rice in particular, that's helping India develop climate -- developed and agricultural system that can withstand hot or drier and more erratic growing environments, with an effort to reach nearly 6 million small-holder farmers with improved seed varieties to protect their incomes and their ability to provide for their families.

We'll have a chance to see a number of interesting innovations in agricultural extension and marketing. And as the Secretary mentions, we believe many of these things are things the United States could learn from in our own system and also will have applicability around the world -- in Africa and Asia and really everywhere.

We'll visit with partners who are creating local kiosks in villages that are computer-enabled and allow farmers to access market prices and do a better job of negotiating with ultimate buyers, and in creating market efficiencies, improve their own incomes by 10, 20, 30 percent.

We'll visit with innovative projects like Digital Green, which is an effort created by a local nonprofit organization that's helping farmers communicate with each other through video and Internet connectivity. And we'll visit with mobile phone-based solutions where so many Indian farmers have mobile connections and have cell phones and they can get much more information for everything ranging from weather forecasts to crop pricing to agronomic trends and advice through their mobile phone.

Finally, we'll see a number of efforts that are geared specifically towards women, because we know that in this country, as in so many places around the world, most small-holder production agriculture still relies a great deal on the labors and efforts of women.

And our President has had a very strong commitment from his inaugural address on to the first G20 meeting where he announced the United States' commitment to food security and addressing food security around the world. The partnership that we are restarting and expanding on here in India is really emblematic of a partnership where two peer nations work side by side to develop the kinds of innovations and solutions that can help improve the lives for hundreds of millions of people here in India, but also improve the lives for hundreds of millions of people in Africa and even in the United States.

Thank you.

MS. POWER: So, switching topics only so slightly to a different arena for innovation, Democracy and Open Government, an innovation expo in those realms. President Obama, back in September, when he spoke to the heads of state gathered at the U.N. General Assembly, celebrated the importance of open economies, open societies, and open governments. And as he talked about open government, he hailed innovation that we and others are learning from -- that's occurring around the world to promote democratic accountability.

One of the countries that he had very much in mind when he spoke about this innovation around the world was India. In his speech he called on heads of state to return to the U.N. next September and to bring very specific commitments about what each of us could do to promote open society and open government, particularly to promote transparency, to fight corruption -- which the President from day one in office has referred to as a human rights violation. When corruption occurs; it's not merely something that drains assistance and makes government less efficient, it's also an affront to dignity, and he's referred to it as such.

Also specific commitments around energizing civic engagement, so how to bring citizens into collaboration and participatory relationships with governing structures. And finally, the importance of leveraging new technologies to promote open society and open government.

So these were some of the ideas that Obama spoke about in his address in September, and the ideas that are really taking hold in India almost like no country on Earth.

So tomorrow, what the President will do is drop into a roundtable and expo that will be cohosted by Aneesh Chopra, our Chief Technology Officer, myself, and Sam Pitroda, one of Prime Minister Singh's very close advisors on innovation and information. And he will stop into a number of booths. I thought, like Raj, that I would just highlight a few to give you a sense of what we mean when we talk about democracy, innovation and open government.

As many of you know, India has been at the forefront of an explosive right to information movement in which more than 2 million Indians -- since a right to information law was passed in 2005, more than 2 million Indians have actually filed right to information petitions in order to secure basic services.

In this sense, the right to information law here is quite distinct from the Freedom of Information Act in the United States, although they have some similarities. If the Freedom of Information Act is used by journalists and historians and NGOs, this right to information law is used by all of the above plus citizens who are seeking to find out where school uniforms have gone, how to retrieve their pensions, and to get an alignment between government expenditures and basic services -- to basically hold local authorities accountable.

Tomorrow the President will drop into a booth belonging to one Indian group that uses puppetry, street theater, folk art, in order to build up bottom-up demand for the right to information. The success of this law so far is because Indians around the country are taking it so seriously. And this law has been an inspiration to many, many countries around the world that are seeking also to enhance government accountability.

Another one of the booths that the President will likely drop by is ASHWAS , and this is a group that is testing water in order to test water quality around India, but is doing so in a kind of public ritual so that citizens from particular panchayats are gathered together, they see the water being tested and they see whether it comes up purple for high-quality water, or yellow for low-quality water. And again, because it's part of a public ritual, the public demand for accountability and for improvements in water purity is generated.

And, again, this is something that other countries around the world would be greatly inspired by and that I know the President looks to showcase.

And then, lastly, just for these purposes -- there will be about 10 booths, but just flagging one of the other very interesting expo demonstrations, the Association for Democratic Reforms, which has pressed for reforms in terms of electoral rules, whereby now candidates have to disclose their backgrounds in advance of appearing on party lists, and indeed, where technology is now being used such that citizens can type in the ZIP code where they will be voting and get the backgrounds of particular candidates right to their cell phones through SMS.

And this is very important because candidates who are under investigation or who have backgrounds that otherwise would not have been transparent to the voters are brought forth.

So these are just a few examples but I think tangibly show you that the innovation is not only in the use of technology but also in the approach. And these are best practices that many of these groups are eager to share beyond India's borders. And we will sit down again with these groups in advance of the President's visit and talk about the ways in which civil society partnerships can be forged not only between the United States and India but also between our two countries and other aspirants who seek democratic accountability abroad.

MR. SHAH: And just to round out today's pre-briefing, I thought I'd highlight three aspects of this Democracy and Open Government Expo and to provide more texture for you in preparation.

But first is to remind you that the President's commitment to open government began on his first full day in office. If you recall, the President issued a memorandum on open government and transparency that actually directed every federal agency to publish open government plans and to embody the principles of participatory democracy, of transparency and collaboration that have been the hallmark of our open government efforts.

Just a quick reminder of those examples: In our transparency realm, we launched a website called that began with roughly 47 datasets that were accessible not only the public in the general sense, but also to developers, because you put them up in what people in the computer industry would call machine-readable formats, so they could be accessed and used to build more creative and innovative applications.

That framework today exceeds over 250,000 datasets across every major domain, including Secretary Vilsack's work on agricultural information.

I would also like to highlight in the context of open government the President's commitment to tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit of the American people, it's that connection with people at the grassroots through websites like, which we launched in September of this year, to take the platform of open government into communities one by one.

It's a good segue therefore into my second point, which is that one of the featured booths for tomorrow will sit at the intersection of Democracy and Technology, and that is to symbolize what's happening at the grassroots level here in India. We'll be visiting via virtual connection with a village in Rajasthan through a video link that is part of a program in India called E Panchayat. The E Panchayat mission is to essentially empower the individuals in the most rural of rural communities so that they can not only get better access to citizen services -- that is making sure if they need to get a certified land record, or they need to get better prenatal care, or if they need to have some type of connection with their employment insurance or other benefits, that they can get them directly in their communities without having to travel 20, 30, 40 miles in many cases -- but also it's to improve the quality of information that's collected at the grassroots level, because these individuals, much like the water story that Samantha had shared, they'll be contributing the information about the performance of their community so that they can actually be more empowered to make change.

This E Panchayat demonstration will highlight a half a dozen individuals who have been using the system in Rajasthan since it was turned on in September of this past year, literally just about six to eight weeks ago, when I had the pleasure of visiting this as part of the tecnol delegation hosted by the State Department -- so literally in the last six to eight weeks. A number of individuals will come forward with their specific stories about how this has transformed their lives and they'll communicate those with us in the booth.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to highlight the fact that in the factsheet you will see that tomorrow's expo is really just the beginning of the formal launch of an open government dialogue that will be led by Sam Pitroda on the India side and myself on the United States side -- with two primary objectives. One is to ensure that we're taking advantage of all the intersections of technology and open government that you have just highlighted with Samantha's comments, so we can work together in these areas. But in addition, we've made a commitment to engage globally, so that as countries around the world are building up their versions of and they're engaging in their own ways to empower people in their communities, we're committing to find the opportunity to collaborate in a global context. And you'll see that referenced in the factsheet as well.

With that, I think the four of us are more than willing to take your questions and thoughts.

MR. CHANG: Any questions? Any questions?

Q It's a question about democracy. What -- the President has always been pushing the trade relationship and business relationship with India. What advantages does India have over other emerging powers in Asia because of its embrace of democracy in these new projects that it's taking on?

MS. POWER: One of the things owing to the President's leadership on open government and this agenda that he's laid out in his U.N. address, and beyond actually, in a number of bilateral dialogues that are already afoot, one of the things that we've been doing is really learning as a government just how rich the innovations are in a lot of emerging democracies, and indeed, in a lot of new democracies and transitional democracies. No one country has a monopoly on innovation in this space. And it's indeed quite inspiring to see how even with very few resources you can see how creative nongovernmental actors are, or indeed champions within government who are stepping forward and taking advantage of new technologies and so forth to try to enhance partnership or transparency.

So having said that, I still think India has a huge number of comparative advantages. I mean, for starters it has one of the most noble traditions in human history of bottom-up change and bottom-up activism. I mean, the whole history of modern India is rooted in what you might call the original “Yes, we can” with Mr. Gandhi and the movement that he created and the billions of people that he inspired around the world, one of whom, as the President said today, was Martin Luther King, without whom, arguably, we wouldn't be where we are in my own country.

So this tradition of bottom-up change, of citizen demand the quality of demand that one encounters out in the most rural areas and some of the most impoverished areas here, even among people who haven't yet acquired literacy in their communities. That quality of demand is a very distinct feature of the Indian democratic journey that they are on.

The fact that all of this coexists with this explosion in technology and the kind of innovation that applies not only in the democratic space, but in the corporate space, in the agricultural space -- it's not often you see these two, again, dynamic, explosive trends coexisting.

The last thing I would say is that I think in the realm of elections, India has a huge amount to contribute, as well. I read a statistic here recently that India has trained something like 700 million poll workers over time, just the sheer act of monitoring elections out in the panchayats and in the sub-panchayat areas, just the number of people who have expertise on democracy. And now through the right to information, through democratic accountability and holding government accountable -- both, again, at the poll, but also in these other ways. Again, that's an incredibly valuable tool kit.

And a number of countries are seeking assistance in election monitoring. I think India has been very responsive to the requests that it has received. And I suspect those partnerships in that space will continue.

India also, lastly, has this very rich history in the realm of peacekeeping, which although not necessarily associated with democracy, of course, as President Obama has said, quoting F.D.R., freedom from fear and freedom from want are critical ingredients to having basic democracy and human rights.

So the fact that Indians through the generations have put their lives on the line in countries at risk, in transitional countries and post-conflict situations is, again, its own service to the cause of democratic progress.

MR. CHANG: Just to note very briefly, I'd be remiss in not repeating that which has been highlighted before, that there's a very clear reason why India is the first stop on the President's trip to Asia, featuring a visit to four countries that are characterized at a minimum by vibrant societies, open governments and dynamic economies.

Do we have another question?

Q Yes, I just wondered about Prime Minister Singh's role in promoting some of these issues. We hear a lot about President Obama's admiration for the Prime Minister. They share an interest, I guess, in the Green Revolution and some of the roots behind that. What has President Obama learned from Prime Minister Singh about some of these issues? And can the two work together to take some of this stuff and promote it in other countries, in third countries?

SECRETARY VILSACK: I don't want to be presumptuous to know what President Obama has learned from the Prime Minister, but I think one of the things that I think the United States has learned is that in the agricultural area it isn't just the central government that is key. The equivalent of our state governments are very important in agriculture, and they basically help to establish agricultural policy. That's why I think it's important -- one of the things I'm taking away from this visit is the need for us to work to have more U.S. governors travel to India to develop state-to-state relationships.

Again, this gets back to research collaboration. It gets back to technical collaboration. It gets back to business opportunities that can be created in sort of a two-way street. And U.S. governors are very interested obviously in that kind of opportunity.

So that's one very important component because many of the countries that you visit will not necessarily see agriculture as a state-based function. They'll see it more as a central government function. MR. SHAH: I'd just add two quick points. Part of the reason the Secretary and I are here is that President Obama and Prime Minister Singh together decided that agriculture should be an area where we significantly accelerate our cooperation. And we have been seeing that through a process over for more than a year.

I think the second thing I'd like to say is just if you look at the history of this cooperative partnership, actually started in 1951 with big investments from the United States on just food aid for people in acute need in India. That then evolved into a partnership around the first Green Revolution, which at the time in the late ‘60s represented the single largest line item in the USAID budget at that time -- was for supporting Indian agriculture.

The nature of this partnership is actually very different. It's not about one country giving technology or resources to another. It is really about recognizing that both are peers, that there's a tremendous amount to be learned and gained from a technical partnership. And the areas that I mentioned, whether it's science and technology extension, efforts to help connect farmers to markets, or other more innovative ways of improving weather forecasting, are all focused on bringing the technical excellence of both parties in the private sector and the public sector together for the needs here in India; also for the benefit of America's agricultural system and food system, and we think especially for places like Africa where food security remains a tremendous challenge. And a very large proportion of those populations continue to live in a state of hunger.

MR. CHOPRA: And just to remind you briefly, the open government dialogue that I referenced explicitly calls on the countries to work together in a global collaboration. That is to engage.

And if I would just share one lesson that came out of our technology delegation back in September, we brought half a dozen technology executives from the U.S. to India. One of the key themes that was an opportunity to collaborate is on what I would call frugal engineering -- that is a country that's enrolling 15 million people a month on cell phones -- provides you an opportunity from a technological standpoint to think about lower cost strategies to deliver on the concepts like open government.

So as Samantha mentioned, a number of SMS-based or cell phone-based innovations will be available tomorrow. That's not coincidental, that is, in fact, many of those are very low cost to design and deploy.

Q Perhaps this is for Secretary Vilsack or for Ms. Power, both of you can answer. How do you guarantee that people are able to capitalize on having access to information in such a way that they're able to improve the welfare of their families and of their communities? We see such disparate gaps in income equality throughout the developing world. How do these tools actually manifest themselves in people having more control over their economic future?

SECRETARY VILSACK: Two examples. One is that if you can use technology to increase a farmer's income from $1 to $4, you can make a world of difference for that farmer and his family. You give that farmer the capacity to expand their operation, to plant multiple crops, to provide additional resources. The way that happens is through the equivalent of what we would refer to as extension services.

And one of the key things that we need to work with India together on is making sure that we learn all of the lessons that can be learned about how extension can work and work well, and how you take that model to countries all over the world.

Taking information that's being developed by scientists, by researchers, by the private sector and making sure that it's transferred and translated into language and in a way that farmers in this country and any other country would be willing to accept.

That involves also engaging the farm community themselves. Farmers around the world are fundamentally not different. If their neighbor is succeeding, they're going to want to know how they succeeded and what they did. And they're going to want to embrace that.

So our efforts will be, as it is almost always, focused on using the land grant university extension model and applying it to local conditions and learning from that experience how it can better be applied in other countries.

MS. POWER: It's a great question. And I guess I would just say that information -- mere information is, of course, not a panacea for a wide range of other ills. But information is power. It's incredibly powerful, and it's very empowering.

And we've had the chance to experience some of that in engaging with groups and, again, citizens who are making use of these tools. I'd just give you a couple examples, again, of the nexus between innovation and democracy, also the nexus between innovation and development.

I mentioned the right to information law, and that its power in this society comes from the fact that individuals are taking it seriously. And individuals are going to their local bureaucrat who had previously seemed inaccessible, unreachable and, frankly, seemed to have a certain degree of impunity and a freedom to do what kind of what they want when they wanted.

Now, with the right to information tool at the disposal of citizenry, they can go, they can file a right to information petition, ask where their pension is. And if an official is found to have deliberately withheld information, for instance, on where the pension might be, that official actually gets part of his or her salary taken out or docked. That is, the fine is a personal fine on an official.

And we heard story after story in the last couple days about the kind of footstep effect that this is having, and the degree to which just the knowledge that the right to information law could be used against an official is causing much greater responsiveness on the part of the relationship between the citizen and the local official. So this is just one example.

A second would be a case that we heard today of an elderly person who was going with his ration card in order to receive food that he depended on, and the person who was doling out the food said, sorry, there's no wheat for you today. And he came back the next day and said, sorry, there's no wheat, unfortunately, we're not going to be able to fill your ration card. And then the third time he came back he said, in fact, your ration card is no longer valid here.

And this individual used the right to information law -- told the person he was going to file a right to information petition, went to file it, and the person who ran the little store that passed out rations basically became so alarmed that he was going to be held accountable within the local hierarchy that he went to this gentleman's house at midnight and said, I'll give you all the wheat you want for a year if you just don't file this right to information petition.

Again, this is just an anecdote. I'm sure there are five anecdotes on the other side that show that still it's very difficult to get the kind of responsiveness that citizens seek and that they deserve. But it's I think a flavor of the way in which citizens are using these new tools to advance their development and to close some of the inequality gaps over time.

MR. CHANG: All right, thank you very much, everyone.

Press Filing Center, Vivianta President Hotel, Mumbai, India

Last updated: August 09, 2017

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