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USAID nominee promises to prioritize anti-corruption work

Samantha Power, Obama's former U.N. ambassador, says she would work on democracy promotion and human rights

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power testifies Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be the next administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power testifies Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be the next administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. (Getty Images)

Clarified, March 24 | The expected next head of the government’s largest foreign aid agency said Tuesday that if confirmed she would prioritize addressing human rights violations, fighting global corruption and supporting democracy around the world.

Samantha Power, the Biden administration’s nominee to be administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told her Senate Foreign Relations confirmation hearing that amid a steady drumbeat of negative news about the global state of democracy and human rights, she also saw heartening signs of resilience.

“Prior to the pandemic, there were more political protests that occurred than at any point in modern recorded history,” said Power, who served as U.N. ambassador during President Barack Obama’s second term. “So on the one hand, you have states repressing their people and growing more sophisticated in shutting down the internet and stifling space for civil society. On the other hand, many, many people are not getting that memo and are insisting on taking the protests and their concerns to the streets and holding governments accountable.”

Power said it was critical to increase the resources and attention the U.S. government puts into fighting global corruption.

“Looking at anti-corruption work specifically, which is a real Achilles for authoritarian and illiberal countries, I think is one we haven’t taken full advantage of,” said Power, who was also Obama’s top human rights official on the National Security Council. “This will be a huge priority for me.”

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Under the Trump administration’s former USAID chief, Mark Green, the agency carried out a significant reorganization that involved relocating its democracy and human rights programs into a new bureau that also included other program areas such as education, market development, energy and infrastructure.

Power suggested she would have further discussions with Menendez about whether to move the democracy and good governance programs out of their current location within USAID’s Bureau for Development, Democracy and Innovation.

“This is incredibly important programming,” she said.

If confirmed, Power will be inheriting an agency that since Green’s retirement is seen to have been left somewhat rudderless amid the global coronavirus pandemic, the world’s greatest public health crisis in a century. The Trump administration, ignoring the urging of many lawmakers, did not include USAID in its White House coronavirus task force, despite the agency’s specialization in public health and humanitarian responses.

“While I believe Ambassador Green, for whom I have great respect, believed and invested in the mission of the agency, the years after his departure have taken a serious toll on agency morale, strained USAID’s relationships with its implementing partners and weakened trust in America,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J.

Power, who helped rally international support at the United Nations for Obama’s plan for containing and eliminating the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, said she would focus on seeing that developing countries receive timely access to COVID-19 vaccines.

“It is in our interests to make that happen,” said Power, noting the danger that mutating coronavirus variants, which frequently develop overseas, represent to Americans’ health when they inevitably spread to this country.

While the United States has more coronavirus cases than any other country in the world, it also is a major producer of coronavirus vaccines. Washington has come under criticism for not doing more to share vaccine doses at a time when the vast majority of countries are significantly trailing the United States in the percentage of their populations that have been vaccinated.

The Biden administration has argued in response that it is the biggest single funder of the World Health Organization-led COVAX initiative, which aims to provide low-cost or free vaccines to 20 percent of the populations of low-income countries by the end of the year.

Power said COVAX’s vaccination goal is “not sufficient” and that she would look to “see how COVAX is being supplemented by bilateral donations, surplus donations.”

Some Republican senators such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky were combative in their questioning of Power. Cruz suggested that she was insufficiently supportive of Israel because she abstained from a key 2016 vote on a Security Council resolution criticizing Israel’s construction of settlements in the West Bank. The resolution ultimately passed when she did not use the U.S. veto. Paul grilled her on her advocacy while at the White House of the 2011 military intervention that toppled Libyan dictator Muamar Gadhafi, which has resulted in years of subsequent civil war and instability in the North African country. 

However, most GOP members were collegial in their questioning of Power, while Democrats were even more positive toward her, suggesting she will be confirmed by a comfortable margin.

This report was revised to reflect that Power said she would talk with committee members on whether to move the State Department’s pro-democracy and good governance programs out of the Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation.

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