USAID Administrator, Samantha Power Speaks on Ukraine, Democracy & New Agenda at Skoll World Forum

USAID Administrator Power with NPR’s Scott Simon at the Skoll Foundation’s 2022 Skoll World Forum. During the conversation she reflects on events happening around the world, along with her vision for working with more local organizations

SCOTT SIMON: You’ve been at the border, Ukraine and Poland, you’re in a good position to tell us, what’s the humanitarian crisis the world has to grasp now? How can the world be useful?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, it is totally striking at the border to see the percentage of women and children relative to the overall population. I mean it’s millions of people crossing, and out of every million, 90 plus percent, women and kids, to the degree there are men, they’re elderly men. So that creates knock-on effects, forever, heartbreak, the searing separation that they’re carrying with them. But also, what’s a mom to do with three kids showing up in Berlin, or in Warsaw, or — can they start working? The EU has been great, giving them work permits, but how to get your kids on track when they don’t yet speak the language of the country they’re arriving in, luckily, unlike most refugee crises, it has been open sesame, open hearts, open borders, open homes.

In Poland you get a small subsidy, very, very small if you care for a Ukrainian family, and Poles are falling all over themselves, almost to compete for families as they come to train stations. But, it’s not as if the resources they get are enough to cover a, kind of, long term, protracted crisis. So one thing to worry about is that population that has crossed further into Europe. The biggest worry that we have here at USAID is the people trapped still inside Ukraine, who would like nothing more than to leave, but are fully encircled by Russian forces who are bombarding them. And there it’s about diplomatic pressure combined with having truck after truck, filled with supplies ready to take advantage of any opening, if it arose. But the Russians do not seem all that bothered by bombing civilian centers to smithereens, and it stands to reason that if that’s what you’re prepared to do, it doesn’t bother you much to deny people food, medicine, water, and that’s sort of the attitude that they’ve taken, particularly in those towns in the south, like Mariupol.

SIMON: How can USAID be helpful, or try to be helpful?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, I think people who are just watching this and their hearts are breaking and they’re imagining, because the towns look a lot like towns here, and well, what if that happened to my town? I think there is just a message we have in the humanitarian community, which is, cash is best. It’s a little transactional, a little blunt perhaps, but there’s a temptation to send teddy bears, and strollers, but then they amass at customs and they get in the way of the food shipments that are, you know, being delivered at scale. So, actually just dedicating resources to the humanitarian organizations that are working on the ground is really important.

In terms of us, we are trying to combine diplomatic pressure, as a government our channel to Russia is not what it once was, of course, in light of the devastating sanctions that have been put in place, in light of their war. But there are countries like India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, China, that have retained close ties with Putin, and the key is not just food and supply and medicine, all of that, the key is access.

And for access to happen, one man has to allow that access to happen. And that’s going to require pressure from those countries that have stood by him up to this point, or have been more neutral on his aggression.

SIMON: You’re touching something in your answer that intrigues me, when you were United States ambassador to the UN, you notably invited the Russian ambassador to, I believe it was, Thanksgiving dinner.


SIMON: And that was even at a time where you disagreed sharply about everything. I believe it was after the invasion of Crimea, Russian actions in Syria. But there was a human connection there and you spoke well of him, at the time of his death. Is there the opportunity for that kind of human connection now, or is it gone, or suspended?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, my view as an apparent human is we can never give up on the possibility of finding that human connection. But in his case, I was able to muster that because he was also, in addition to us talking about our families, and sports, and trying to remember the things we had in common, even as we clashed fiercely, I was always able to pull him aside and get him to brainstorm with me about how we address this situation. And I think what’s been so impossible lately, is that whatever you might have in common as parents, or as Christians, or as, you know, book lovers, or whatever – the kind of human connection – if a person on the other side of the table is only willing to defend the indefensible, and not ever willing to show that same humanity in negotiations, particularly private negotiations, if they remain the same on camera and off, then what? You know, then they’re defending, you know, large scale attacks on population centers, the use of food and water as weapons of war, the invasion of someone else’s country. I mean, there has to be some way in which the humanity they’re prepared to show when talking about their kids or their grand-kids would actually translate into how they think and talk about Ukrainian kids and grand-kids. So, for as long as I and the Russian ambassador at the UN were able to try to bring that creative spirit, and even if publicly he was doing what he was instructed to do, I felt it was justified because my job is to turn over every stone and try to see is there a path to make some difference, somewhere. But my understanding currently is there’s not that same willingness to put the script aside and really think about how to make things better, quite the opposite.

SIMON: What’s as you see it, the health of democracy around the world?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well it’s, I’d say a couple things. I mean first, the statistics are what they are. Democracy has been in retreat now, for I think, 17 straight years. That’s a pretty poor losing streak. But, I think what’s different now, and we saw this in President Biden’s Democracy Summit, is the resistance, so called, or the democratic forces, the liberalizing forces, the reformist forces, are on offense more than they have been in the past. And I say that when just everybody’s conscious of the democracy recession, you know, the rise of strong men – perceived strong men – in established democracies was a wakeup call for many, but the kind of collaboration now, in terms of, how do you protect your election infrastructure. Not only from cyber-attacks, but also, how do you guard against misinformation? This is something USAID funds, for example, in Ukraine, massive disinformation centers, not to put out misinformation but to fight disinformation centers, you know, funded, sustained, bringing some of the best journalists, content providers, to actually be able to respond in mass, once the trolls come out and really start to put often libelous information out into the information sphere.

One of the things we’ve just set up is a defamation defense fund, because part of what accompanied this democratic recession was, on the part of leaders, but also cronies a tendency to sue journalists who were exposing their ill-gotten gains, and so the playing field was getting more and more skewed over time, as journalists would do their work, would expose the Achilles heel of an illiberal actor, or of a repressive and corrupt entity, and then the wealthy entity would just turn around and sue the journalist, drive the journalist or the publication out of office.

So we’ve created a defamation defense fund, where if sued, that journalist now will have insurance and be able to guard against that lawsuit. So thereby, again, trying to right the playing field a little bit more, that kind of creativity, that kind of leadership on the part of democracies who care about the future of the world and this ongoing battle, I think between forces of darkness and forces of light or between forces of integrity and accountability and corrupt forces, or forces of authoritarianism, and more democratic forces.

The battle lines are now drawn, and I think what we know is that we are stronger together, and a kind of disparate impact, the disparate kind of dissipated efforts were taking place as people kind of rested on the idea of, well, you know, history’s going to bend in the right direction eventually, right? And it’s almost like it took the realization that arc of history doesn’t bend on its own, and we better get organized. That now, it feels like it’s a real contest. And it’s being played out between, you know, within countries, between, you know, in very polarized environments, between those who, for example, want to expand, you know, human rights, and those who have a more — have a smaller version of who the state belongs to, or who the state is for, or whether humans should have rights vis-à-vis the states. I mean those contests are playing themselves out, and I think now you have democracies more united, looking out to see how they can support those actors on the frontlines in countries where the future of whether democracy can hang on is actually being contested.

SIMON: Is USAID trying to analyze, and in a sense, refocus some of the support they give at the local level in countries around the world?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Yes, in short. So in coming to this agency, which has this incredible history, 60 years, created by John F. Kennedy. One of the things that was readily apparent to me, and certainly to some of my predecessors, is that we are very weighted in our support toward large international organizations. So for example we are dealing with Ukraine crisis; first checks we write to get food to people is, for example, to the World Food Program.

But more than that, even in our development work on agriculture, on democracy promotion, on global health, we just tend to work more quickly and more easily with large organizations that have big infrastructure, big accounting firms, a general council, who can put up with filling out all the forms and dealing with really complicated contractual requirements, or grant writing requirement. Now why do we have those requirements? They’ve accreted over years, but a lot of it is being faithful to the taxpayer, and wanting to be vigilant, and make sure our money is well spent.

But the impact of that has meant, that if you’re a little NGO or, you know, and you’re contesting domestic violence in a country, or you’re a plucky, you know, remote health clinic, or you’re a startup media organization comprised of local journalists, you may not have the ability to just go through that process. And so what we have to do at USAID is right the balance, and I’ve set a target of ensuring that 25 percent of the assistance we give goes to local partners over the life of this administration, and more than that Scott, that 50 percent of our assistance is given by the end of the decade, after a process in which local voices are central. So it’s one thing, contracts are hard, they may remain hard in certain circumstances, but the least we can do is make sure that there is co-creation, co-design, that the people who we claim to be serving are centrally driving the decisions that are made about how assistance can be best be spent. They know best, we know they know best.

And yet, again, over time it has been too weighted toward, in a sense, giving money to ourselves. And the effect of that, is it’s antithetical to the local empowerment objective that of course we have over time. And it’s contrary to the objective of sustainable development. Not just development, but actually being able to work yourselves out of jobs, our goal is to leave, they want trade, not aid, anyway. But, if we keep providing that assistance to these large, overhead organizations, it’s going to make it harder for those with the smaller organizations over time to develop the capabilities to do the work themselves and not rely on groups like us.

And I will say, Scott, the Skoll Foundation, and we, USAID, are bringing together, in the near future, NGOs from the global south, to talk about this localization agenda. Some people don’t even like the term localization, it’s like well, wait, localization, that means that The United States, or the donor countries are kind of the sun around which the planets rotate, we want to make it truly done in the spirit of partnership, and the shift in orientation towards local partners comes about very much because of the cries, and demands and appeals from local partners who felt like their voices were not really helping shape the way assistance was spent, and that the results were not optimal, as a result of that.

SIMON: There are a couple of organizations, I don’t even want to call them organizations, groups, people doing something that you admire, and that need encouragement, that you’ve learned about, that you could mention, and we could learn about them too?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, let me say that the first thing we’re going to do is pilot this agenda in Central America, in the Northern Triangle countries, namely Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. And we dedicate a pool of money, $300 million in an initiative called Central America Local. And so the idea there is that it would be that $300 million, if the money is to be spent, if the resources are to go out the door and help the beneficiaries that we are focused on, it will go to local organizations, and that will be proof of concept because we also need to go to Capitol Hill and say, you see it can be done. We can do it, it can be done transparently, there won’t be corruption, and look at the impact that these local organizations have achieved.

To your question, I have seen on the group, for example, a shelter that welcomes young girls and young women who have been trafficked, in Honduras this is a shelter that I visited, this is an example of an organization that was actually an organization that worked through a big international partner, but is now, in a sense, standing on its feet, able to do the contracting, and able to work with USAID on its own. And that means that more resources will get to the girls, and the young women. It’s not going to then be spent on overhead for some accounting firm, you know, back here in Washington. So that’s an example of one. I think in the realm of HIV/AIDS, there’s been a seat change in the transition from working with large, international partners, to actually working with local organizations who are the ones who do the public information campaigns, to get people to get to the clinic, to take their antiretrovirals on time. And that’s been one of the reasons we’ve been able to make such inroads in HIV/AIDS, a disease that was, you know, reducing lifespans, but decades, only a decade or two ago.

For COVID, we have sought to build on those local partnerships, and that is actually who we are working with now as we try to surge vaccination rates, because we know that the vaccination rates are too small in many developing countries. But the key partners, the ones who will know, “Why are women not going to clinics? Ah, it’s that crazy meme on social media that says that fertility is affected. That’s what’s causing women in my community to not take up what can be a lifesaving tool that is being made available.” Because no longer is there a supply issue, a lot of this is about disinformation and uptake. But it’s only people in particular communities who can go, “ah, that’s actually my imam or my priest” has actually been using the pulpit in a way that’s been damaging to the COVID vaccination drives, well maybe we can get these other priests, or other imams to engage and see if we can make more progress that way. The people who are best able to help us move our anti-COVID agenda forward are those who live in the community and are sitting in the pews, working in the clinics, and who know what’s driving, what are the incentives and disincentives that are driving people towards certain decisions.

SIMON: As you have inundated in so many of your answers, the world can look like a dark and discouraging place, particularly at the moment. What gets you going, what lifts your spirit?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well it’s hard to, in the Ukraine context to think about uplift, but I have actually never, in my career, seen anything like the welcome that Ukrainian refugees are getting right now. And of course, there’s plenty to say about why that population and not another population, and it’s heartbreaking that every population is not treated that way. At the same time, when people are willing to open up their homes, often, you know, I’ve met with families who, you know, they were living like nuclear families, and suddenly they have five more people living in their homes. You know, their kids are sharing their beds, they’re sharing their toys, they’re sharing their school books. You know, it is a reminder that when the humanity of your neighbor can be seen, you know, there’s a great capacity for generosity in communities everywhere.

And it’s just a question of, in a sense of, how do you tap that, or what is the, in Europe it was the case that people felt very connected to Ukraine because Ukraine was attempting to join Europe. Maybe because of, you know, more familiarity over years of being so proximate to the country, of meeting Ukrainians, knowing Ukrainians, maybe they knew the music. But, when people are suffering, finding ways to kind of trigger that association and identity then can unlock, you know, this vast generosity that was untapped before, you know, a month or two ago. So that’s one dimension of it.

Second, I would say that the savviness of young people now, as they fight to reclaim their democracies. I mean, it’s no secret that right before the pandemic, before things began to shut down, there were more protests happening globally than at any point in recorded human history. So already people were kind of voting with their feet and saying, “oh I’m not really liking the trend lines here.”

Now what we’re seeing and I wonder if COVID. and everybody being at home kind of accelerated that, the digital tools that have been so damaging, right, in propagating misinformation, and so exclusionary and so polarizing, have contributed to such polarization and misinformation, now we’re just seeing, and you see it in the Ukraine conflict and crisis, people using these tools to build that sense of solidarity, to grow the networks, to get people out to the streets to protest. And there are also the tools that are being used to expose corruption. And I think that that, right now, as the inflection point, is that people have started to understand that the Achilles heel, of the illiberal forces, is their ill-gotten gains and that organizing transparency, the use of digital tools, to spread that information, is a real weapon in the hands of people who I think had felt, and many do continue to feel disempowered against all of this weight and power that’s being brought to bear.

It’s like, well, actually, you know, there are actors who are digging into where people are moving assets, where natural resources are being taken to, that stuff is going up online, then it’s getting around, then citizens are saying, “he took what?” And you, so there’s a little bit of a cascade as it relates to information and accountability going on, particularly when it comes to the concentration of wealth. When people, because of the pandemic, because of climate change, and because of some of the knock-on effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are feeling great economic pressure. And so that economic pressure combined with the exposure of how some are getting richer off the backs of this pandemic, and these crises, is creating a lot political energy.

SIMON: One last question, if I might. How do you, given your interest, and you experience in human rights, how do you finesse the balance, sometimes, between trying to be useful to people in a country, who might live in an authoritarian society? Recognizing that the aid you give might only be diffused by, and actually strengthen the government, for which you might have little use, at the same time, you have people in genuine need?

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Well, USAID gives kind of two kinds of assistance, so the first is humanitarian assistance, keep people alive, make sure they have access to medicine, make sure, just that they have enough rations to get them through the day. Again, the underlying premise of humanitarian assistance is that a war will end, at some point, and people will get to go home. And the tragedy of recent years is that so few wars have ended, and that wars are lasting longer and longer. So that people are living in this state of protracted displacement.

But I think that we recognize that it’s compassionate thing to do, it’s also in our interest to try to ensure that people, not only have access to food, but also that kids don’t lose years of schooling, and so that they get at least basic education and have the chance, at least as many of the opportunities that their similarly situated peers who aren’t in warzones might have, and so that’s where a lot of the resources go to as well, in the humanitarian space. And there, is it the case if you’re feeding people in Russian-occupied Ukraine that takes one thing off the list of things that Putin has to worry about? Maybe, but the truth is, that, you know, the civilians who are affected by conflict and by war and by Putin’s invasion, they didn’t sign up for this. And the coldness, with which Russia has prosecuted this war, also is how Russia governs when it takes over territories. With no interest in whether the kids are getting an education or whether food is provided to the people.

So humanitarian assistance is delivered on the basis of need, and I think we’re it to change, that would potentially create a lot of perverse outcomes that we would not wish to see. When it comes to development assistance, or democracy and governance assistance, this other category. There, when we are working in undemocratic societies, by at large what we are trying to do is strengthen those institutions that enhance accountability. So there, while yes, true, we may be working in a health ministry, and maybe the election wasn’t free and fair, but we’re getting people PEPFAR meds, or we’re getting them COVID vaccines, there’s some of that. But that’s in, again, our shared interest to prevent a pandemic, or end an HIV/AIDS epidemic eventually. But so much of what we do is actually support journalists, give people the kind of training they need in order to be activating locally, in order to be holding, if not, you know, the head of state accountable, the mayors, and the city councilors, and others. And that, those investments, in the rule of law, those investments in women’s empowerment and girl’s empowerment, those don’t — may not pay off tomorrow, you know, against a backdrop again of surging antidemocratic repression. But we’ve all had the experience of meeting that, now young woman, who first got her start at an after-school USAID funded program where she was learning how to raise her voice, you know, in the face of bullying, or in the face of a high prevalence of sexual violence, and as she raised her voice and got the training in that space, later, she decided she was going to protest that mine that was being raided by a foreign conglomerate and she got activated that way. And then low and behold, she became a member of parliament, and along the way USAID, and other donors, and other foundations and organizations are able to meet individuals in a fashion where you just, you never know where it’s going to lead, but you know that your job is to do everything you can that that voice is heard. And so, it’s a long game.

SIMON: Administrator Power, thanks so much.


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