The AP Interview: US aid chief counters food crisis, Russia

  • USAID Administrator Samantha Power is interviewed by the Associated Press, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, at USAID Headquarters in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON — Samantha Power won fame as a human rights advocate and was picked by President Joe Biden to lead the agency that distributes billions of dollars in U.S. aid abroad, including providing more food assistance than anyone else in the world. But since Russia invaded Ukraine, that job includes a new task with a Cold War feel — countering Russia’s messaging abroad.

As administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Power is dealing now with a global food crisis, brought on by local conflicts, the pandemic’s economic upheaval, and drought and the other extremes typical of climate change. As the Biden administration spells out often, the problems have all been compounded by Russia invading Ukraine, deepening food shortages and raising prices everywhere.

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That set up an hearts-and-minds competition reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union last month, when Power visited desperate families and struggling farmers in Horn of Africa nations. She watched relief workers give emergency food to children, always among the first to die in food crises, and announced new food aid.

But unexpectedly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov trailed her to Africa days later, visiting other capitals with a different message meant to shore up his country’s partnerships in Africa.

It was U.S. and international sanctions on Russia over its six-month invasion of Ukraine that were to blame for cutting off vital grain supplies from the world market, Lavrov claimed. He dismissed “the so-called food crisis” on the continent being hit hardest.

In fact, a Russian blockade has kept Ukraine’s grain from reaching the world. The international sanctions on Russia exempt agricultural products and fertilizer.

“What we’re not going to do, any of us in the administration, is just allow the Russian Federation, which is still saying it’s not at war in Ukraine, to blame the latest spike in food and fertilizer prices on sanctions and on the United States,” Power, back in her office in Washington, told The Associated Press.

“People, especially when they’re facing a crisis of this enormity, they really do know the difference about … whether you’re providing emergency humanitarian assistance … or whether you’re at a podium trying to make it a new Cold War,” Power said.

“For Mr. Lavrov to have traveled to Africa just after I did, there’s almost nothing tangible in the wake of that visit that the countries he visited have obtained from him, other than the misinformation and lies,” Power said.

Even African officials whose governments refused to join in formal U.N. condemnation earlier this year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tell of calling Russian leaders privately to urge Russia to let Ukraine’s grain out of the ports, she said.

A former journalist, Power won the Pulitzer in 2003 for “A Problem from Hell,” a book on genocide that has fueled debates in government and among academics on the wisdom and morality of intervening in atrocities abroad ever since. She served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under President Barack Obama, before joining the Biden administration.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, creating new food and energy shortfalls at a time when record numbers of people around the world were already hungry, much of Power’s focus has been on the food crisis. After an earlier decade of success slicing away at the numbers of people going without food, the estimated number of people around the world going hungry rose to 828 million this year, 150 million just since the pandemic, Power said, with many in acute need.

Even in countries outside areas where aid organizations warn of famine, high food prices are adding to political unrest, as in the overthrow of Sri Lanka’s government this summer. “Most analysts would be very surprised if the Sri Lankan government were the last to fall,” Power noted.

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