Sunday, September 11, 2022

Colombo, Sri Lanka

HEIDI HATTENBACH: So, good afternoon. Good afternoon. And thank you for joining us. And thank you for your patience, today, everyone as we work our way through our new facility, which I hope you enjoyed seeing and took a little time to get to know it. Thank you, so much, for joining us today. I'm Heidi Hattenbach, the Public Affairs Officer here at Embassy Colombo, and it is my pleasure to turn us over to Ambassador Julie Chung.

AMBASSADOR CHUNG: Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody. Again, thank you. Welcome to the U.S. Embassy here. I am so thrilled to invite Administrator Samantha Power to Sri Lanka. Administrator Power is no stranger to Sri Lanka. She has long had a love and admiration for this country and has visited many times. And that's why it was so exciting for us to invite her back here, at a time of difficulty and challenge, at a time when USAID, and the United States government can really show our partnership and friendship in so many ways. So, I was really happy that we had the opportunity, these past two days, for the Administrator to meet with a range of people here in Sri Lanka. So without further ado, Administrator Power.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Good afternoon, everyone. I want to start by thanking our incredible team here, Ambassador Julie Chung and USAID Mission Director Gabe Grau. I also want to thank all of you for joining us here on a Sunday afternoon. I really appreciate you being here. This is my first time back in Sri Lanka since 2019, and it is wonderful to be back. I have been greeted with the same warmth and hospitality on this trip as I have on all my previous trips. It has also been immensely informative for me, as the head of USAID to see the economic crisis the country is experiencing up close. There is no substitute for getting out and about and talking to people about what they are experiencing, what can from afar seem like dry statistics, but when experienced by Sri Lankans, of course, have very, very real human consequences. Speaking as a longtime supporter of Sri Lanka's democracy, and its economic development, I confess I have also found it heartbreaking to be back and to see a country with such dynamism and talent of people who have endured so much, over and over again, so many blows to the economic development of this country, now confronting hardship the likes of which few have seen before. So, I must start today just by saying how sorry I am about the grave challenges the Sri Lankan people are facing and that includes many of you here. I've just wrapped up a couple of days of engagements with a range of Sri Lankans affected by the economic crisis. This included small farmers and tenant farmers. It included, today, women heads of household who are now struggling to find enough food to feed their children. I also met with private sector leaders, civil society organizations, President Wickremesinghe, and leaders from the opposition. I came to Colombo to hear directly from you – Sri Lankans – about the grave economic circumstances that you face and I came to convey that the United States stands with you during this unparalleled crisis. Sri Lanka's current economic hardships, as you well know, have many sources – the accumulation over many years of mountains of unsustainable debt, the tourism sector devastated by COVID-19, and before that, the Easter Sunday bombings, corruption, and self-dealing, and an agricultural sector decimated by spiraling fertilizer and fuel prices as well as a previous ban on chemical fertilizers. Supply chain challenges that have caused a spike in global food prices, price increases only exacerbated by President Putin's reckless, brutal war on Ukraine. In the wake of these developments, nearly one fourth of the country – approximately six million people – are now grappling with acute hunger as they face limited access to nutritious food. The Sri Lankan people, united by their conviction, came together not long ago to demand change. And I want to reiterate that the United States is right here standing with you in your hour of need. Yesterday, I announced that the United States is providing an additional $40 million to get fertilizer into the hands of as many as one million farmers ahead of the upcoming planting season, crucial assistance that will meaningfully boost the country's harvest production and yields. 

Today, I am pleased to announce an additional $20 million to provide humanitarian assistance to Sri Lankans battling hunger and malnutrition throughout the country. With these new announcements, the United States has now committed nearly $240 million since June of this year to meet the urgent needs of Sri Lankans – money that is being used today to get food to the most vulnerable, support meals for children in the country's schools, help farmers plant new fields, and make sure mothers and newborns are adequately nourished. The United States has long stood with the people of Sri Lanka, Asia's oldest democracy, and this latest assistance demonstrates that we will continue to do so. But assistance alone will not put an end to this country's woes. I stressed to the Sri Lankan President in my meeting earlier today, that political reforms and political accountability must go hand in hand with the economic reforms and economic accountability. Sri Lanka's vibrant civil society must have the space that they need, to raise their voices and hold the government accountable. This is not intention with economic stability. It is the means by which the government will obtain insight into what is working and what is not working at the grassroots level. International investor confidence will increase as the government tackles corruption and proceeds with long sought governance reforms. As citizens see the government visibly following through on the commitment to bring about meaningful change, that in turn will increase societal support for the tough economic reforms ahead. So again, the economic and the political go hand in hand. As Sri Lanka seeks to emerge from this economic crisis, the United States – as a creditor and as a member of the Paris Club – stands ready to participate in the restructuring of Sri Lanka's debt. It is imperative that all of Sri Lanka's creditors, most notably the People's Republic of China, cooperate in this process openly and on comparable terms with each other. When debt becomes unsustainable, as it so clearly has in Sri Lanka, the stakes of that cooperation can mean the difference between life or death, prosperity or poverty. For over 70 years, before my institution USAID was even formed, the United States has invested in Sri Lanka to extend peace and prosperity to the people of this country, contributing, in fact, more than two billion dollars in assistance over the years. Today's support builds on that legacy as the American people work to assist the Sri Lankan people in their effort, in your effort, to move past this very, very difficult chapter. Thank you. And with that, I look forward to taking your questions. 

HATTENBACH: Thank you so much, Administrator. I'm sure that everyone in the room has questions. We only have a limited amount of time. But I'm happy to take questions from the group for the Administrator or other folks who are here. I think that we agreed to give a Hiru our first question.

SHEHAN BARANAGE: Thank you very much. In restructuring debt for Sri Lanka, are there any guidelines laid by the United States in restructuring the debt to Sri Lanka? And how will that impact with China restructuring debt to Sri Lanka? Thank you.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think I would probably leave it to our colleagues at the Department of Treasury to get into the specifics there. But I think that what we have seen is the importance not only of restructuring debt, but also of changing the habits that gave rise to the accumulation of such debt in the first place, and that is where the kinds of even bureaucratic reforms, the debureaucratization agenda, the agenda that seeks to make Sri Lankan exporters even more competitive, regionally and globally. As Sri Lanka's largest export market, I think we uniquely can appreciate the value of all that Sri Lanka has to offer, the value of Sri Lankan industry, the value of apparel, the value of its burgeoning technology sector, its burgeoning renewable efforts in energy. So, I think it's important not only to get through this crisis, and this is, of course, in keeping with the staff level deal that has just been done with the IMF, to lay a much more stable foundation for responsible borrowing and responsible balance of trade, and productive balance of trade going forward.

HATTENBACH: Thank you very much. Prasad?

PRASAD RAJIV: Good afternoon Ms. Power. First, you announced an additional $60 million U.S. dollars in aid yesterday, you announced $40 million and today you announced $20 million. Of course, the first $40 million goes for fertilizer purchasing. Does the latest addition, or what are the areas that you're going to allocate that aid? And number two, now you mentioned about economic accountability, so do you have any kind of process to monitor that, whether that money goes to the needy people and the subsidies given, do you have any kind of thing, have any process of monitoring that?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you. So, first, you're right to draw the distinction between the two pools of funding. It was very gratifying yesterday to meet with farmers who would be beneficiaries of these new resources because they described just how excruciatingly difficult this last year has been to not be able to access fertilizer, or agrochemicals, that they need in order to have the most productive yields. And they even showed – we were able to see the fields – where the crops have been unable to flourish because they were not given the nutrients, the nourishment that these rice paddy farmers had been accustomed to being able to provide. And it's extremely important that this next crop be more productive. The one we saw yesterday, they estimated would have about half the yield, as in a typical year, or typical season. And we know that, again, for the food crisis befalling many Sri Lankans that Sri Lanka's own domestic production is going to be imperative. So, the partners that we will work with in that area, we will start primarily with the FAO – the Food and Agricultural Organization – we have already been working with them, with the very poorest farmers with a previous, I believe it's a $6 million program, in order to support those really living at the at the very, very edge in the agricultural sector. The FAO has tried and true systems for identifying beneficiaries, safeguards to make sure that the intended beneficiaries are the actual recipients of, for example, in this case, the fertilizer that we are bringing online. And so again, in that instance, knowing that – knowing how acute the vulnerability is for small farmers and vulnerable farmers – we share the insistence of Sri Lankans that there be intense vigilance over the resources that we are providing. There is no margin for these farmers and civil society, the farmers themselves and our partners, in this case, the FAO, and we will be working together to ensure oversight of those resources. Today, I announced, as you noted, an additional $20 million, and similarly there we will be working with trusted international partners, largely, and that will be primarily for emergency humanitarian assistance. And we met today, as I mentioned, with some female heads of household, who had been identified by, for example, the organization, Save the Children, as especially vulnerable. One mother of three children, for example, who was taking care of a father who was paralyzed. Another who had been unable to purchase more than one meal a day for her children in recent weeks, and had been unable to purchase shoes, and in being unable to purchase shoes had trouble getting her children to be able to go to school because the school is insisting that the children wear shoes. And so, being able to provide this emergency assistance has enabled that family not only to have shoes, which is so important, but also as a knock-on effect to be able to go to school. And so again, when you are living on the edge,  even small infusions of resources can mean the difference between going hungry and not going hungry going to school and not going to school. And I think that answers your question both about what the content of the programming will be. But, let me say on humanitarian assistance, again, food assistance, the best way to think about it is emergency assistance for the extremely vulnerable. We know that there is need across Sri Lanka. This programming that I'm announcing today is going for those who have the greatest need, and we are aware that sometimes assistance has been politicized in this country, this is not the only country in which this has happened. It happens in every country around the world. But, we are very alert to that risk, and thus, it is very important for us to work with trusted partners, who themselves will identify beneficiaries, who themselves then will ensure follow-up and monitoring to make sure that those individuals who have been identified as the most in need, are in fact, the recipients of that assistance. 

HATTENBACH: Thank you so much. I think we'll go to Al Jazeera for our next question.

MINELLE FERNANDEZ: Thank you. Administrator Power, Minelle Fernandez. You mentioned that you had stressed to President Ranil Wickremesinghe that political reform and political accountability must go hand in hand with economic reform, particularly looking at some of the issues that have been unfolding in Sri Lanka. What was his reaction? And in terms of what would be the U.S. aid and U.S. expectation of that happening? Thank you.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you. I've had the opportunity to have many meetings with the now President, over the course of the last decade or more, with him wearing different hats and being part of different administrations and me the same, me meaning, me having also had different roles and wearing different hats. So, we have a long history of having very, I think, constructive but also very candid and blunt conversations. And so, I was able to share, again, this perspective, from the United States about the centrality of moving ahead with the governance reforms, alongside that package of economic reforms that, understandably, are getting, are consuming a lot of the government's attention because they are imperative in order to unlock the IMF resources. You know, I think what we heard, in response, was a reaffirmation of many of the political commitments that the President has made. For example, with regard to the Prevention of the Terrorism Act, and its repeal, and assurance that civil society would have the space to operate to do its work, to hold the authorities accountable. I think the challenge is that the docket is very, very full, and the government hasn't yet been filled out. And so, it will be very, very important for both reform agendas to proceed in parallel. And I think, so what we heard – I think the Ambassador and myself – was a fairly detailed look ahead, at when particular milestones would be reached, or particular pieces of legislation will be introduced. And I think, what we stressed is, you know, given the demands, and the aspirations of the Sri Lankan people, the importance of being transparent about that roadmap, about those intentions, and making sure that the political reform is not seen as somehow, or not portrayed, as it is, by some, as somehow intention with economic stability. Whereas, in fact, political reform, governance reform, enhanced due process, enhanced rule of law, impartial application of the rule of law, all of that, as I said in my remarks a minute ago, is what will allow longtime supporters of the Sri Lankan people to convey that things are changing in Sri Lanka across the board. Whereas, if there's a temptation to only proceed within the four corners of the economic domain, and indeed to move in a manner that perhaps exacerbates political tensions and so forth. And this is not just true of the governing authorities, this is a message that we were also able to send to the opposition, that lack of unity, that polarization, that divisiveness, is going to make it even harder to attract the kind of investment, it is going to perpetuate the impression of instability. And so, again, we had a frank exchange of views, and I think what's very, very important is a transparent implementation plan that will, hopefully expand or enlist the trust and confidence of Sri Lankans who are waiting to see the change that they feel they were promised. 

HATTENBACH: Thank you very much. I think, next, we have Uditha from Reuters.

UDITHA JAYASINGHE: Thank you, Ms. Power, this will be slightly out of your wheelhouse. But, since given your previous role with the UNHRC, and the fact that Sri Lanka is heading to a UNHRC process, I was just wondering whether you could maybe share your thoughts and insights about that process? And do you feel that there needs to be a strong impetus with the new President remediation of his new government now, that Sri Lanka has a greater role to play in terms of making sure that accountability takes center stage post UNHRC? Thank you.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you. Well, this is an issue that I worked on a great deal when I worked as President Obama's Human Rights Adviser, and then when I served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and I'm very familiar with the process there. You know, I think that maybe I'll even let the Ambassador speak to how things are proceeding in Geneva. But, it has been a long time, the oversight mechanism of the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Council being established for Sri Lanka. I know that there is fatigue here by some who would like to see Sri Lanka be able to go its own way and for the United Nations' role to recede. But, I think it is also very clear on the ground, that the aspirations of those who survived really, really difficult, very, very difficult conflict over many years, the aspirations of those individuals to seek justice, and even to secure basic facts, and basic truth or to obtain some knowledge around missing persons, those processes around which there have been multiple attempts to generate progress have not yielded the kind of facts, the kind of truth, and the kind of justice that so many Sri Lankans crave. And so it's in that spirit, I think that the United States engages as part of the core group in Geneva, recognizing that, I think we all agree, that it is in Sri Lanka, where those mechanisms are most needed. And there is a lot of technical support and a lot of expertise in the international community that is ready to be brought to bear, and we did, again, engage with the President on this today, and it is clear that these are issues that are very much part of what brought some Sri Lankans out to demand change. And it is clear that the commitments that have been made in the past, again, haven't been – haven't delivered sufficiently to address, again, those deeply held aspirations. And I will say, as somebody who's traveled and met with survivors of the violence, and seen that so many of you have mothers still carrying the photos of children who've gone missing, that any step that can be made to offer solace to families who have endured the kind of violence and suffering that has occurred in this country, is important for us all to stand behind. And I don’t know, Ambassador, if you'd like to add anything about the Human Rights Council process?

AMBASSADOR CHUNG: And as Administrator Power has said, the United States is back in the core group and very much an active participant in the discussions going on in Geneva. And we understand Foreign Minister Sabry and also the Minister of Justice are there in Geneva as well. I think there are long standing concerns about human rights and accountability and justice, that the government has committed to its own people, to the Sri Lankan people. And I think, when you don't bring in those aspirations of all the different groups and all the pains of the past, when you don't address that, then you don't really realize the full potential of that unity and reconciliation process that can make Sri Lanka prosper even more. So I think, there are definitely institutional reforms, strengthening institutions like the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the Office of Missing Persons, making sure they're well resourced and independent. Just many of the steps that we've heard, the steps being addressed, or whether the implementation will be complete and true and lasting. That's something that I think we and the international community and the Sri Lankan people are really seeking to encourage the government to do.

HATTENBACH: I think we have time for just one more question. I apologize, it's already after five o'clock. Asiri, I think I've seen your hand up each time. Do you have a question for the Administrator?

ASIRI FERNANDO: Asiri Fernando, the Sunday Morning. Ms. Power, you mentioned that the President, when discussing about the governance reforms that you discussed this morning, mentioned certain milestones. So, has the Sri Lankan government signaled a timeframe to roll out certain key governance reforms or political reforms that you mentioned about? Because we've heard a lot of politicians and successive governments talking about it, but no real roadmap to it. Has there been any indication that there is a roadmap now? Can you shed some light on that? Thank you.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I'm gonna give you the opportunity to ask a second question, because my answer is going to be very short. I feel that it is not the job of visiting U.S. officials to characterize the Sri Lankan government's timetable or its plans. But, I will say that we stress the importance of being transparent with the timetable and with those plans. And so, even your question, I think, is very reflected in the conversations I've had in my couple of days here, is that people are really hungering for the specifics for some sense of how prioritization is going to be done among, again, the vast array of commitments that have been made, and where implementation and follow through is expected, and the vast array of needs on the ground. And so again, I think it's better for us to leave it to, perhaps, your next press conference with the President or his team. Clearly, there's a lot of focus right now on closing out the IMF deal. There's a lot of focus on the budget and getting the budget over the finish line. But, again, as we've said, it's very important for these measures to be thought about holistically and comprehensively. And even if, just by definition, in the nature of the legislative process or the nature of governance, you can't do everything at once, and you can't do everything immediately. Even if that's in the nature of governance, it doesn't mean that you can't, again, lay out a way ahead in a manner that affirms for citizens that you still intend to follow through on the kinds of commitments that have been made. So again, I urge you to engage the government around their specific plans.

HATTENBACH: Asiri, we said one question, but she promised you a second. 

FERNANDO: That's my question; I think Meera has a question.

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: That's very collegial.

MEERA SRINIVASAN: Administrator Power. You mentioned the need for Sri Lanka to be able to restructure its debt, treating all partners equally, and you particularly mentioned China. And I remember in July, when you were in India, you said opaque Chinese loans were among the key factors that led to Sri Lanka's crisis. Now, in your conversations with the President and top officials, do you get the sense that the government is at a comfortable spot in terms of debt restructure? Because the IMF has made its assistance contingent on the success of that process. And part B of that question would be whether the U.S. will pitch in with some bridge financing that Sri Lanka has been seeking from different partners and hasn't been successful as yet? So there is going to be a very crucial period from now till the IMF assistance actually comes in after debt restructure, so will the U.S. support with bridge financing? And what are your impressions about where Sri Lanka stands in terms of restructuring debt?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think that the question of how to obtain stable, predictable financing, and the question of the timeframe around debt restructuring, I think, those questions are still looming in large measure. And what we made clear from the standpoint of the United States and what Secretary Yellen has made clear just in the last few days, is that we stand ready to support that effort. We recognize it's going to be a critical piece, as you said, of the recovery here and getting the economy back on a more stable footing. I think with regard to additional financing, I don't have anything to share on that here today beyond our desire, and President Biden's desire, to work within international financial institutions, to do everything we can to get Sri Lanka back on a more stable economic path. And if I could just go back to the first part of your question with regard to other actors who can have great influence here, have had the chance to make a very positive difference and really relieve Sri Lanka of some of this acute debt distress that the country is facing, again, our interest as the United States is in Sri Lanka's success, it's in its economic development. It always has been as USAID, but also as the United States as a whole. It is in, again, the deepening of the rule of law, the strengthening of  democracy, the institutionalization of checks and balances. It's in the belief that cleaning up corruption and self-dealing is not only going to be incredibly important for the dignity of Sri Lankans who have to deal with that every day, but it's also going to be absolutely vital to the kind of economic stability that everyone in this country is seeking, in every sector. And so, that is our belief. I think we really hope that all countries, and I mean, there are many donor countries that have long played very constructive roles here – the United Kingdom, Japan, the European Union – we work very, very closely with those countries to make sure that our work is mutually reinforcing, and that we are together, looking at how to prioritize what are scarce resources globally. 

You know, everywhere you look, there is a humanitarian crisis of some kind unfolding, and all of those crises make demands on the same pool of resources. So, it's an extremely challenging time, I just came from Pakistan. And, you know, on June 13th of this year, Pakistan did not have the problem of having to find resources to contribute to  support the Pakistanis in managing an unprecedented flooding crisis. On February 23rd of this year, it's hard to remember, Russia had not launched a massive, brutal further invasion of Ukraine. All of these crises are coming on top of one another, which presents many challenges. So, we need all hands on deck, and every country that has the ability to make a positive difference for the Sri Lankan people to contribute, this is not an either or situation. And President Biden often says, we don't expect countries to choose among those, again, large international actors who are making an impact on the ground, but we really hope that those countries that have had a hand in economic development, and again, the consequences of that of those investments really have varied in Sri Lanka and in all parts of the world, but that those countries in a time of a crisis of this magnitude can see fit to come forward and think about how to strengthen the economic sovereignty of the country, the economic resilience of the country. And that's one of the things that I really like, that I really value about working at USAID, because I'm relatively still new to the agency. I've been there for more than a year and a half, but nonetheless, relatively new, unlike Gabe, our great Mission Director here. And, you know, we provide grants. We're not interested in increasing indebtedness to the United States. We're interested in one day, hopefully not too far off in the future, our relationship with Sri Lanka being strictly a trade relationship, and not an aid relationship. We want our resources to help unlock the potential that we know is there without strings attached. And we think this is a really important moment in Sri Lanka for that same mindset of standing with our friends, no strings attached. You know, what is in the interest of economic stability and economic independence for this country, and I think, that is the sort of mindset that informs the kinds of efforts that we will make to provide economic support going forward. Thank you all.

HATTENBACH: Thank you, Administrator, for sharing that vision for your leadership, for your words today and for the time that you've given us. That's going to close us out, you guys. I know the Administrator has a busy schedule, it needs to move on, but thank you so much for coming out today.

Colombo, Sri Lanka


Administrator Samantha Power Travels to Sri Lanka

Samantha Power Administrator Samantha Power Travels to Sri Lanka
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