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Focused On Diversity And Global Health, Power Takes The Helm of USAID

Samantha Power. (Photo from WikiMedia Common)

In the middle of her first day as the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, deep into meetings about inclusivity and diversity in the agency and the rise in coronavirus cases in India, Samantha Power noticed a paper towel slipped under her office door.

“Can I use my hour?” it asked. “Answer…”

Her daughter, Power would later explain, was asking if she could use her iPad time. 

It was one of the challenges of working from home.

“Personally, I’ve been humbled in my attempts to educate my children over the past year and chastened when I’ve had to quiet their pleas so as to participate in yet another Zoom,” Power said in her first speech as leader of USAID. 

Power said she believes that her own career is only possible because of the “shared sacrifice” of her family and an El Salvadorian au pair named Selena, and it’s a dynamic that also impacts other workers at USAID, something she presents herself as sensitive to.

“I’ve also heard [from you] about how difficult it is to do your jobs amid serious structural diversity, equity and inclusion issues, while sometimes feeling undervalued or even looked past,” she said to USAID staff.

The coronavirus strain has left workers feeling “drained and exhausted by the pandemic,” with a “bone weary fatigue,” she intimated.

She would emphasize the theme of shared sacrifice and commitment, of interconnectedness, in her speech introducing herself to the staff.

Power’s speech also relayed the administration’s promise to empower foreign assistance workers as part of its strategy to re-entrench American leadership in the world, following up on the administration’s framing of other foreign policy issues like national security and climate.

Samantha Power was sworn in by Vice-President Kamala Harris as the 19th administrator of USAID on Monday. She takes the helm at a time when the agency is focused on transitioning to a more diverse agency and increasing foreign assistance to aid the global recovery from coronavirus.

It is also a time when the country is ramping up foreign assistance funding.

The Biden administration’s discretionary budget request for the fiscal year 2022, for instance, had asked for increased funding to USAID and reversed the trend of the previous four years which had slashed funding and emphasized an “America first” approach to foreign affairs. The budget increases sought to bolster the agency’s capacity to address climate change, the “root causes” of migration from Central America, and global health.

The Biden proposal had said that the agency’s finances had suffered from “years of neglect.”

During her first speech as USAID head, Power argued that the “country’s fate is inextricably linked with the rest of the world’s.”

The most pressing threats in the world cast a shadow over the U.S. as well, she said. Climate change, the coronavirus epidemic, the poverty crisis that fueled the problems at the southern border, and the rise of autocracies are indistinct challenges, she said.

“USAID is the only agency addressing all of these threats and many more at once,” she said.

The agency promotes, she said, “individual dignity and demonstrating true grit.”

“[F]or all the lofty pronouncements we can make about America’s global leadership, it is our country’s actions, our ambition, our ability to get big things done that truly moves minds and changes futures,” she said. “Whether responding to humanitarian emergencies or paving the way for sustainable and inclusive development, there’s a clear USAID effect.”

Drawing on the example of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, she said that establishing American leadership in the world requires USAID leadership. The USAID-led response to that crisis, which eventually caused the most cosponsors ever for any Security Council resolution in UN history, and led to that epidemic being declared a threat to international security.

Power spent her first day, except for the odd family distraction, focused on the diversity of the agency and the coronavirus infection rates in India, according to USAID Acting Spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala.

Power, the Pulitzer-winning author of “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, was also the 28th U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations during the Obama administration.

She immigrated with her family to the U.S. from the Dublin suburb of Castleknock in 1979.

“She embodies that old red, white, and blue USAID logo which states: from the American people,” Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said when introducing her during her Senate confirmation hearing.

She started her career as a foreign correspondent, filing reports from Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Before her government career, she also worked as a columnist and an academic, founding the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

When President Joe Biden nominated Power for the position, he described her as a “a world-renowned voice of conscience and moral clarity—challenging and rallying the international community to stand up for the dignity and humanity of all people.”

“As USAID administrator, she’ll be a powerful force for principled American engagement,” he said.

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