Administrator Samantha Power at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems Democracy Awards and 35th Anniversary Celebration

Speeches Shim

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Washington, DC

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: I want to be very clear, I did not just receive an award. Let me just get that on the record. The amazing public servants of USAID got the award, and we’ll talk about them in just a second. 

But first, let me thank Regina. I can definitely find you with that amazing blazer. Your defense of gender and LGBTQ rights here at home and around the world over the years has been nothing short of remarkable. You are a true legend in that space, and I’m so glad you are here at IFES, helping Tony and his team. 

It’s a great honor to be accepting this award on behalf of USAID’s Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance officers. 

And before I get lost in bragging about them, and all that I have seen them contribute in my year plus that I’ve been privileged to be Administrator of USAID, I want to just say a word about each of the other recipients.

First, to President Zelenskyy. It went by almost unnoticed, but at the Shangri-La Dialogue last weekend, President Zelenskyy shifted from his usual attire of his olive t-shirt, and Zooming into Singapore, he donned a shirt depicting a Ukrainian girl defiantly spray painting her country’s flag. And of course we’ve seen their flag being defamed in all kinds of ways by occupiers, but this was a girl staying true to her country’s flag. 

He said that the shirt that he was wearing symbolized the way people all around the world have come together to support Ukraine. The way he put it is this, he said, “It is on the battlefield in Ukraine that it is being decided what rules the world will live by.” And that is absolutely true—Ukraine was attacked by Putin exactly because it was embracing the democratic values we all hold dear. Putin made clear in his invasion speech. But what is so striking about President Zelenskyy, our honoree here this evening, is just the way he has conveyed his decency, his commitment to the people of his country, to the worth of every individual. The sacred value of every life, the dignity of every individual. And he just conveys it in everything he does. 

And he has no better ambassador, no pun intended, than his Ambassador here, Oksana Markarova, and I’m so glad she’s here. Joined by her husband, who has been in Ukraine this entire time, been in Kyiv—just as a wife and a mother, Oksana, I have marveled at how you have done everything you have done for your country knowing that your beloved husband was back in harm’s way, himself risking so much, along with your kids. And we’re so glad to have you with us here as well, and thank you for the sacrifice that both of you are making and for everything you do. 

Let me also thank the always even-keeled Senator Rob Portman. How one stays even-keeled, at this time, in that place, is beyond me and my faculties. But Senator Portman, we are going to miss you so much. And we are so lucky you are there at this time of all times. Co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, this is not a new commitment for Senator Portman to this cause, to the Ukrainian people. He has worked tirelessly over the years to bring members from both sides of the aisle together to support this incredibly important cause—decades-long cause, really. And I know from my own trips, prior to the war, to Ukraine, how grateful the people there are. 

Also just as USAID Administrator, I have to say that, even dating back to when he was U.S. Trade Rep, and at OMB, he has advocated for exactly the kind of economic integration that our foreign assistance tries to foster, which of course creates new markets for American exports, but also supports fair market practices, so foreign workers are not exploited and American workers are able to compete on an even playing field. And we’ll have plenty of time, I hope, to celebrate Senator Portman and his decades of achievement as a public servant before he leaves the Senate, but what a champion of all that the people in this room hold dear you have been. Just honored to be with you.  

Lastly, IFES, just to say what Tony Banbury–who has just dedicated his life as well, like Senator Portman, to public service, I met him, we were living under siege in Sarajevo back in the early to mid 1990s in pretty grim conditions. But what was at stake there is something not dissimilar to what’s at stake today. And Tony was right there on the front lines, as he always is. He also led the world’s ebola response, and at the UN was the lead on trying to ensure that peacekeepers that were sent around the world to protect civilians actually did that, and just did an amazing job there as well. 

The mission statement that he read you, “Together we build resilient democracy that delivers for all,” it sounds so obvious. Like, of course that’s what IFES should do. Of course that’s what any democracy organization should do. But it’s really actually a very modern take on the democracy challenge, and in my remarks, just briefly on substance, I will address some of that. But the shift that IFES has made, Tony, on your watch, I think is exactly the kind that—and I know we have colleagues from IRI and NDI here as well—but it’s the shift that all of us are collectively trying to make here to meet this very, very unusual moment with a very unique set of threats to democracy that are different than the ones we have faced in the past.

So just like IFES, we at USAID are trying to shift our emphasis in programming that we’ve been doing for a long time. And the ideas for how we do that, which really need to be very cutting edge, are coming from these Democracy, Rights and Governance officers that you’ve seen fit to honor here today. These folks operate in more than 100 countries around the world, and they put a lot on the line for the work that they do.

These officers live in fear—either they or the partners that they are resourcing. Fear of arrest, fear of worse. And of course, many of them are living in conflict zones, as in Ukraine. And of course, so much of what USAID does around the world is done by our local staff. And in the case of the Ukraine conflict, our incredible Ukrainian staff. 

So one example is Maksym Darkin, and he is the e-governance expert at USAID’s Ukraine Mission. He stayed in Kyiv when the war began and worked day and night to operate the Mission’s e-governance programs, which now again, sounds very obvious. But remember February 24, 25, 26, what that felt like for the people of Kyiv. And even as Russian troops advanced to the outskirts of the city, he continued to work, because he was supporting this amazing online platform Diia, which is the means by which for example, internally displaced people can be geolocated so that it’s clear they have been displaced. Their records are already on file because of the prior work that we have done with the Ukrainian government, and they can be given a subsidy, which is sometimes all they have to be able to make ends meet before they have the chance to move back to their homes.

And so that’s just one example of this kind of work that goes on invisibly much of the time. 

There is of course a backdrop to this war, which is the bleak democracy numbers that you all know: 16 years of democracy in decline. And I think the point that you will hear from all of the democracy champions here is that we need a toolkit, that is fit for purpose, fit for this moment.

And I think what we are trying to do at USAID, thanks to the thought leadership of our democracy officers, is figure out what the new toolkit looks like. How is it different from the playbook that Ronald Reagan launched in the speech that you saw referenced in the video? 

I think it starts, as IFES has recognized, in a recognition that democracy and economic development are not worthy parallel ventures—they are, they must be mutually reinforcing. And so when we support democracy and we see a democratic opening like we see today in countries like Zambia or Moldova, which is also under grave threat, which is also making Putin insane because of the effort to fight corruption and integrate into the West. We have to meet those democratic openings not only with more judicial trainings and more election monitors. We’ve got to figure out how the leaders who are willing to take risks on behalf of democracy can show their people an economic dividend. 

And so for us, yes of course that can mean helping them draft new laws, but also figuring out with the private sector, with the Development Finance Corporation, with the international financial institutions, with all of you—what else can accompany a kind of reformist moment and a reformist opening. 

That may be shipments of wheat, or fertilizer programming, or it may be new green energy deals or efforts to provide other kinds of public goods. But this idea is so very important and so inherent in IFES’ new mission statement.

The other thing we have to do is recognize that elections are not, these days, threatened the old fashioned way. It’s not just about stuffing ballot boxes, right, and these more egregious forms of election and democracy offense. They are subtly undermined, over time they are discredited, or tilted in an incumbent’s favor. There’s massive floods of disinformation from everything about the opponent to where the election booths themselves are and the polling stations are. We see it everywhere, including sadly, so close to home. Cyber attacks, this disinformation, questionable regulations—what is our toolkit for that set of questions? That is what we are figuring out and these amazing democracy officers are helping us sort through, with our partner governments around the world. How far should a government go to counter disinformation meant to corrupt the election, while also of course looking out for a central tenet of democracy, which is free speech? What is the roadmap for a poor country to harden its defenses against cyber attacks? It’s hard enough in a country as developed as ours, here. 

And we can’t answer these questions on our own. And so we have joined with a coalition of organizations, elections experts, to create this Coalition for Securing Election Integrity. And again, with an eye to modernizing the norms, the standards, but also providing resources so countries who are determined to hold free and fair elections, or the actors holding governments accountable who are not, have the resources they need. And thanks to the Congress for supporting that work, Steny Hoyer here as well, thank you so, so much for your democracy support. 

Our team also, finally, I just want to talk for a second about the media. Because again, there’s an old way of training the media and we’ve got to do all those things still, but local media organizations, many of them are going under because they are not viable. So we’ve also created an initiative that’s about actually helping our independent media partners study the markets they are in, figure out how to advertise, how to make the transition to digital, to paywalls. All of the things that even The New York Times are struggling with. Imagine if you are a plucky, independent media outlet in a fledgling democracy who are in a democratic backslider trying to figure out those questions. We have to help them be sustainable in this world, and not some prior world. 

And so, too, when they investigate corruption, as so many of them do, we have to recognize that the oligarch and the autocrats’ weapon is not only the arrest or the violent intimidation and harassment—all of that of course is still in their playbook—it’s the lawsuit. And it turns out investigative journalists are being sued at a vastly higher rate than other journalists because they are the Achilles heel, corruption is the Achilles heel of these regimes that violate basic rights. 

So three times the rate they are being sued as other journalists. So last fall we announced something called Reporters Mutual, which is an insurance fund, where we can all chip in and try to ensure that these journalists who are willing to risk their lives, to uncover corruption, know that at the very least that they will be insured when that lawsuit comes at them and somebody tries to drive them out of business. And it just couldn’t be more important.

So these are not my ideas, I am a mere vehicle for the incredible talent, and the intellectual creativity, and the frontline experience that our Democracy, Rights, and Governance officers have. And I’m so thankful to you, IFES, for recognizing them. 

The work is often thankless. The news is often bleak. We have heroes that we look to and shepherds in this world, luckily, to keep the flame burning. But I really do think we can all get excited about mobilizing this new tool kit for this time, and to do it, as Tony said, together. 

Thank you so much. 

Last updated: August 11, 2022

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