2022 International Affairs Fellowship (IAF) Conference Keynote Session With Samantha Power

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); Former CFR International Affairs Fellow (20002001)


Managing Editor for Politics, Axios; Political Analyst, CNN

Introductory Remarks

President, Council on Foreign Relations

USAID Administrator Samantha Power discusses the pivotal moment we face to strengthen democracy and reverse the rise of authoritarianism across the world, and USAID's efforts to mitigate the global food crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

For more information about the International Affairs Fellowship (IAF), please visit CFR’s Fellowship Affairs Page


HAASS: Well, welcome, one and all, to today’s International Affairs Fellowship Symposium. Established in 1967—you can do the math how many years ago—the mission of IAF, the International Affairs Fellowships—is to create the next generation of scholar-practitioners in the foreign policy and international relations field, and what we do is we take fellows from academia or the private sector and we give them the opportunity to spend a year in government and, going in the other direction, we give those coming from government a year off to work in a scholarly atmosphere, say, in a think tank such as the Council on Foreign Relations or in a university.

The IAF program was really one of the most important things we do here at the Council. When people think of the Council on Foreign Relations, they think of the fellows, the meetings, magazine Foreign Affairs, and we are in the idea-production and dissemination business, obviously. But actually, at least as important, I would argue, is we’re in the talent development business through programs like the IAFs, through the military fellows programs, through term membership program, through our internship program. The whole idea is to provide a talented, large, diverse pool for this country to call upon when it comes to staffing positions in government, when it comes to simply having an informed public debate about foreign policy and international relations.

Over the years we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to expand the IAF program, not simply here in the United States but we now send IAFs to Japan, Canada, and India, and we also have a program for tenured international relations scholars and for those specializing in international economics. In the more than half century since this program’s been up and running, we’ve had upwards of 650 IAFs, including such people as Zal Khalilzad, the former U.S. perm rep to the United Nations, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and today’s speaker, Samantha Power.

Samantha is the nineteenth administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and she was an international affairs fellow here in 2000-2001, working for a then-unknown or little-known senator named Barack Obama. Her career really, in many ways, captures the essence of the IAF program. She’s gone back and forth among government, academia, and journalism. Samantha was the twenty-eighth U.S. perm rep to the United Nations, she taught at Harvard, was the founding member of the Carr Center, and she’s also authored several books, at least one of which, I believe, has won a Pulitzer.

So it’s a real pleasure for us to welcome her here today. It’s a personal pleasure. Samantha and I go back decades; indeed, we used to be colleagues.

Presiding today will be Margaret Talev. Margaret is the managing editor for politics at Axios, also is a political analyst for CNN. Among other things in the past, she was the senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and she’s the past president of the White House Correspondents Association.

So you are in extraordinarily good hands with the administrator and with Margaret Talev, and I want to thank them both for today. And again, I want to welcome you all to this symposium at the Council on Foreign Relations. (Applause.)

TALEV: Thank you, Richard. I don’t know if you can see us but—thank you, Ambassador Power.

Oh, no water—so sad. (Laughs.)

Well, welcome, everyone, and thank you so much for joining us. I’ll skip the introduction since I can’t do better than Dr. Haass just did.

The audience today, our audience today, consists of Council members who are joining us in Washington in this room, and also online, virtually. In the interests of time, I just will give you a quick preview of how we’re going to do this. We’ll have a conversation. I want to make sure to save enough time for your questions and your questions out in the ether, and then we’ll go from there.

Sam, we’re gathered here to talk about two different pressing issues, and one is the power struggle between democracies and autocracies, and the other is a massive global food crisis that’s been made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So I just want to begin our discussion by asking you: These seem like two different things; you say they’re connected. Why are they connected?

POWER: Yeah, first of all, thank you so much for having me, and thanks to Richard. He said we were once colleagues. That’s a little bit generous. I was an intern—(laughter)—when he was a fancy senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, long before he went to the Council. And I will just say—do you mind if I just say a word about the IAF program? I mean, I think, you know, to give young people the chance to dip their toe in—you know, a lot of people are outside thinking, yeah, could I, will I, what would it be like to, and it gives you a—it’s almost like what, you know, jobs are during the summer of college or something, or internships or like, you know, before real life begins, and IAF creates an opportunity for people to come in and feel—it’s a very prestigious program, obviously, for those of us lucky enough to get it, and so it kind of gives you a permission structure to leave what you’re doing to go and have that experience and figure out if what you think might be a taste for public service is an enduring one. And certainly that’s what happened with me in getting to work with Barack Obama, having this kind of ability also to go to him. He was a first-term senator, he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but he was the most junior member, or the second-most junior member in the Senate and so he didn’t have a lot of staffing, and so I could go and say, I’m free—(laughs)—and, you know, somebody else is paying for it and I can just come and work in your office. So it creates opportunities that just wouldn’t exist otherwise.

TALEV: It literally changed your life.

POWER: And as it happened, you know, I was very fortunate where I landed with Senator Obama and given his interest in foreign affairs and then, of course, he would decide to run for president, despite having promised me when I went to work in his Senate office that it was way too soon, I couldn’t conceive of doing something like that, and then—but yeah, and the rest is history. I mean, I wouldn’t have had any of the professional opportunities I’ve had in government working at the NSC, getting to be U.N. ambassador, and now this great privilege of running USAID. So love the program, congrats to those of you who’ve been part of it, and I hope it’s had sort of similar catalytic effects, at least in affirming or even repudiating. I mean, that’s knowledge too, right, to know where you feel you can make your difference, because sometimes it isn’t in government; it’s outside and there are a thousand ways to do so. And I hope, actually, we’ll talk about some of those collaborations between the public sector and the private sector over the course of the discussion.

Look, they’re linked—they’re linked in so many ways. I mean, for starters, just any government right now, including here at home, that is enduring high fuel prices, higher food prices, the writ large sort of effects of inflation, that is inherently very, very challenging as a matter of governance. You know, we’re a very developed nation and, you know, President Biden and his domestic team each day thinking through, you know, what are the new tools that we can bring to bear? Well, imagine if your toolkit was a little more barren, you know, than ours is. Imagine if you had no fiscal space. Imagine if you were already highly indebted to China. Imagine if you had been elected, as is the case in—just to give a few examples—Zambia, Malawi, Moldova, Dominican Republic. These are real bright spots. If you’re elected on a democratic reformist, rule-of-law, anti-corruption platform but part of what you have said is that democracy delivers, right, which is the key—a key message and we need to make it such—so democracy delivers and then you find yourself with, you know, again, fertilizer prices skyrocketing, food prices skyrocketing, and, you know, inevitably, even—you know, if you say, well, look, this is a global phenomenon, Putin invaded Ukraine, climate, the China debt isn’t doing us any favors because we’re having to pay off that debt every month instead of maybe expanding the social safety net, whatever you say, inevitably if you’re a citizen you’re looking at your leader and saying, was my life better off, you know, a year ago when I had the corrupt, you know—the corrupt leader who may have been hostile to the rule of law or not at all interested in fighting corruption?

So, you know, for those places that are really trying to buck the anti-democratic trends globally, it’s just a very, very challenging time and we are doing everything in our power to meet them where they are. I—really, actually, incredibly grateful to Congress, not only for the Ukraine supplemental, which is so important, which I’m sure we’ll come to the war in Ukraine, but so important for the people of Ukraine, but also they have written the provisions around humanitarian assistance sufficiently broadly that we are able to use some of that assistance to deal with the cascading effects of the war in Ukraine in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond, and additionally, there are resources, nearly $760 million in food security resources, that allow us to try, you know, again, to make structural adjustments in our programming to try to help countries meet this very difficult moment.

So bottom line is, when economic challenges proliferate, as is happening now, leaders are often held accountable. When you’re a progressive leader trying to reform—again, trying to buck these trends, that’s going to make your life more challenging, but the truth is, there are plenty of autocratic leaders out there right now as well who are struggling, and I think what we worry about is social unrest, which, of course, accompanied the last food crisis. In 2007-2008 we saw a proliferation of protests, some of which gave rise to the Arab Spring, so really radical change, and people had forgotten, I think, the links with food insecurity and the economic grievances that people had with those mass protests, many of them, again, coming from a place of just being fed up with leaders who weren’t responsive to the needs of their people. So there will be that effect as well in places where authorities had tried to centralize power, which is, you know, more countries than not. And unfortunately, the tools for repression that those countries have amassed in recent years also create great vulnerabilities for civilians who might raise their voices in a democratic way. So even if there’s been democratic backsliding, tell people who are hungry that, right? They’re still going to come out to the streets; they’re still going to demand some form of accountability—

TALEV: Hunger is a powerful motivator, for good or for bad.

POWER: Yeah, it is, and yet, with China and Russia, you know, backing, you know, pretty brutal responses, certainly domestically in their own countries but also globally, you know, it is a different situation from fourteen years ago where, you know, the tools of surveillance, the tools of repression have really, again, proliferated and so you could see, you know, pretty significant brutality also in response to those efforts to demand greater support from governments in light of the food crisis. This is a very, very volatile time, in short.

TALEV: Could I ask you quickly about South Sudan, the U.N. World Food Programme saying this week’s it’s going to have suspend food assistance for 1.7 million people. It is the time—the greatest time of hunger in eleven years of independence, but I’m wondering how you look at that in the context of—sorry to drag you into domestic politics so soon but—November, the potential for a change of the guard in control of Congress, in control of the House? There are a number of politicians, particularly in the Republican Party in the U.S., who say the U.S. should be spending less on foreign aid and should be doing less in foreign intervention because we have so many problems at home. Can the U.S. step in where the World Food Programme can’t? And how do you think about the challenges, if there’s a change in political control in Washington, for USAID?

POWER: Yeah, I mean, I’d say, first of all, the World Food Programme’s money, most of it, the majority of it, anyway, comes from the United States, so that is actually USAID’s prime partner. I think the challenge for the World Food Programme is the same challenge we USAID or we the United States face which is, in a sea of need, you know, what is the right allocation? You know, yes, we have this infusion of resources from Congress for which, again, I can’t stress how grateful we are and bipartisan—and I’ll come to that in the context of your political question—but how do you also pace yourself knowing that the needs now are going to be dramatically greater, you know, even just by September? And I—to divert just for a second, to give you one example of that, Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, there are 16.7 million people today dependent on food assistance along the lines of that which is provided WFP, you know, thanks again to American funding. That number is likely to increase by 20 million people by September in those three countries, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, alone, and that’s not even getting to South Sudan, Sudan, and, you know, so many other parts of sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. So I think pacing temporally, you know, looking at a universe of needs—we just announced $331 million at the Summit of the Americas last week in food assistance and food security money for the Americas. That’s in our own hemisphere. People associate the images of severe hunger and malnutrition, you know, with the Ethiopia famine back in the day or with Somalia; those places, you know, have great need but so too do Guatemala and Honduras and places where the combination of climate shock and now high fertilizer prices has really saddled the populations with significant, you know, hunger and food needs.

So, you know, again, we have been—have additional resources to bring to bear. I’m talking to David Beasley this week about the situation in South Sudan and what more we can do to try to, you know, stave off that risk of actually having to cut people off of food assistance. We need other donors to do more. That actually helps us up on the Hill as well. That is—when I, you know, talked to Senator McConnell not that long ago and, you know, it was in the context of this huge supplemental, which we know we’re going to burn through very quickly given the scale of need, and that was one of the main messages is, like, help us tell the story, you know, in our caucus, help us tell the story back in our district about how we leverage our resources to get other countries to do more. And unfortunately, right now, there are many devastating aspects of the war in Ukraine but one that is probably less talked about or less focused on, even in a community like this one, is that with the flow of refugees, six to seven million refugees into Europe, the funding for caring for those Ukrainians as Europe has so generously done is actually coming out of overseas development assistance and humanitarian budgets, so every dollar spent, you know, in Europe—you know, the number crunchers could have, arguably, done it either way, could have come out of domestic spending that I’m sure would have its own trade-offs and be very difficult, as we know firsthand here, but what it means is that at just the time of this, arguably, unprecedented food crisis, you’re actually seeing a lot of the key donors scaling back, if you can believe it, development and humanitarian assistance in places like sub-Saharan Africa. And that comes on the heels of the British government, you know, making significant cuts from their, you know, traditional, very substantial commitment.

So to your point about flipping, you know, again, it’s not for me to weigh in on politics. Of course, we watch carefully. I will say that, thanks in part to David Beasley, and, you know, he’s a former Republican governor of South Carolina, thanks to senators like Lindsey Graham, I was with Rob Portman talking about these issues yesterday—I mean, there is a core of GOP senators especially but also on the House side with Congressman McCaul and others, you know, who feel both compassion toward people who are hungry and face food needs and also see that this is a critical sort of tool in the toolbox of American foreign policy and that America’s show of generosity and ingenuity, as we have on COVID vaccination, which has now become more complicated, but we had a year of, you know, just winning hearts and minds as well as investing in our own—in our citizens’ own health by getting shots into arms and doing so with the state-of-the-art vaccines. So to hear when people face these needs, when we come in with drought resistance seeds or precision fertilizer expertise where people can get more yield using less fertilizer so as to be able to conserve in light of the high prices, or just with humanitarian assistance of this nature—I mean, that is, you know, a really, really powerful show of what America is in the world at a time when, back to your point about the connection with democracy and authoritarianism, where China’s coming in and often, you know, still writing big checks on infrastructure but also saddling countries with debt from which it takes generations to recover.

TALEV: So if the U.S. doesn’t offer it, China will with its own terms.

POWER: Well, all I’m saying is that I think there’s an argument to be made, no matter who’s in power or who’s up or who’s down in Washington, and I think it’s one that—as you see, actually, from the administration that preceded ours, you know, where everybody expected—and I think the Trump administration’s own budget request would have slashed USAID’s budgets by huge amounts and forced us to lay off our local staff around the world and cut programming across sectors, and it was Republicans up on the Hill who protected that budget, and Mark Green, my predecessor, was able to continue programing begun in the Obama administration and expand in certain areas.

TALEV: Two quick questions, if I can ask you to look inward at the administration for a second. How do you feel about the U.S. using Afghan funds, some of those Afghan funds, for 9/11 families in the middle of the humanitarian crisis? And do you feel it’s appropriate for President Biden to meet with MBS in Saudi given the human rights record?

POWER: So I’d say, on the first question, that, you know, the Biden administration through executive order has made $3.5 billion in reserves, you know, available, of the 7 billion (dollars). You know, that’s the minimum that will go back to Afghanistan. I think the core challenge is that there is a liquidity crisis, an economic crisis, an unwillingness on the part of the Taliban to do even sort of the basic things that one would need to do to ensure a kind of independent, technocratic governance, for example, of the central bank there, and so the steps taken on that side show way too little urgency—no urgency, and almost a coldness to the effects—no surprise, I know but—to the effects on the Afghan people. So my focus and that of my team has been, look, we have—there’s a lot of money there to work with to try to support the Afghan people, but, you know, in the end, you know, it’s going to take, you know, pressure from all of us, especially those who have inroads with the Taliban regime, the Qataris, the Turks, and others, you know, to see some, you know, basic adjustments in economic governance, such that those resources can be brought to bear.

You know, look, on the Saudi trip, you know, I think you—we have significant concerns about human rights. I think President Biden has been clear about that, will be clear about that. We all know what happened before. We also, you know, have significant issues to raise in the foreign policy domain with Saudi Arabia. Yemen—while everybody is focused on the war in Ukraine—is experiencing its first extended period of relative calm in a really long period of time. If that is to be extended, sustained, locked in, potentially into some kind of lasting peace, it’s going to require engagement with MBS who orchestrated, you know, the coalition response to the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, and so forth, so there’s a lot of human rights business to be done or business in the human rights and humanitarian realm that will, I know, be a key part of dialogue there.

TALEV: Thank you. I want to ask you about a striking doctrine that’s closely associated with you, the responsibility to protect, and I want to ask you, at this moment in 2022, what does R2P mean in today’s terms, and how healthy is it on a scale of one to ten?

POWER: Well, I think that—and I feel a little bit like a broken record on this insofar as saying it a thousand times doesn’t make anybody—it has—people understand R2P in the way that they understand it and no amount of words seems to change that. But R2P—

TALEV: No, do it. (Laughs.)

POWER: I could try again. R2P, such as it’s called, which was, you know, the product of, you know, I think it was Lloyd Axworthy led the effort out of Canada, Michael Ignatieff and others were involved. I was not involved in the adoption of R2P, but it sort of enshrined what by then was a kind of an intuition in American foreign policy circles but also among democracies, which is that when people are murdered on grounds of ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, you know, if there are mass atrocities being carried out, we have a responsibility collectively to figure out what we’re going to do about it. And that—and then you have a toolkit that you look into and you say, OK, what’s the appropriate tool, you know, in a given context? The reason I say there’s a lot of misunderstanding is I think because people associated the invocation of R2P, for example, with the intervention in Libya, there’s a sense that R2P means you use military force when people are dying. But you could argue R2P, at least the, you know, in the informal sense, is part of what explains, you know, the massive amounts of security assistance being provided today to Ukrainian security forces. People are being murdered by the Russian Federation for no reason, Russian Federation forces for no reason, Russian Federation’s militia for no reason.

We, the United States, have a responsibility to look in the toolkit, as do our European allies and other democracies, and say, what can we do? Well, we can expel Russia from the Human Rights Council. We can, you know, generate a very lopsided vote in the U.N. General Assembly to condemn what they’re doing. We try to increase the diplomatic pressure. But so too—and this is outside of USAID’s jurisdiction—we want to give the Ukrainian brave fighters of Ukraine the means to defend themselves, which, by the way, when I started my career back when I worked as intern in Richard Haass’ vicinity, that was the tool in the toolbox that the Bosnians most wanted as well; they just wanted the means to defend themselves. I shouldn’t say “just,” because that is always asking a lot of the international system.

So, you know, I think that President Biden in the Ukraine context has made clear, you know, we are not going to go to battle or end up in a war with Russia, notwithstanding, you know, how dedicated we are to ensuring, again, the survival and health of the Ukrainian state, but that’s, I think, an example of that doctrine kind of being put to use. I think when Sudan, which was a real bright spot—I mentioned some other bright spots—was a real bright spot because of the transition that had occurred, Bashir, a genocidal leader, you know, being put in jail, you know, young people, 70 percent of whom were women, you know, leading the protests, bringing down the government—you know, then—that is a move away from, you know, leadership by the purveyors of atrocities, and there again we had a responsibility to come in and think about, OK, what are the tools we employ to try to lock down, again, with other donors to try to help solidify the transition to democratic rule? With the coup and the throwback now to shooting at protesters, locking up young people, now we have to look at OK, what are the new set of tools? Is it diplomatic pressure? Is it going back to a world of economic isolation? I mean, it’s been incredibly sad, especially at the time of the food crisis, you know, not to be able to be moving forward with the kinds of programs we were planning on doing with the transition civilian government of Sudan, and that’s going to become even more painful knowing, again, how many people are suffering the effects of this food crisis.

So, you know, in terms of its health as a formal capital R2P doctrine, you know, it’s not something that people are, you know, invoking, notwithstanding I think collectively the desire when atrocities are happening or when civilians are suffering needlessly, you know, the desire of countries to come together and look at that toolkit, do the cost-benefit, you know, and go from there.

The last thing I would just say is probably the principal means of offering military civilian protection—which is probably what was at the heart of your question and usually what people mean, even though it’s not, again, what the concept was to begin with—is U.N. peacekeeping still—I mean, it is U.N. peacekeepers who are on the front lines of providing civilian protection in conflict circumstances, and I will say there were very substantial cuts made, you know, in the previous administration, that do mean that there are fewer peacekeepers facing, I think, more challenging circumstances now, even than the ones that we dealt with in the Obama administration, just in terms of the proliferation of conflict, the rise of militia, now new atrocities being carried out in grotesque ways in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo. So we made a lot of investments in the Obama years—again, not formally because of R2P but just because we wanted to see more civilian protection in getting European militaries involved in peacekeeping again, in getting female police officers and peacekeepers involved, given the prevalence of sexual violence, even carried out by peacekeepers, on civilians, just so horrifying. I think, you know, this administration, the Biden administration, is trying to re-up, you know, that kind of effort to ensure that the peacekeepers who are out there actually trying to prevent atrocities have the tools that they need to protect civilians, but it’s challenging because a lot of time and momentum was lost, unfortunately.

TALEV: Thank you, Sam. I want to turn in a second to member questions, to fellows’ questions. I think I’d be remiss if we didn’t put a pin in the last week and the start of those January 6 hearings, and I guess what I want to ask you is, USAID, of course, is focused on promoting democratic values abroad. Do you think that the example that America sets at home has any impact on how other countries view democracy? And both in your role now and as a long-time humanitarian, how concerned are you about elections in which candidates are not only running but winning contests based on a promise to propagate what’s commonly known as the big lie, about the threat of future legislatures or state secretaries of state potentially overturning the will of voters? How much do you think about this in your role now?

POWER: Well, I’d say two things. I mean, first, your question was, do events, trends, actions at home matter, affect, you know, kind of the—our impact abroad or how our message is heard? Yes—(laughs)—they do. They do, of course, profoundly. And you know, in the positive too. I mean, I remember in the Obama years I was in the first term, you know, his human rights adviser but also his U.N. adviser. Ambassador Rice was in New York as U.N. ambassador. And I remember just talking with her a lot about just how closely U.N. ambassadors from other countries were watching our health care deliberations and that’s partly because, you know, the U.S. also traditionally has been a little bit at arm’s length from social and economic rights in international fora and here was a president coming along and declaring, you know, Americans’ right to health care and working programmatically to try to secure that, and they just—I mean, it was like every, you know, back deal—you know, backdoor negotiation, you know, the ebb and the flow, just the extent to which ambassadors were tracking all of that.

And so, too, I think when I was in New York as ambassador, the most salient example of this was sort of among the ambassadors yes, but mainly out in the countries that one was traveling to, I would always make it a point, of course, first in meeting with civil society or human rights activists and often LGBTQ activists, who in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, you know, often living in very difficult circumstances and, you know, facing an awful lot of demagoguery and outright harassment and even violence, and, you know, what the same-sex marriage—you know, first the sort of cascading decisions in the states and the state courts and in legislatures and then ultimately the Supreme Court’s enshrinement of that, I mean, what it meant, you know, to those people living in, you know, often with just fear of being themselves. And so it’s just—it all matters; it’s all part of what people believe, you know, is their fate and their future. In the case of the gay marriage example, it’s what people believe the United States will be and stand for in its foreign policy, and, you know, we have to—(laughs)—if we are to—I mean, I made a huge investment—we haven’t had a chance to talk about it; maybe we will in the questions but—in retooling the democracy-promotion tool kit for USAID, for the U.S. government, working with Secretary Blinken, you know, and we have a really fresh and I think cutting-edge toolbox now, which, again, maybe we can talk about.

But, you know, that is going to be really—(laughs)—something that will be—when any of those tools are employed, whether it’s on, you know, the fight against disinformation or protecting journalists who are uncovering corruption in the countries that they’re in, or any one of these sort of tools that are meant to be responsive to this moment, it will be really hard to be effective with all of that, if we are in a world where countries question whether the United States respects and believes in the peaceful transfer of power, whether—you know, when we—when I or Secretary Blinken or anybody go to another country after an election and say to an incumbent, you lost, you know, you’ve got to respect the results, you know, that—of course, like how that message is going to be heard by, you know, the world’s leading democracy promoter is going to be affected by whether or not we at the national level and at the state level and even at the secretary of State level are respecting results of elections. So everything is connected to everything else, and I think that—any disconnect there is going to be very, very damaging for the broader struggle between democracy and authoritarianism that we are most certainly in the midst of right now.

TALEV: Thanks. At this time I would like to invite members and the IAF fellows to join our conversation with your questions. Someone’s got a microphone. As it moves around, if you’re willing to, could you tell us who you are and then ask your question? And we’ll do a mix from this room and virtually.

Thanks. Let’s start right here.

Q: Hi. Alex Dehgan, Conservation X Labs and former USAID alum.

So we’ve had, like, fifty, sixty years, for a long time, of successes of democracy and in the last twenty years we’ve seen that reversed. We’ve seen the rise of autocracy. What is really driving that reversal? What do we do to stop it? And what role does technology play or should play in either aspect of that?

POWER: Well, you know—(laughter)—my three-point plan—(laughter)—for saving democracy—well, I mean, first—and I think, you know, we could crowdsource the answer to the first part of your question here and there are so many factors I think we look back on. First, let’s be honest, a complacency about—you know, which itself—you can be complacent and still do a set of things, but a complacency that led, let’s say, to taking our eye off some of the vulnerabilities associated with democratization, so—in the belief that—you know, if—that having more Golden Arches, you know, ultimately would mean more democratization and more peace and the idea that history was on this inexorable march had policy consequences. And we can enumerate them, but there’s just no question. I think part of that also—taking our—and it’s collective certainly—you know, all of us have to look back and ask ourselves what more we could have done at different times, but taking our eye off just how many individuals, how many humans were not benefiting from the form of globalization that we pursued, because it wasn’t a passive thing, right?

It was a set of policy choices and the very unequal distribution of benefits which left large numbers of people with buyer’s remorse maybe about globalization but that’s not really—just as we were talking about earlier, that’s not really how you experience it; you’re not like a citizen who, you know, can’t afford to, you know, feed your family or really living at knife’s edge despite two jobs. You don’t think to yourself, I’m going to blame globalization; you think I’m going to blame my leader or maybe if someone comes along and says it’s democracy’s fault or it’s—you know, it’s just too messy, and democracy is truly messy, as we know firsthand here—you know, someone comes along as a strongman promising, you know, order or promising the spoils of patronage or whatever, I mean, you know, again, let’s ask ourselves where would we be on that question if we were living, you know, with significant vulnerability?

And to be clear, it’s not only—(laughs)—and it’s not even especially economically vulnerable people who are paving the way for opportunists, you know, to take advantage of that, but I do think there’s a fertile soil there, you know, as well. And then—and there’s so much more one could say, but China’s rise of the last decade, both as a model for, needless to say, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty as an authoritarian system, then, you know, sort of seeming to expose a flaw in the broader—in the prior kind of theory of the case that you couldn’t have those kinds of economic returns without democratic governance and then China’s own activism—and Russia’s, which goes less noticed, actually—but beyond their borders in supporting really repressive tactics, in not being a friend of pluralism, in supplying those tools, as I alluded to earlier, that actually allow—and indeed supplying training as well—that allow governments to crack down. So that’s a factor.

And then, in all of this, you know, the role of social media in perpetuating lies and in allowing the consolidation of extremist views—you know, that—you might say, well, how does that relate to democracy per se again? The causality of all this is very complex, but it is absolutely the case that, you know, extremists, whether ISIS or, you know, white supremacists, you know, murderous, you know, groups or other, you know, kind of actors of that nature abroad who are actually bringing violence to bear—when you have organizations that believe that violence is a tool of pursuing their objectives—and, again, ISIS is in another order of, you know, murderous nihilism or whatever—but the social media and the echo chambers have provided a place where alienated people go and do get radicalized. That’s both terrible in terms of all of the harm and the heartbreak that terrorist groups can bring about, but it also is a justification—when there’s a proliferation of those groups, it becomes a justification for crackdowns and for centralization of power and an abridgment of human rights.

And so the fact that you see now more conflicts happening than at any point since the end of the Cold War, that you see not only terrorist groups of the kind that strike at, you know, American citizens and American institutions, but many other groups who employ those tactics, you know, whether a Boko Haram or Al-Shabab or, I mean, really murderous groups, you know, then, you know, you start to see government saying, well, this is not the time for democracy or this is not the time, you know, for respecting human rights; you know, we have to deal with these movements. And there’s a lot of popular support for that, given the horrors that those very extreme terrorist groups impose. So a lot of different factors.

You know, on the what to do about it, I think for democracy to deliver it’s really important. And, again, I’m already answering at too great a length the first part of your question, but just to say there has to be more of an economic dividend when you have a reformer bucking the trend of sixteen years of freedom in decline. I offered the names of a few countries who I think fall into that category. But it can’t be public sector financing alone. We need the private sector to actually care that there’s a democratic opening someplace.

And itself—and there’s plenty of money to be made. So it’s not charity. But it does require potentially, you know, thinking about countries in the queue, and where you want to look at making investments. We at USAID are trying to work more closely with the World Bank and other international financial institutions, with the Development Finance Corporation, that can bring far greater resources—with the MCC, of course, which has been doing this for some time, to try to leverage its assistance to move countries, you know, in a—in a better direction in terms of governance.

So there are a lot of tools there, but that connection between democracy and development, in a way it’s a kind of corollary. The old idea, right, which is that you couldn’t develop economically without democracy, that sort of China said, yes, we can, look. So the corollary of that, though is that when you have a democratic government or particularly moves in more democratic or liberalizing directions, economic development really needs—and economic dividends really need to follow. So that, I would say—that emphasis, I think, can be really important, at least in meeting that first couple causes.

And the last thing I’d just say—sorry, Margaret—but just—I think that the meme of democracy’s decline does nobody any favors. And one of the things that—you know, one of the reasons the stakes in the Ukraine war are incredibly high, I think, is not only, you know, these innocent people who were minding their own business, you know, getting ravaged and steel rained down on them just out of gratuitous brutality, with full justification. That’s terrible and needs to be repudiated and rejected in its own right.

But also, I think already you’ve seen, you know, how the democratic world has rallied in unprecedented ways. At least since the end of the Cold War we haven’t had any kind of galvanizing moment or phenomenon like this. And, you know, if—you know, and you saw it especially when the battle of Kyiv was won by Ukrainian forces, and just the sense of rejuvenation that also gives the idea of democracy. Again, the practical effects of protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and freedom, you know, that’s cause enough. But collaterally, the effects are very real. And just, again, it only deepens the importance of us maintaining the kinds of commitments that we’re making now and ensuring that others do the same.

TALEV: Thank you for the question.

 We’ve got, I think, ten minutes, unless we get extra time. We’re going to try to take at least three more questions, maybe four if we can speed-round it. (Laughs.)

POWER: I’ll try to be speedier.

TALEV: Can we do one, Sam, virtually? And then we’ll come back to the room.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Mark Hetfield.

Q: Thank you. I’m Mark Hetfield with HIAS, which is the Jewish Community’s refugee agency.

A report with HIAS and VOICE released earlier this month, Waiting for the Sky to Close, speaks to the regional impact of the Ukraine war on women and girls who, as you know, make up the vast majority of forcibly displaced persons. My first question is, how do you see USAID’s role in supporting the agency of women and girls in recovery and rebuilding? And my second question, HIAS has prioritized funding of local organizations, particularly women-led organizations in the region, and our sister organization in Ukraine, which happens to be named R2P. Can you share more about USAID plans for localization for the Ukraine response, including your plans for a consortium agreement with an NGO serving as an umbrella for funding to local partners? Thanks.

TALEV: Thanks, Mark.

POWER: Thank you. Well, first, thanks for your great work, not only in the Ukraine context but also in helping Afghans and others resettle in this country as we get our refugee numbers up to—in keeping with the great American tradition of welcoming people who are fleeing persecution. And thanks also to what you’re doing in Europe in supporting European countries that are, as you say, dealing with not only unprecedented numbers of incoming vulnerable people, but an unprecedented demographic. The fact that it is more than 90 percent women and kids, that the women have left behind their men of fighting age, that in being sole parents that makes it very difficult for them to work.

And I think, just above all, the shock and the trauma that they are carrying. There are also grave protection risks to those people coming across. And we’ve seen, I think, a dramatic increase in the protection infrastructure to try to prevent trafficking. And, you know, you come across the border and have just come out of some horror show, and, you know, maybe gotten out of Mariupol, and then you come across. And somebody’s there at the train station saying: I’m here to help you. You know, how do you know whether to trust? And there’s been, you know, again, an increase in presence and alertness to this risk, but it took some time to scale up.

In terms of the agency of women and girls, I think it has to be a filter through which not just our humanitarian programming or recovery programming is processed, but all of our programming. And, you know, I think—I think what—the way assistance generally tends to flow is you tend to have your assistance writ large, and then you have your programs to empower women and girls. And we’re trying to change that. We’re trying to ensure that when you have a humanitarian program, let’s say working with the World Food Programme or working with the Ukrainian Red Cross, you know, that the engagement entails using the leverage of having that program to ensure that women beneficiaries, of course, are center stage, but also that women are involved in identifying those beneficiaries—centrally involved.

And, you know, of course, that has become much more challenging places like Afghanistan, but you don’t get any policy pushback in Ukraine. And indeed, in Ukraine, as you know, because so many men are fighting women and girls really are finding themselves inside Ukraine on the frontlines of helping internally displaced people, running trafficking or, you know, sexual violence, sexual abuse hotlines, which are flooded with calls, given the amount—the way in which rape and sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war by so many Russian forces. So I think de facto anyway, just because of where men are right now, women and girls are in those roles. But I think for us it needs to be, again, kind of fundamental to all of our programming to be looking to empower women and girls, and to ensure that their voices are central to even program design as we go forward.

In terms, briefly, of localization, this is a big priority of mine. You know, surprised people who don’t track, perhaps, foreign assistance. But just a very tiny percent, under 10 percent, of foreign assistance goes to local organizations. It’s really, really surprising and something we absolutely have to fix. We won’t be able to fix it quickly. I wish it were otherwise. There’s no magic wand here. Working with an agency like USAID is really hard. There are tons of safeguards to guard against fraud, waste and abuse that have grown up over a long period of time. So if you’re a local NGO in Ukraine or any place else, the idea that you’re going to have, like, a general counsel’s office, and an accounting firm. And, you know, so the rules that we have in place are not meant to penalize local organizations, but of course they’re going to have a disparate impact on those organizations. And those U.S.-based—

TALEV: Just stunning numbers.

POWER: Yeah. Well, yeah. I didn’t say how far under 10 percent. It’s even more stunning. (Laughter.) But, anyway, we’ve set a goal of getting that number up to at least 25 percent. But one thing we can do much more quickly, which gets to the first part of your question as well, is we have a goal of 50 percent, at least of what we’re going in other countries, being co-designed, co-evaluated with local actors, you know, at the table, centrally involved in deciding, you know, is what we’re trying to do actually happening. Do we need to adjust? Et cetera. So that’s—in a way, hopefully we can more quickly to get toward that integration, even as we try to cut down the sludge inherent in working with USAID.

And then on the consortium, in Ukraine specifically, it’s a $100 million consortium, the first one, anyway, with Mercy Corps, where we’re encouraging Mercy Corps to seek out relationships with local organizations, Ukrainian organizations. And what we are doing as USAID, because on the development side, not the humanitarian emergency side, we work with local organizations, you know, in a very significant way, and have, you know, in the more than twenty years we’ve been active in Ukraine, especially in the very intense last eight years since the Maidan.

So we know that the local development partners, local Ukrainian organizations who would be great, actually, to work with, even in the humanitarian space. That isn’t what we’ve necessarily done. And we don’t want to divert them from their anti-corruption work or from, again, supporting women and girls, or displaced people in other, you know, kind of longer-term ways. But I think steering those international organizations that we are partnering with toward that universe of local groups that we have traditions of working with in other areas, if that is a pivot that they want to make. Because so many local organizations in Ukraine are pivoting because there wasn’t a war circumstance like this any time before.

But that’s the kind of thing I think the Mercy Corps consortium allows us that flexibility to bring those local partners in. And why does local matter? Because we want to work ourselves out of jobs. (Laughs.) We don’t want—no country wants to be dependent on assistance. And yet, if we work primarily through U.S.-based or large public international organizations, when they leave, you know, a lot of the institutional knowledge and know-how leaves. Whereas if we make the investments with local organizations to begin with in Ukraine and well beyond, that’s a much more enduring contribution to a country’s development.

TALEV: Don’t kill me, we’re going to do at least one more from this room.

POWER: No, that’s fine. I’m going on too long.

TALEV: Back there. You’re wearing a mask. Yes, you. Yes, thank you.

POWER: Do you want to—why don’t you take three, and then I’ll just try to very pithily, you know, do—

TALEV: Do you want to do—OK.

POWER: Just so we hear the voices of more than me.

TALEV: Three rounds. We’ll do your questions. We’ll do three questions and then she’ll answer all in thirty seconds. It’ll be magical.

POWER: I’ll just be very tight.

Q: All right. Great. My name is Sabeen Dhanani. I’m the deputy director for technology in the Innovation, Technology and Research Hub at USAID.

And my question for you is: How do you respond when bilateral, multilateral partners express discomfort or balk when we call out specific countries by name as being undemocratic or authoritarian?

TALEV: OK. Great question. One, question two, yes. OK, yes.

Q: A food security question. You quickly mentioned some parts of the toolkit for increasing domestic production. You talked about seeds, you talked about fertilizer. You didn’t say anything about the toolkit for increasing regional and global trade. And my question is, have we learned some things from the 2007-2008 food crisis that help us balance those two toolkits?

TALEV: Great. And, yes.

Q: Thanks, Sam. Hi, Tony Borden from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Next time our auditor comes in, can I say that you called it sludge? (Laughter.) Just that would be helpful.

POWER: Yeah.

Q: My question, just to pick up on the other things you said, as a journalist, when you bombed around Bosnia we all felt that getting the information out was the thing that would make the difference. In a world of social media but also disinformation and shared power, is journalism enough? And you guys are doing a lot, and we’re working with you to do more on how we can help journalism, but is journalism enough to really make a difference when we see, especially in Ukraine and elsewhere, what a challenge, and grave challenge globally, disinformation is?

TALEV: Thank you.

Q: Thank you.

POWER: Thank you. So in order, on, first, the bilateral partners who aren’t crazy about democracy generally or accountability to democratic standards, or being called out, as you put it. I guess what I’d say—and, first, thank you for your work at USAID. But I think that, you know, we—I think we have the facts structurally on our side. You know, what those leaders who might be disgruntled believe is that USAID’s sort of menu of programs—USAID’s programs should be a menu. OK, we want—we really love this economic competitiveness program. Yes, we’d like twenty million vaccines, and are grateful for PEPFAR and your malaria work. But, you know, none of this anticorruption work. Like, we don’t want that. We didn’t sign up for that. So it’s a cafeteria, we get to just pull, like, this item and that.

It's just not going to work. You know, we’re not going to be able to attract the private sector and grow your economy if, you know, you’re attacking the supreme court judges or, you know, firing people who are getting too close to individuals within your own circle who are pilfering resources from the state. So, you know, our case—our structural case is that development is the three legs on the stool. It’s security, economic growth, and opportunity, of course. Which, you know, again, every leader is focused on.

And then governance, human rights, the rule of law. And we just have to just keep showing and not just telling that, and offering examples of where we, you know, again, can’t actually support governments in delivering even the social services they want, because when citizens can’t complain or vote the people out who’ve been either incompetent or corrupt, again, in the dispensation of those services, you know, you just can’t get that economic and social dividend that you’re seeking.

So we just keep coming back with that. It’s just a matter of almost like a practical case rather than, you know, kind of, you know, some, you know, getting caught up in is this name calling, is it not? It’s just, no, this is just not going to work. You’re not going to be able to achieve these other objectives, any more than you could, again, if terrorist groups are running rampant. You know, you understand that, that you have to have physical security and human security. Well, so too rule of law is a form of human security.

Second, on the expansion of the toolkit, if I understood the question correctly, I think the administration as a whole is very, very focused on export bans, export controls, that very human—(laughs)—you know, almost—there was a great book not long ago called Animal Spirits. You know, this impulse to just lock things down, close one’s border, keep the food, keep the fertilizer, keep whatever you want in house. The tragedy is it just—it means far less on the global markets, so prices go further up, but also that your own producers, your own farmers, are not going to be able to make money. And so it ends up being very self-defeating, even from a domestic standpoint.

So we are making that case. Nonetheless, there is a lot of panic out there right now. And I think I saw a stat yesterday that the number of export controls of some kind, or export restrictions that are in place now, I think it’s more than two dozen, could account for as much as 17 percent of the globally traded calories in the global market. So, you know, we hope that that’s just—you know, that these can be walked back. And in some cases they have been, or exemptions have been carved out because of this engagement. And not just ours, of course. The WTO and others. But this is, I agree very much—I didn’t go into a lot, you know, of what we were doing. And certainly, we very much agreement with the premise that these kinds of policy restrictions can be every bit as damaging, you know, as some of the other obstructions to food circulation, to exports, and so forth, as we’ve seen elsewhere.

And then finally, you know, is journalism enough? I think journalism has never been enough. Journalism is necessary, but journalism is not sufficient. You know, you always needed, you know, even when we cut our teeth together in the Balkans. You needed the reporters to go in and uncover the concentration camps, the death camps. And then you needed a policymaker to do something about it. And you’re pointing to something different, which is how can even truth and how can facts prevail or break through? You know, and that’s where, you know, the responsibility not only of governments but now countries that account for more of the global GDP, or have the equivalent of more GDP than 70 percent of the countries in the United Nations—like Meta, right?

Which I used to—for my class at the Kennedy School I would show, like, all the flags of all the countries of the U.N., and then rank them by GDP. And I would put Facebook’s flag among them and it was some—I can’t remember who it was between—it was between Sweden and someone else in terms of the equivalent of GDP. And yet, none of the checks and balances that Sweden has, you know, in its, you know, democracy in its system with its rule of law are present. You know, and yet the impact of what Facebook, or Meta, or whatever, or any of these companies do or don’t do, can be life and death impact.

Certainly, you know, climate denial will have life and death impact. The COVID misinformation, which they began to crack down on but nonetheless, you know, a lot seeped through there that has had life and death impact. And, you know, when it comes to the big lies globally, of which there are many, you know, this has existential impact often for the future of humane governance, you know, in these countries in question. So part of what we have to do as an administration is engage those companies, as we might, you know, governments from other countries, to also—you know, to try to ensure, you know, a deepened commitment not so much to a set of principles but to implementation and a sense of urgency around the human stakes of what is done and not done in the information space.

TALEV: OK. Amazing. Thank you so much. Thanks all of your joining today’s meeting. Thank you, USAID Administrator and Ambassador Sam Power for being with us today. And just for all of your information, the video and the transcript of today’s meeting will be posted later today on CFR’s website. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

POWER: Thank you.


This is an uncorrected transcript.

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