Ambassador Michael Raynor interview with VOA Amharic

Ambassador Michael Raynor
VOA Amharic
November 21, 2017

VOA: Ambassador Michael Raynor, Happy Thanksgiving.

Ambassador Raynor: Thank you very much. Happy Thanksgiving to you.

VOA: And thank you very much for your time.

Ambassador Raynor: My pleasure.

VOA: I want to begin with your priorities or focused areas. In a video message to the Ethiopian people you mentioned about your priorities as Ambassador. Tell me more about that.

Ambassador Raynor: Okay, well thank you.

First, I want to say just how really happy I am to be in Ethiopia. It’s a country that I’ve dreamed of visiting even as a tourist ever since I started my diplomatic career, and to have the opportunity to be here as Ambassador and have the luxury of time to really get to know this amazing country and the wonderful people is the high point of my life and my career and something I’m really looking forward to taking full advantage of.

On the professional side, I think I would summarize my priorities in three broad categories. One is to strengthen our partnership with Ethiopia in terms of promoting economic growth, development, the prosperity of the country. The second is to strengthen and deepen and sustain the partnership we have with Ethiopia in promoting regional stability and security. And the third is to promote political space, good governance, respect for rule of law and human rights. Those are the three broad areas I guess I would cite as my priorities.

VOA: The United States is the largest donor to Ethiopia, providing hundreds of millions of dollars every year. It is the largest humanitarian contributor and the largest bilateral donor to Ethiopia’s health sector. It was just last month you yourself announced four new USAID activities for $181 million. Do you see this continuing in the coming years?

Ambassador Raynor: I think the commitment of the United States to Ethiopia, and the people of Ethiopia, is strong and durable. I don’t see any fundamental change in that.

You mentioned our engagement on humanitarian development assistance. On the humanitarian side, as long as the need is there, we will be there. We are, in fact the world’s largest humanitarian donor to Ethiopia. When you combine our humanitarian and our development engagement, it comes to actually about a billion dollars a year.

Of course, the hope with both of these things is that the need for them will go away over time. So, as we engage in humanitarian support, we’re looking not only at meeting the immediate needs of the people for food, for nutrition, for sanitary assistance, but we’re also looking at the underlying causes of these crises and looking for ways to mitigate them and to build the resilience of the Ethiopian people so that over time we don’t have to be so engaged in that area.

And similarly, with development assistance. The whole goal of development assistance is to get past the need for it. So as we invest in education, as we invest in health care, as we invest in increasing agricultural input, we hope that over time the need for us to continue to make those investments will diminish as that progress becomes more self-sustaining.

VOA: But the President’s budget for 2018 plans to reduce foreign aid and development assistance substantially.

Ambassador Raynor: That’s correct, and that is an ongoing discussion between the President and the Administration and Congress and the Department of State, and I think it is true that there are ways in which we will see reductions in certain aspects of our development assistance. Again that, in some ways, is a natural and healthy development. An example I will give you is HIV/AIDS. We are a massive partner with Ethiopia in supporting Ethiopians who live with HIV/AIDS. But over time we’ve made substantial progress. The rate of infection has reduced. So over time, it is quite good and natural that our investment in that sector should diminish because the need diminishes. So that’s one way in which we will see healthy and organic reduction in assistance.

But at the same time, I think we are committed and I think we will maintain, broadly speaking, our current level of engagement for the foreseeable future in Ethiopia on both development assistance and humanitarian assistance.

VOA: So you are optimistic that you would continue what you are bringing.

Ambassador Raynor: I am quite optimistic, because the U.S.-Ethiopian partnership is both extraordinarily important to the United States and an extraordinarily fruitful partnership. When we see the impact of development assistance in Ethiopia, for example, when we see the gains that the Ethiopian government has made and that we’ve been able to support in access to education, in access to health care, in improving agricultural output. This is proof that these are investments that have a payoff, and you’re seeing that payoff in the economic growth of the country. You’re seeing that payoff in the improved educational standards of the people of the country, the improvements to health care.

So I think we see our investment in Ethiopia as a good and powerful investment, and I think that will help us sustain it going forward.

VOA: So you believe your dollars are better spent.

Ambassador Raynor: I believe that our dollars are very well spent in Ethiopia.

VOA: And the cooperation on [counter terrorism] cooperation continues to be of high interest for the U.S. in Ethiopia.

Ambassador Raynor: It does, indeed. Ethiopia’s role in promoting regional stability and security and countering violent extremism and terrorism is essential, and it is something that the United States values enormously and respects enormously. And it’s another area where we’re very proud to partner with Ethiopia. And it’s an area that goes to very fundamental U.S. interests for our own security and our stability. So it’s an area in which I don’t anticipate any reduction. And in fact one of my goals will be to find ways that we can deepen and broaden that partnership.

VOA: Ethiopia’s antiterrorism law has always been the subject of debates. International human rights organizations and [others] have been expressing concern over the government’s application of the antiterrorism law. Opposition leader Merera Gudina, journalists, [and others are] in prison under this law. Do you in a way share these concerns?

Ambassador Raynor: We do. We do absolutely share these concerns. We see a legitimate role for the antiterrorism fight and for legislation that supports that fight. At the same time, we think it’s very important to distinguish between terrorism and political activism and political expression, and we feel very strongly that people who express themselves peacefully and constructively are typically not terrorists and therefore should not be subject to terrorist legislation. And people who are imprisoned or remain in custody for reasons that have more to do with their peaceful expression of their political rights, I think those cases need to be looked at very closely. And we do encourage the Ethiopian government, both publicly and privately, to consider the impact of using the antiterror legislation in ways that may seem more intended to dampen political activity.

VOA: Well, help me understand, Ambassador. The Counterterrorism Cooperation – how does counterterrorism cooperation work when there is no consensus if you like on the basic definition of terrorism itself?

Ambassador Raynor: Well, I think there is broad consensus. I mean I think —

VOA: — I mean, between the two countries.

Ambassador Raynor: Indeed, between the two countries. I think there’s activity and engagement that’s clearly terrorism and that’s where our engagement focuses. When you look at al-Shabaab, when you look at the risk posed by that organization to the stability of the region, to U.S. security interests, this is a hundred percent concurrence and a hundred percent partnership. Our focus is on that type of terrorism threat. And where there’s ambiguity or there’s discussion about whether other activity constitutes terrorism or not, we have frank and candid conversations, as friends do, and we share our differences, and we move on from there.

VOA: Continuing on that note, there are critics who believe the U.S. is pursuing security objectives at the expense of democracy and human rights in Ethiopia.

Ambassador Raynor: Yes. And I think that that is an interesting discussion. And for us, we see many avenues for progress and many avenues for partnership in Ethiopia. And we also see many avenues for good, constructive conversation among friends. And what I don’t think we feel particularly constrained by is where we see room for progress, we should pursue that progress. And when we have differences, we should note those differences and see if we can find common ground. But if you don’t have an agreement on one thing, that doesn’t mean we don’t pursue progress on something else.

VOA: In a speech to state department employees, Secretary Rex Tillerson said I am quoting here: Guiding all our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values. Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated. End of quote.

Does counterterrorism cooperation and advancing security objectives fit into this? Keeping the right balance must be a challenge.

Ambassador Raynor: I’m not sure I see the difficulty there. The Secretary’s reference to values I think is important, and I think that is something that has always underpinned U.S. foreign policy, has always underpinned the bilateral relationship between the United States and Ethiopia, and I don’t see any change in that regard.

I think we broadly do share similar values. We have great regard for the Ethiopian constitution. We have great regard for our partnership in building Ethiopia’s resilience and improving the health and the educational standards of the Ethiopian people, in promoting Ethiopian stability, and in promoting Ethiopia’s efforts to promote broader stability in the region.

So these are areas where we absolutely share values as well as goals. So our partnership in those areas is not very difficult to sustain.

VOA: Staying on the same topic, there is a pending human rights bill HR128 which passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was supposed to be voted on the Floor of the House of Representatives last month. Has the Ethiopian government in any way requested the U.S. to delay voting on HR128? Using the counterterrorism cooperation as leverage, as a diplomatic leverage?

Ambassador Raynor: There has been absolutely no such engagement that I’ve been a party to. We have had, as we do with many things, interesting conversations between ourselves and the Ethiopian authorities on the efforts of the U.S. Congress to pursue such legislation. I should say that that legislation is not yet enacted. It’s not clear if that legislation will be enacted.

One of the interesting dynamics of the U.S. political system is that we have separation of powers. I represent the executive branch, and the Congress is the legislative branch, and they are very welcome to pursue their priorities and then that promotes conversations between the branches of the U.S. government as well.

And similarly, we have such conversations between the United States and Ethiopia. Ethiopia has expressed concern about that legislation, but they have no way put any pressure on me or my colleagues in the U.S. government to link their concerns to any areas of engagement or cooperation between our two nations.

VOA: Let’s talk about current events in Ethiopia. Of course, there are serious challenges Ethiopia is facing right now. Protests that ended in violence and deaths, border conflict between Oromia and Somali regions that displaced thousands of people. How concerned are you over these developments?

Ambassador Raynor: You know, since I arrived in Ethiopia about six weeks ago I’ve had many people including many Ethiopians tell me I’ve arrived at an interesting time for Ethiopia, and given Ethiopia’s history, I imagine it’s had a lot of interesting times. But I do agree that this is one of those times.

We are certainly concerned by the unrest and the violence that has occurred, particularly along the Oromia/Somali border, but also elsewhere over the past several weeks. We promote very strongly the notion of peaceful expression of political intent. And that includes peaceful demonstrations. And that includes government enabling peaceful demonstrations. And so we encourage both sides to continue down that path. And where that path is deviated from, when there is unrest or violence, that’s a sign that something has gone wrong and we would ask both sides to look at what that is and to try to move past that and to restore the principle of peaceful expression of political will.

VOA: Referring to the protests last year and this year, the state of emergencies that followed and the current events. Some analysts believe there has not been anything on this scale in the last 26 years. What are your thoughts on these developments and have you been in contact with the authorities here to discuss the issues?

Ambassador Raynor: Of course, my job is to discuss the political situation and the partnership and that’s what I do every day and it’s something I will continue to do.

With regards to the unrest that led to the state of emergency, the imposition of the state of emergency, I think that’s an important opportunity for Ethiopia to look at the underlying causes, to look at the political space available to the Ethiopian people, the opportunity express themselves, the opportunity to have diverse views reflected in the media, the opportunity to gather and assemble and to feel as though they have sufficient input into their government so that they see a government that is responsive to their interests. That is a core tenet that the United States feels very strongly about.

I think the state of emergency established peace, but it maybe didn’t do enough to address the underlying causes. There has been good effort subsequent to that for dialogue with elements of the opposition and the government to look at some of the cause of that. I think there’s much more room for such dialogue and for that dialogue to be even more inclusive.

VOA: What’s your take on the current negotiation going on between the opposition and the ruling party, EPRDF?

Ambassador Raynor: We’re following that with great interest. Again, I think a period like now, which again many people characterize as an interesting and particularly worrying time, is also an opportunity. And I think if people approach the current dynamics to look for the positive that can be brought from it, to look at ways that political space can be broadened, to look at ways that peaceful expression of political will can be exercised, I think this is an enormous opportunity for Ethiopia to emerge even stronger in the days ahead.

VOA: Lastly, let’s talk about the future of Diversity Visa Lottery. Following the recent terror attack in New York, President Donald Trump suggested he will work with Congress to eliminate the program. Thousands of Ethiopians have already made it to the U.S. through this lottery. Could this be the last DV Lottery? I mean this year’s Lottery.

Ambassador Raynor: I honestly don’t have specific information about what the plans are in that regard. I will tell you that the United States as in a period where it’s looking very broadly at its immigration policies, I think the look at the Diversity Visa that the President alluded to falls within that context. But I think that this will play out in a way that is thoughtful and measured, and we will certainly do our best to communicate to Ethiopians and others any developments in that regard as they happen.

VOA: Going back to the point you alluded to earlier, I mean will humanitarian assistance by the U.S., especially following the back-to-back droughts in this country continue.

Ambassador Raynor: Yes, Thank you.

In fact, it’s back-to-back-to-back drought as we are in our third year, and unfortunately the projections for the coming months suggest that there will be additional climate-related challenges, particularly in the south and the southeast of the country.

The United States government is steadfastly committed to continuing to provide the humanitarian assistance needed to ensure that Ethiopians don’t go without the food they need, without the sanitation support they need, without the nutritional support they need. But we’re very troubled by the situation.

There are currently many, many millions of Ethiopians, well over ten million Ethiopians, who are facing hunger and the risk of hunger, and that’s something the United States takes very seriously.

So, we are very committed to doing everything we can, but we’re also very anxious to ensure that the cooperation between donors, among donors and between the donor community and the government of Ethiopia be as strong and be as transparent as possible so that we identify these needs and that we meet these needs as efficiently as possible.

VOA: The United States has already provided hundreds of millions of dollars as a response to these droughts and has been calling on other donors, partners, to do the same. Does this mean you are not I mean satisfied with, you know, the response from other donors?

Ambassador Raynor: The donor community has been extraordinarily engaged. As a matter of fact, just a week or so ago I was in the Somali region specifically to look at the coordination between donors and the government and among the donors on food security. A lot of very good work is being done there, but it’s quite clear that the challenge is enormous, that the needs remain. And that there’s plenty of room for all donors to do as much as they can to support that.

I would also suggest that some donors who are maybe not as traditionally involved in this area can become more involved as well. Donors like some Gulf states, like China, who are very active in other aspects of development and life in Ethiopia. I would certainly encourage all donors to look at whether they’re doing everything they can to support the Ethiopian people in this really important and compelling area.

VOA: On the humanitarian situation, are you concerned that these droughts will affect the economic development of the country?

Ambassador Raynor: Well it is, it is an absolutely concern. When people are struggling to meet their basic needs for survival — access to water, access to food — other things are at risk of suffering as well. Things like health care. Things like access to education. If you don’t have a healthy, educated population, you’re inhibiting your capacity to develop your country. So it is really important that we get past these core humanitarian needs to look at building the resilience of the people, the resilience of the safety net program, which is an enormous achievement of the Ethiopian government that we’ve been proud to support and look at ways that we can get past these chronic humanitarian challenges so that we are not inhibiting people from achieving their own full potential as individuals and contributing as fully as possible to the development of their country and their economy.

VOA: Ambassador Michael Raynor, thank you very much for your time again.

Ambassador Raynor: Thank you.

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