Samantha Power speaks at an event in Geneva. Photo by: Eric Bridiers / United States Mission Geneva / CC BY-ND

Samantha Power’s confirmation hearing Tuesday offered an early glimpse of what it might mean for the U.S. Agency for International Development to be led by a high-profile figure with influence that extends beyond foreign aid.

More than six weeks after President Joe Biden nominated her as USAID administrator — and more than two months after announcing that he planned to — Power appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to share her vision for U.S. foreign aid. In a roughly two-hour hearing that mostly skirted political land mines, Power sought to show her long-standing admiration and knowledge of USAID’s work, while not shying away from bigger questions of U.S. foreign policy.

Raised in Ireland and naturalized as a U.S. citizen, Power rose to prominence as a journalist and scholar of genocide prevention — and gained a reputation as an advocate for humanitarian intervention. In nominating her, Biden lauded the “expertise and perspective” of the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations as the country “reasserts its role as a leader on the world stage.”

USAID has been without a Senate-confirmed administrator since Mark Green’s departure in April, which Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware said led to “real drift and some challenges” in the final year of former President Donald Trump’s administration. U.S. development experts have broadly welcomed Power’s nomination, while noting that her “star power” and ambitions could test the agency’s readiness to engage at higher levels of U.S. foreign policy.

If the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approves Power’s nomination, it will be sent to the full Senate for a vote. It is not clear yet how quickly that would happen — or whether her nomination could face stronger opposition from lawmakers outside the committee.

Power told lawmakers Tuesday that she first encountered USAID as a reporter in “war-torn Bosnia” and has come to appreciate the agency’s role through her experiences in crises around the world.

Power framed U.S. development engagement around “four interconnected and gargantuan challenges” that overlap with key Biden administration priorities: the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, conflict and state collapse, and democratic backsliding.

“There hasn’t been … optimal coordination, I think, in the international global vaccine area, and that’s something that I’m very eager to dig into if I’m confirmed.”

— Samantha Power, USAID administrator nominee

She alluded to her own view of how development should operate — with an emphasis on “political freedom” for “broad-based economic growth” and “driven by those on the ground with local knowledge and expertise.”

Power also quickly aligned herself with arguments for development engagement that helped U.S. foreign aid agencies maintain bipartisan support through the tumultuous four years of the Trump administration.

She touted her own past success at getting other countries to contribute to global health and development causes, a priority the former administration espoused out of concern that the U.S. shoulders an unfair burden.

“I want to assure the committee that I will work every day to expand burden-sharing in the international system,” she said, citing her work as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. to secure commitments from other countries on hosting refugees, Ebola response, peacekeeping, and adopting the Sustainable Development Goals.

Power volunteered that U.S. development efforts stand in opposition to China’s global engagement, a view shared by many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“Even as China increasingly uses its financial leverage to sway other nations, citizens everywhere are insisting that they be able to exercise agency, provide for themselves, and exercise their fundamental rights,” she said.

Multiple lawmakers said they hoped Power would utilize the USAID administrator’s role as vice chair at the U.S. International Development Finance Corp. to draw stronger linkages between the two agencies and to push for DFC to expand its investments in order for the U.S. to better compete with China.

Power’s confirmation process is taking place amid ongoing questions about how the U.S. government ought to organize its global health institutions in response to COVID-19.

Sen. James Risch of Idaho, the committee’s ranking member, asked Power for her views on a Biden national security memorandum that gives leadership over U.S. involvement in the global pandemic response to the secretary of state.

Power noted the links between USAID’s programming and U.S. national security — exemplified by COVID-19 but also violent extremism and other threats. She said that Biden’s decision to elevate the USAID administrator to the National Security Council’s Principals Committee has “enshrined that reality” and the administration’s view that development and diplomacy ought to be “resourced” alongside defense.

“From having spoken with him, that is the logic of elevating USAID,” Power said.

“The expertise is there, the know-how is there, and I think what’s really important about doing this is that that expertise and know-how will be reflected within the interagency — not only at high levels, but at every level,” she said.

Power said the U.S. is at its “most powerful, effective, and efficient when it leverages the support that it offers … to get others to do more.”

That is what Biden has done with $2 billion he announced for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, she noted.

“There hasn’t been … optimal coordination, I think, in the international global vaccine area, and that’s something that I’m very eager to dig into if I’m confirmed,” Power said.

Even in her confirmation hearing, Power signaled her intent to take advantage of USAID’s elevated role and shape U.S. foreign policy in ways that past administrators typically have not.

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Asked by Coons to advise on the best structure for an independent human rights commission to investigate reported abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Power described the nuanced challenges that human rights commissions often face in securing access to areas where violations are believed to have occurred. The senator said he would be relying on her advice to make sure such an investigation proceeds.

Power’s experience outside of typical development issues is both an asset and a liability. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas both looked to hold Power’s past involvement in foreign policy decisions against her.

Paul pressed Power to admit that former President Barack Obama’s military intervention in Libya was a mistake and that the country is now worse off than it was before. Power declined to draw any broad conclusions, but she said nonmilitary tools carry “far fewer risks” and pointed to USAID’s current role in supporting Libya’s elections.

Power fielded some specific questions about her views on USAID’s organizational structure, some of which she requested more time to review.

She did agree with Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut that USAID faces organizational challenges that limit its ability to respond to global challenges: inflexible funding brought on by an abundance of congressional earmarks and security limitations that often prevent USAID staff members from venturing into the communities where their programs operate.

“You will never meet people more eager to be out in the communities than USAID personnel,” Power said.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.