Senate hearing addresses broad USAID funding goals, few details

USAID Administrator Samantha Power testifies during a Senate appropriations committee at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C. Photo by: Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power made her first appearance since taking up her post before the Senate appropriations committee to discuss the administration’s priorities. The hearing was a bit light on specific details since President Joe Biden’s administration is not expected to release a full budget request until later this week.

Last month Biden released a “skinny budget” request with topline numbers, including a proposed $6.8 billion boost in international affairs spending for fiscal year 2022, an increase of 12% from 2021 spending.

“The Biden-Harris discretionary request for fiscal year 2022 will allow the U.S. to lead on the global stage and to leverage our activities to inspire our allies and private sector partners to contribute more,” Power said at the hearing of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on state and foreign operations Wednesday. “We also need to make ourselves a more capable and nimble agency.”

USAID is trying to adapt its systems, processes, and procedures to improve efficiency and ensure it can expand its engagement with the private sector. It is also “building institutional capacity commensurate with USAID’s role as a national security agency” and is focused on its workforce, she said. Power is also expected to appear before the House appropriations subcommittee on Thursday.

Support from Congress will allow USAID to “move aggressively to tackle the world’s toughest problems,” she said, adding that countries around the world appreciate the U.S. approach to development and want to be “self-reliant.”

Democracy and governance

One area that’s likely to see a greater focus — and more funding — is democracy and governance work. Power said the discretionary request would reflect a desire to “increase support for our partners who are fighting illiberal forces of all kinds internationally.”

USAID will look to build networks to fight misinformation and be more intentional about democracy and governance programs. To that end USAID will soon bring on its first anti-corruption coordinator, she said.

Power said she was most concerned about democratic backsliding in sub-Saharan Africa, where a young population represents possibilities but conflicts, extra constitutional measures, and flawed or unfree elections are on the rise.

The administration is working to strengthen civil society and using diplomacy and its voice when countries stray from the rule of law or democratic norms, Power said. But it does so with increased humility following the January 6 attack on the Capitol, which has led to questions about U.S. authority to preach or promote respect for election results and nonviolent protests, she added.

Power said she wants USAID to respond quickly when opportunities arise — for example to support the pro democracy movement in Sudan. The administration will soon introduce a spending plan for its support to Sudan and the democratic transition.

USAID is working to build capacity at ministries, meet COVID-19-related humanitarian needs and support the social safety net as Sudan makes economic reforms, she said. The funding will be distributed over time and the agency is working to ensure the money is well spent, including through strengthening civil society to hold institutions accountable.

Vaccines

About 75% of the vaccines that the U.S. donates globally will go through the COVAX facility, in part because the legal and indemnity agreements are already in place. The remaining 25% will be reserved for emergencies and be distributed bilaterally, Power said. Decisions on which countries will get the vaccines are based on a number of factors, including the U.S. relationship with the country, epidemiological indicators, where they may do the most good, and country readiness to receive the vaccines.

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The biggest challenge for COVAX had been funding and supply — the $4 billion commitment from the U.S., including $2 billion already obligated, has been a “game changer” and allowed COVAX to do deals with pharmaceutical companies, she said. Ensuring supply of vaccines at scale and at cost is critical and USAID is working with pharmaceutical companies to do so and hopes other countries will step up, she said.

UK aid cuts

Perhaps the most surprising news to come out of the hearing was the U.K. aid cuts.

Power said that many countries, including the United Kingdom, are “making adjustments in programming in this budget constrained environment” created by COVID-19. The U.S. preliminary assessment of the U.K. cuts show it is likely to have negative impacts in at least 11 countries and create a funding gap of more than $750 million.

She said it also “looks like the U.K. will end all development and humanitarian assistance in Latin America” and is cutting contributions to Yemen and Syria by more than half. That will require other donors to think about what they can do to make up for the shortfalls that are “going to hit vulnerable people very hard.”

Central America

Lawmakers asked Power about Central America several times, including questions from Republican senators about U.S. policies that they believe encourage migration.

Power sidestepped the U.S. domestic policy questions and said the U.S. was committed to addressing the root causes of migration.

“Accountability and governance are first among equals” in USAID’s work in the region and the agency has and will respond to corruption and work to strengthen democratic institutions, Power said.

Last week USAID redirected funding in El Salvador following the legislative assembly’s vote to remove the attorney general and five Supreme Court magistrates among other concerns about transparency and accountability, according to a statement from USAID. USAID redirected funding away from those institutions and the police, choosing instead to distribute funding through civil society, she said.

Gaza 

US resumes aid to Palestinians, but needs still outstrip budget

The State Department has announced that the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency will receive $150 million in humanitarian assistance.

Some of the lawmakers raised concerns that recent U.S. commitments to support the Palestinian people will benefit Hamas in some way. Laws and administration imperatives are strict on this issue and USAID is finding ways to work with civil society partners or international organizations that understand the rules well, she said. The region also has some of the strictest vetting of its funding, Power added.

Women’s economic empowerment

USAID will continue its programs and focus on women’s economic empowerment, but both Power’s testimony and information from other sources indicate that the Women's Global Development and Prosperity initiative, launched by former President Donald Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump, will not survive the change in administration — at least with that name.

The most challenging part of the work is trying to address gender norms and the legal and regulatory environment. USAID will continue to work on those issues and continue programs related to workforce development and entrepreneurship, Power said.

USAID will also look to mainstream women’s empowerment work throughout all USAID programming. While she didn’t have a lot of specifics on Wednesday, she did say that USAID will continue the programs that “comprise it.”

Climate 

USAID’s climate change work will focus on adaptation, which will be reflected in the budget request, Power said. USAID will work to scale its investments in adaptation and quickly take insights and innovation and embed them in programs throughout the world, she said.

USAID is also working to help countries transition to net zero emissions and on reforestation programs. USAID will work to mainstream climate issues, make programs more resilient and support adaptation efforts, she said.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is a Senior Reporter at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.