When Samantha Power was nine years old, she boarded a plane from her home in Dublin, Ireland, headed for her new home in the United States. Nearly 34 years later, she was sworn in as the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations. After a whirlwind career in the Obama administration, Power is hunkering down for her Senate confirmation hearing for Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
On January 13, a week shy of Inauguration Day, then-President-elect Biden nominated Power for the top administrative post of USAID—the United States’ primary purveyor of foreign aid and humanitarian assistance. The announcement came as a surprise to experts in the field of international development and US foreign aid—not only because of the political leverage Power would bring to the agency if confirmed, but also because no USAID nominee in recent history has been announced before the president was sworn in (Obama’s USAID administrator was not in place until more than a year into his term). The speed and urgency of the Biden administration was welcomed by those who closely watch and study development policy in the US, and crucial for the administration’s hopes of successfully handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Power’s background in international relations gives her a chance to harness the full potential of USAID, which uses its $40 billion dollar budget in conjunction with other government agencies towards its mission of saving lives, reducing poverty, and strengthening democratic governance abroad. Power’s nomination signals the Biden administration’s commitment to development in US foreign policy.
A self-described idealist, Ambassador Power has long been known for her human rights advocacy. Before she served as the US Ambassador to the UN, she was a member of Obama’s National Security Council as senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights. Prior to her involvement in government, she had a career as a human rights activist, Pulitzer Prize winning author, and journalist in Bosnia during the conflict of the 1990s.
Although, unlike previous USAID administrators, Power does not have a career in development policy, she has an extensive resume in emergency and humanitarian response. In his video announcement, Biden described her as “one of our country’s most respected voices on humanitarian issues.” If confirmed, Power will be one of the most high-profile individuals to hold the USAID administrator position. Despite her past partisan affiliations with Democratic campaigns and administrations, she is expected to be confirmed on a bipartisan basis, as she was in her confirmation to the UN.
While Power has never run such a behemoth of an agency, her background in government and prior thought pieces about foreign aid suggest that she understands how to build a strong team and will surround herself with people who can mitigate the learning curve. Scott Morris, the Director of the US Development Policy Initiative at the Center for Global Development, points to her strong leadership as a crucial asset and said in an interview with The Politic, “A lot of good management is having good people around you, so that’s probably the most important thing. It’s her job to provide the leadership and strategic direction for the agency, and then to be the external actor.” Erol Yayboke, the Deputy Director of the Center for Strategic International Studies’ Project on Prosperity and Development, added that Power’s political prestige will likely boost morale, too. “She engenders a lot of loyalty and people really want to work hard for her,” he said in an interview with The Politic.
Furthermore, the Biden administration’s emphasis on development is a marked departure from the Trump administration’s approach. Sarah Rose, a Policy Fellow at the Center For Global Development, said in an interview with The Politic, “Development was absolutely not a priority of that administration, and it was clear that the goal was often to try to use foreign assistance for very self interested, transactional purposes. Every budget request that came out of the administration sought to slash the foreign aid budget.”
During the first three years of the Trump administration, USAID was headed by Mark Green, a career development professional who kept the agency running in a standard manner. However, Green departed in April 2020, and in the last year of Trump’s presidency, USAID made headlines for several personnel appointments that were controversial because of past discriminatory comments made by the appointees. If confirmed, Power will bring a much-needed morale boost to employees at USAID and to the countries who look to the agency for assistance.
Power’s leadership and experience makes her a strong choice to tackle the tremendous tasks looming over USAID. The COVID-19 pandemic remains the most pressing issue both domestically and internationally, and USAID is well-positioned to play a crucial role in global recovery.
Jens Rudbeck, a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, explained in an interview with The Politic that with the rollback of foreign aid funding and the domestic economic crisis currently facing the Biden administration, the big question is whether the USAID under Power could raise sufficient funding for COVID-19 aid.
However, Congress and the Biden administration have signaled greater willingness to include international recovery and response as part of the budget, especially because there will be no successful domestic recovery from the pandemic without an international recovery. Beyond vaccine distribution, the agency can continue providing support to strengthen health systems in developing countries, ensuring that the supply chains and infrastructure required to administer vaccines are in place.
Power was heavily involved in the Obama Administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, helping build an international coalition to provide aid, and traveling to the region in 2014 to promote disease prevention practices. In her memoir, Power wrote, “A trip would…enable me to bring journalists to the sites we visited, and their stories could demonstrate to the American public that by following proper precautions, one would not contract Ebola. And…I would be able to get a firsthand sense of what the US and UN needed to do differently going forward.” This perspective, combined with her already-strong international connections, will give her an advantage in coordinating the measures required to address the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beyond the COVID-19 response, Power’s nomination carries the prospect for a renewed emphasis on human rights and an increased focus on democracy promotion at USAID. In both her previous roles, Power pushed the administration and her counterparts in other countries on issues of equality and human rights. Her Pulitzer-Prize winning book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, chronicled American failures to stop genocides in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. She could grow this area to be one of increasing emphasis, with the United States returning to promoting human rights around the world after the Trump administration scaled back criticisms of human rights violations.
Despite the fact that USAID does not have a large amount of democracy and governance funding, if Power is confirmed, she will have the ability to bring these concerns to conversations at the National Security Council, impacting how the U.S. government decides to pursue policies with partner country governments. Because of her prior UN position, Power is expected to have a strong multilateral orientation.
Yayboke said, “I would trust her instincts to reorient USAID in the way that makes the most sense not only for the US, but also for our partners abroad… Especially because of her time at the UN, she’s got a really good sense of what other people are doing and prioritizing and I think those instincts will be really critical.”
These instincts are likely sharpened by her efforts to educate herself on the issues and challenges relevant to each country she worked with in the UN—through her regular duties, and also by doing things like meeting with each of the member country’s ambassadors at their missions, which was not customary. She writes in her book, “I was able to see the art my colleagues wanted to showcase, the family photos on their desk, and the books they had brought with them…. Regardless of their size, wealth or geopolitical heft, I could show them America’s respect.”
This sentiment of humility and respect, combined with her ability to leverage her name recognition, reputation, and foreign connections, will allow USAID to work more closely with foreign countries on shared goals. That will be crucial, especially for climate change initiatives, which are at the top of the Biden administration’s priority list and require international cooperation to be effective.
Power’s most biting critics focus not on any lack of experience, but rather on its content. She has urged military intervention on humanitarian grounds, most infamously: the 2011 Libya intervention. The NATO-led military intervention was meant to prevent civilian casualties in the First Libyan Civil War, but ended with the killing of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and accusations of imperialism and geopolitical greed.
Foreign policy expert John Carl Baker, Senior Program Officer at the Ploughshares Fund, explained his own concerns about Power’s nomination and the COVID-19 pandemic in light of this legacy in an interview with The Politic: “The risk is that Samantha Power is known for…supporting militarized solutions to international crises, and this is really an effort that should be led by civilians. It shouldn’t be another task for the US military. And it’s quite possible it will be a civilian led task, but if she endorses military solutions to the COVID-19 crisis, we could see some unfortunate byproducts of that down the line.”
Rudbeck offered a cautious defense, noting that it is likely that Power has learned from foreign policy failures like interventions in Libya that military action “was not perhaps the best solution,” adding, “we’ll have to see if we’re going to see this link between the use of military means and humanitarian means in the same area.”
Another criticism of Power is that her past actions have been fraught with interventionism. These critiques call into question both Power’s qualifications to lead USAID, the premise of the organization itself, and how much of foreign aid is quasi-imperialism. Power has promoted the idea introduced to the UN in 2001 by a group of Canadian scholars called “responsibility to protect.” The theory rests upon the argument that the right to state sovereignty comes with the obligation to protect its own population, and if fails to do so, then that obligation falls on the international community.
However, “responsibility to protect” has been used as justification for many heavily criticized military interventions. Baker said that on principle, there is nothing “fundamentally wrong” with the responsibility to protect doctrine. “When people are faced with existential crises or genocidal threats, something should be done about it. But in reality, there’s a wide range of mechanisms that could be done to prevent things like genocide…but more frequently than not, the military is invoked,” he explained.
For example, public statements that name and shame whoever is responsible for human rights violations can make a serious difference when they come from the U.S., and mechanisms such as sanctions and diplomacy can also be effective—both of which should be tried before sending in the military. Still, despite Power’s advocacy for military intervention in the past, she is also an ardent proponent of these diplomatic tools. In the video announcing her nomination, she stated: “Humanitarian support, democracy assistance, economic development—those are not ‘nice’ to have in our foreing policy toolbox. They are critical if we are to see a more stable and just world exist.”
Because the Biden Administration has elevated the position of USAID administrator to be a member of the White House National Security Council (NSC), there is potential for Power’s nomination and tenure to actually decrease the use of military responses to humanitarian crises. During the Trump administration, the USAID administrator was part of the deputies’ council, as opposed to the principals’ council, and in the Obama administration the USAID Administrator was elevated on an ad-hoc basis to attend NSC meetings related to foreign aid. Biden’s organizational shift has ramifications both in terms of signaling and practice. Elevating the position signals to the international community and sets the expectation within the administration that development policy and foreign assistance will be essential to the U.S.’s approach in the coming four years. This decision has a practical effect too. Regardless of the issue at hand, the USAID administrator will be sitting at the table, giving input, allowing for a more systematic development lens on all foreign policy issues, especially those areas where the development aspect may be less obvious.
This change creates hope among development policy experts that the historic underutilization of foreign assistance tools will improve. CGDEV’s Rose described that the security lens has often been dominant in foreign policy. The Department of Defense (DOD), she said, has quick response capabilities because of this stature, and as such, “by the time that State and USAID have come to the table to be able to talk about what strategy should be in these particular countries, DOD is already ten pages into their playbook.” While the elevation of the USAID administrator position will not completely resolve this tension, it may serve as an important step.
There are still many questions that hang in the balance as the public awaits a Senate hearing date for Power’s confirmation, and even more questions about the future of development and foreign aid policy. Suggestions of decolonizing aid, shrinking the aid sector, and focusing on mutual, local aid have been raised, along with many others. The transition of administrations provides a window for shifting dynamics and new approaches. The world has changed since the last Democratic administration was in charge of the agency, and USAID will need to reorient itself to address the challenges of today—from the pandemic to climate change, and other long term sustainable development goals.