U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power highlighted to lawmakers Tuesday a number of areas of concern, including the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on those displaced by the conflict, resulting shocks to global energy and food markets, the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of climate change.
Speaking to the House Foreign Affairs Committee about President Joe Biden’s budget request for the next fiscal year, Power said, “The world is now less free and less peaceful than at any point since the end of the Cold War,” and that the free nations of the world can work together with the private sector and multilateral institutions to “extend the reach of peace, prosperity, and human dignity to billions more people.”
Power told the committee that efforts to help those impacted in Ukraine include an anti-trafficking hotline and training Ukrainian psychiatrists to help internally displaced persons deal with “the new issues that they are reporting having suffered, even as they were being displaced from their homes or as survivors of sexual violence.”
“It involves a combination of expanding programming that we're doing because of the prior conflict and because of our steady state investment in women and girls' empowerment, and the prevention of gender-based violence,” Power said. “But then, as these large international organizations and others come in, to make sure that they have protection services as part of their mandates, so not just food, water, medicine, all of that is essential, but also to meet the needs of women and girls who've gone through these horrors.”
Power said the United States wants to sustain its level of contribution for development, humanitarian and economic assistance for Ukraine.
“The U.S. share so far, despite all the generosity and the resources that we've expended, is 11% of the overall international contribution to the crisis in Ukraine right now,” she said.
Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, said the situation in Ukraine “has only added to the critical work USAID does around the world,” and called attention to how the conflict is affecting other nations as well.
“Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has also exacerbated the worsening food security situation around the world,” Meeks said. “The blocking of the port of Odesa has further restricted exports that could feed 400 million people. Staples that countries around the world rely upon for basic food needs. And already we're seeing how the Russian invasion is affecting food prices, particularly in high import countries such as Egypt, and Indonesia, and Bangladesh.”
Discussing another aspect of Russia’s efforts, Power said her agency is also focusing on countering disinformation, including by working to support independent media in Ukraine.
“Sometimes, congressman, it entails providing flak jackets and helmets to independent journalists via our program OTI (Office of Transition Initiatives) so that they continue to be out in the field, able to themselves document what's true. There's a Center for Media and Disinformation that is actually government-affiliated, and actually a number of independent journalists left civil society and went to work for this center for combating disinformation,” Power said. “That is something that we have increased support for as the government seeks to react in real time to memes as they develop, whether on telegram, or on Twitter, or on Russian-backed television.”
Committee ranking member Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, said USAID needs to be “more strategic in using foreign aid as a key tool to counter the malign actions of both Russia and China.”
McCaul highlighted his concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative in which it is working to open trade routes by building infrastructure throughout Eurasia, and what he called “debt trap diplomacy efforts” to secure strategic investments while “saddling developing countries with unsustainable debt.”
He also pointed to diplomatic pressure that China exerts on other countries.
“They also use their leverage to coerce countries to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan and to refrain from criticizing China's appalling human rights violations,” McCaul said.
Asked about how USAID might help countries that are dependent on China to reduce such influence, Power said many are eager to “secure resources that don’t entail decades of debt” while ensuring that infrastructure projects do not harm the environment and even quicken their transition to using clean energy.
“I think everything from the Countering Chinese Influence Fund, which you all have generously supported, to investments we make in an open, and secure internet in the digital sphere, to these kinds of investments, that again, don't come with the transaction or with the strings attached that PRC (People’s Republic of China) investments come with, I think these are the domains in which USAID and our partners across the U.S. government thrive,” Power said.
Lawmakers also asked about the situation in Lebanon, where results from a Sunday election showed the militant group Hezbollah and its allies losing a majority in parliament.
Power said the “paralysis of government institutions” the country has experienced in recent years “cannot be really separated from the economic downturn that the people of Lebanon have had to endure.”
She said USAID has worked to help with technical advice to support Lebanon’s economy, and that a current focus is on humanitarian assistance, with 81% of the country’s wheat supplies coming from Ukraine.
Power said she hopes a new government in Lebanon “will be more dedicated to making hard choices in the economic reform area. It's those structural changes that are needed to stop the freefall,” she said.