How Samantha Power Can Restore USAID’s Crucial Role in US Foreign Policy

President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power as his nominee to be the next administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development sends a clear message that international cooperation is back in the toolbox for America’s pursuit of an equitable, prosperous, and just world. The nomination of a respected former Cabinet member, the position’s elevation to the National Security Council, and the timing of the announcement among Biden’s first tier of nominations also reinvests USAID with the authority and influence to take its rightful place in U.S. foreign policy and development/humanitarian assistance circles.

Power is smart, savvy, and ready to serve. Her international reputation as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a principled advocate of human rights and global justice, and a foreign policy thought leader was well-established even before she entered the Obama White House in 2009. In her next eight years at the National Security Council and the United Nations, she logged achievements in such areas as peacebuilding, conflict resolution, atrocity prevention, women’s empowerment, and LGBT+ rights, and helped develop new tools for multilateral diplomacy.

For example, during her U.N. tenure, she helped negotiate and adopt the world’s most comprehensive and ambitious set of commitments to eliminating global poverty, the Sustainable Development Goals. Given the abandonment of the U.S. commitment to the SDGs under the current administration, Power is well-suited to handle a reverse in course. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2013 to 2016, she helped build an effective coalition of 60 countries that proved critical to its containment. She travelled extensively to global hotspots and adopted a holistic approach linking national security to human security.

Her U.N. experience and contacts also will be invaluable as the United States re-engages with the World Health Organization and partners in the Paris Climate Accord to address two of the most pressing global challenges: the COVID-19 response and climate change.

Swift action on Power’s nomination is particularly important given the transition turmoil now facing USAID and other government agencies. USAID cannot afford the eight months it took for President Donald Trump’s USAID administrator, Mark Green, to take office in 2017, or the full year it took for President Barack Obama’s administrator, Rajiv Shah, to be sworn in.

Prospects for Confirmation

Fortunately, prospects for Power’s rapid Senate confirmation appear promising, even in today’s contentious era.  Power was confirmed for the U.N. by the Republican-controlled Senate in 2013 with strong bipartisan support. Senator Lindsey Graham said, “she has the background, intellect, and toughness to fill this important diplomatic post at a time of great conflict and rising danger throughout the world.”  Still, she may face questions from isolationist senators on her role in promoting American intervention abroad, including in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

Power will bring a stature that few other USAID administrators have matched. Her prior relationships with Biden, Secretary of State-nominee Antony Blinken, incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, incoming Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice, U.N. Ambassador-nominee Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and other key officials will combine with her understanding of government structures to transform ideas into actions. While known as a team player, her ability to pick up the phone and call Biden directly will only enhance USAID’s bureaucratic status.

For career civil service and Foreign Service officers, while Power does not have a traditional development background, she has a record of drawing on the best talent within government to move policy forward. She will find an abundance of career staff who have faithfully pursued their apolitical development and humanitarian roles despite strong pressures. Thanks to Green’s efforts to insulate the career staff from ideological threats and interference from the Trump White House, a dedicated professional cadre is ready to fully deploy their pent-up energy and creativity.  They are also well-positioned to identify the many landmines the current administration has planted to frustrate the incoming leadership.

These career professionals and incoming development and humanitarian-relief experts will be essential to restoring development as the third leg of the foreign policy triad, partnering with diplomacy and defense. The to-do list for the new USAID leadership to “build back better,” as the Biden-Harris campaign promised, is daunting. The affirmative agenda starts with addressing the tragic effects of COVID-19, climate change, and conflict, which have wiped out as much as 20 years of development progress, sent tens of millions of people back into extreme poverty, and created historic levels of more than 70 million refugees and displaced persons.

Armed With New Humility

USAID must also affirm its support for human rights, democracy, and marginalized populations such as women, people with disabilities, racial and religious minorities, and the LGBT+ community, armed with the new humility resulting from our own recent setbacks on the path toward justice. Key to this will be building new, stronger, and more equitable partnerships with international actors, host governments, and civil society under the watchwords, “Nothing about them without them.”

Power’s team will need to identify new signature initiatives in education, food security, energy, sanitation, and health care, while building on successful programs inherited from previous administrations such as Feed the Future, Power Africa. and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  In particular, it must restore the agency’s capacity to support sexual and reproductive health that withered under the ideological onslaught of Trump’s White House and to protect the progress achieved by women in such places as Afghanistan, now at risk of sacrifice on the altar of a false peace with the Taliban.

The new administrator can also reinforce the reorganization that merged the Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance and the Food for Peace Program into a coordinated humanitarian response unit under an associate administrator for relief, resilience, and response. And she can empower the new Bureau of Conflict Prevention and Stabilization, created in response to the Global Fragility Act of 2019.

In his book, “A Promised Land,” Barack Obama wrote: “Samantha was one of my closest friends in the White House…[E]very so often, I needed a dose of her passion and integrity, both as a temperature check on my conscience and because she often had specific, creative suggestions for how to deal with messy problems that no one else in the administration was spending enough time thinking about.”

A good match for an agency primed to unleash its own passion, integrity, and creativity.

IMAGE: US Vice President Joe Biden (L) talks with US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power (R) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, August 4, 2015. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Ambassador Donald Steinberg

Executive Director of Mobilizing Men as Partners for Women, Peace and Security. Former U.S. Ambassador to Angola and Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Former member of the U.N. Secretary General’s Civil Society Advisory Group on Women, Peace and Security. Advisory board, Global Governance Forum.