Press Conference: USAID Administrator Samantha Power

Press Conference
Samantha Power 
USAID Administrator
August 4, 2021
The Africa Regional Media Hub

Moderator Sean Jones: Well, good evening, everyone, and thank you for your patience. I want to provide a very warm welcome to the Addis Ababa press corps, the members who have joined us this evening. And, again, thank you for your flexibility on the timing of our discussion this evening.

I’m very pleased – my name is Sean Jones; I’m the USAID mission director here in Ethiopia – and, I am very pleased this evening, to welcome our administrator of USAID globally, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, to Addis Ababa, and to share her thoughts with us this evening at the end of her robust visit to Ethiopia.

I also would like to take the opportunity to recognize the attendance this evening of two very important people: our U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia, Ambassador Geeta Pasi and then of course, the U.S. Ambassador to the African Union, Ambassador Jessica Lapenn.

With that, let me turn it over to our administrator, Samantha Power, for some prepared remarks. And then we’ll follow with the question-and-answer period. Thank you.

Ambassador Power: Thank you so much, Sean, and thanks for all you do. Along with our tremendous USAID staff, especially the beating heart of our mission here, our local Ethiopian staff to support the humanitarian needs and the development needs of Ethiopian people. Thank you also to Ambassador Pasi and to Ambassador Lapenn for the great work that they do and the dedication that they bring to this country and this region.

It’s great for me to be back here in Ethiopia, a country that has long been a strong partner and regional anchor. The last time I was in Ethiopia was in 2016, not long after I had begun a campaign from my position as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a campaign to try to free female political prisoners who were being unjustly imprisoned by countries around the world, including three political prisoners who were held by the previous Ethiopian Government.

Today, I return to an Ethiopia that has experienced a wave of change since 2016, an Ethiopia where those three women are now free, along with many tens of thousands of other political prisoners. But today is also a grim day. It marks nine months since the start of the conflict in Tigray, amidst an alarming humanitarian catastrophe where 5.2 million people remain in a state of dire need.

Whether the United States is lobbying one government to release political prisoners or another government to allow greater access to humanitarian aid workers, I want the Ethiopian people to know that we seek to engage with you, and with your government, on the basis of a set of values, not to play favorites or to pick sides during a conflict. Values like, there is no military solution to an internal conflict. Values like, all parties should end hostilities and agree to an immediate ceasefire and to begin talks about reconciliation and troop and militia withdrawal from neighboring regions.

The U.S. is watching with great alarm as a conflict that began in Tigray is now beginning to spread. We now estimate that there are roughly 76,000 internally displaced persons in Afar and 150,000 internally displaced persons in Amhara after TPLF military expansion into neighboring provinces.

Other values – values like, humanitarian aid workers should be free to do their jobs and never be targeted, attacked, or harassed; and they should have unhindered access to the desperate Ethiopian people whose lives they are trying to save.

This morning I visited a local staging center for USAID’s food aid, not far from the capital. Warehouses were full of wheat and lentils and split peas, and trucks lay idle in the mud because deliveries had been backed up for weeks due to ongoing blockades. In my conversation with the Minister of Peace just now, I stressed these values, called yet again for a cessation of hostilities and unfettered humanitarian access, and reiterated the Unites States’ care and concern for the people of Ethiopia, no matter their identity or affiliation.

Today I also had the chance to visit with some of our local health partners, who discussed the remarkable public health gains Ethiopia has made over several years thanks to the leadership of this country’s Ministry of Health and thanks to support from USAID. Dramatic improvements in malaria prevention, diagnosis, and treatment; sustained and affected efforts to prevent and treat HIV; focused communications campaigns to protect mothers, help them plan their families, prepare for births, and protect their communities from COVID-19.

From support for public health, to investments in Ethiopia’s agricultural transformation, to sustained humanitarian assistance across decades, the United States has deep, deep roots of partnership with Ethiopia.

And I am proud to announce new investments to support the health and humanitarian needs of the Ethiopian people, on top of the more than $149 million in humanitarian assistance to help people affected by the ongoing conflict in Tigray, which I announced last week, today I’m announcing more than $45 million in funding to expand and intensify the fight against COVID19: to support health systems, respond to urgent humanitarian needs, and support vaccinations.

This is part of $720 million in new funding that the United States, USAID, is providing to fight the pandemic abroad. Including, $445 million for sub–Saharan Africa to support COVID-19 response and vaccine readiness and urgent humanitarian needs consistent with the African Union’s Continental COVID Response Strategy. This is itself in addition to the 1.6 million U-S. purchased Johnson and Johnson vaccine doses that by the end of this week will have been delivered to Ethiopia on behalf of the American people. And as you know, a delivery of the lion’s share of those doses is happening just in the next day.

These investments are just a small reflection of our commitment to the people of Ethiopia. As I said at the beginning, we remain committed to engaging this country based on a set of values, and working together to secure an immediate and lasting peace for Ethiopia.

With that, I look forward to taking your questions.

Corey–Boulet, AFP

Question: Thank you. Good evening and thank you for the briefing. My name is Robbie Corey–Boulet with AFT. Prime Minister Abiy has been criticized recently for using words like “weeds,” “cancer,” and “disease” to refer to the TPLF. The U.N. special advisor on the prevention of genocide last week was concerned about that kind of language and linked it to the possibility of further atrocity crimes in Tigray and elsewhere. As somebody who is an authority on genocide, what do you think when you hear that kind of language from the head of the Ethiopian Government? And what would you have said to Prime Minister Abiy had you been given the chance to meet with him today?

Ambassador Power: Well, I did raise in the meeting with the Minister of Peace the points that I would’ve raised had I seen the Prime Minister. And this was certainly one of them, concern about inflamed rhetoric, the dehumanizing rhetoric that you referred to, but also increasingly virulent speech that you find on the internet and in various publications directed at aid workers. And already, we have seen horrific attacks against aid workers, who are doing nothing more than trying to provide food and other forms of assistance to people in desperate need.

So dehumanizing rhetoric of the kind that you refer to only hardens tensions and can – and historically certainly often accompanies ethnically motivated atrocities. And what the United States has called for is dialogue, is a cessation of hostilities, and when the rhetoric gets ratcheted up, it also just becomes more and more challenging to come to the table. It also, irrespective of the intentions behind that rhetoric – and that’s a question that I would urge you to direct to people who are using that rhetoric – as is evident all around the world, including the United States, irrespective of what one intends, there are many, many people out there who hear rhetoric, hateful rhetoric or dehumanizing rhetoric, and take measures into their own hands or can be incited by that.

And so I think the goal that I hope we all share is peace. And words matter, and it’s extremely important that all parties involved in the conflict come to the table and move away from what is an increasingly ratcheted-up set of accusations and counter-accusations, and focus instead on the dialogue that is going to be needed for an inclusive peace and an end to the suffering of civilians.

Brook Abdu -The Reporter Newspaper

Question: All right. Thank you very much. My first – my question is about the negotiations with the – among the warring parties in Ethiopia. So did you discuss that issue with the Ethiopian officials that you’ve met, and the other thing in the meantime with access to Tigray region to deliver humanitarian aid? So who is really blocking humanitarian aid to reach to Tigray, according to your assessments? Thank you very much.

Ambassador Power: Thank you. So as you know, Special Envoy Jeff Feltman is working tirelessly around the clock, along with other international partners and in constant dialogue with the parties here on the ground, to promote the cause of peace. And my objective in meeting, especially with the Minister of Peace, given her jurisdiction, was to discuss the desperate

humanitarian needs that are growing even more acute with every passing day. So that was – our discussions were focused on that.

And yes, of course, I stressed the U.S. position, which is our support for an immediate cessation of hostilities, our appeal and demand to the parties to remove themselves from territory along the lines of what you saw me and the State Department and others speak to yesterday.

So again, we have been very public about those requirements. And it has to happen. You have to see those conditions met; those are going to be very, very important for dialogue to be effective.

But my focus has really been on the second part of your question here, given, again, our special envoy’s role on the political track. And the access remains deeply worrying. And I would just offer this statistic, which is that, as you probably heard in mid-July, the UN said that between 500 and 600 trucks with relief items needed to enter Tigray each week to meet current assessed needs. As of two days ago – because I want to make sure I have the latest information, so I can’t tell you I have today’s information – but as of two days ago, 153 trucks with relief items have been able to enter Tigray.

So in that period between mid-July and August 2nd, according to the UN, what were needed was 1,500 trucks, and the number of trucks that rolled in and were able to pass was 153. That’s 10 percent of needs. And so I think that we have seen systems change and, for example, paperwork requirements adjusted and time frames compressed for the granting of permissions. Those are – we’ve seen those things change on paper. But the delays and the inability to move precious food and other items to people in need, we are just not seeing the changes that we had hoped for.

So again, that was a very important discussion with the Minister. So, too, was all the important work that USAID does in the health sector on COVID, on agriculture. So even as we appeal to the government to expedite access, to make it easier, not harder, to allow these convoys that are ready and are filled with food, ready to go, ready to reach mothers, parents who are looking at their kids and just not – imagine your kid looking up at you and not having eaten. I mean, we can feed those kids through our partners, but not if the food can’t get into Tigray. So I really hope that we’re going to see the access we need.

Now, what I also want to say is that the TPLF moving militarily, particularly if it is in proximity to roads that the convoys need to pass on, that is going to obstruct access. I mean, the roads have to be secure. And so this is an appeal to all parties to allow unhindered humanitarian access, to put the needs of civilians in desperate need first.

Getnet Shenkute – Ethiopian News Agency

Question: Okay. Thank you so much for this opportunity. You have a well-deserved reputation for fighting injustice in your entire lifetime. But many argue, especially Ethiopians, there is a worrisome feeling here in Ethiopia that you have you have closed your eyes to atrocities perpetrated by TPLF. Is that a valid criticism? What do you say to that accusation?

And also, the U.S. Government was among first to recognize and condemn the TPLF’s treacherous attack against the northern command of Ethiopian National Defense Force in early November. And Ethiopians are told that the U.S. administration is once again on the side of the truth, peace, and justice.

However, now many people have felt, feel, to be betrayed by Biden administration, which took such a biased position on the whole thing and terror of TPLF. So what’s your response on this regard? So do you believe also – do you recognize the belligerence of – the belligerent act of TPLF against some regions and neighboring regions, especially the Amhara and Afar regional states? Thanks so much.

Ambassador Power: Thank you. On your last question, again, I have already stated in my opening remarks and in the comments I’ve just made how concerned we are about the TPLF – this was in my opening statement – about the TPLF military movements that have caused significant displacement in Afar – now, again, tens of thousands of civilians – and Amharans as well displaced. It is extremely important that the conflict stop, and that military offenses of that nature stop, and that the parties turn to dialogue.

With regard to your – what I took to be your first question, let me first just talk about the agency that I am privileged to run, USAID. USAID is every single day in this country working with Ethiopians without asking questions about ethnicity or politics; actually, asking lots of questions about education needs, agricultural planning, digitization, governance and the rule of law and civil society now that all of that space has opened up; about drug regimens to fight TB and malaria and what people need in order to meet disease. I’m incredibly – I feel so privileged to be even part of an organization that has the chance to support the people of Ethiopia, with whom I’ve had deep friendships my whole life.

And so just to put some facts in this, in the last year alone the United States, with USAID at the forefront, we have provided more than $1 billion in support to our Ethiopian friends, including more than $720 million in humanitarian assistance and more than $340 million in bilateral development and health assistance. We are the largest donor of humanitarian assistance, and not just in Tigray but throughout Ethiopia. And I just talked to the Minister of Peace about how we can meet the needs of these new displaced that we have been talking about, who have been displaced again by TPLF’s military moves.

That’s what USAID and our partners do. We want to support Ethiopian civilians in need, and of course, ideally, we want to focus on Ethiopia’s development so that the day comes as soon as possible where you don’t – your people don’t need assistance. I mean, you have the dynamism and the talent and the young people to move out of an aid relationship to a trade- and investment-only kind of relationship. I mean, that is the horizon that we see. But conflict gets in the way. And conflict also pulls resources to humanitarian assistance instead of to the kind of economic development and agricultural programs. We would like all of our funding to be oriented around sustainable investments that your people can carry forward, again, in partnership.

To your question about the TPLF, I think it’s also important to state that we in the United States have made it very clear to the TPLF leadership that a ceasefire and political negotiations are the only way to end this conflict. We’ve also reminded them that the mistrust and animosity that many Ethiopians feel toward the TPLF is rooted in their actions during their 27-year rule. And as I said at the beginning of my statement, those were actions that I engaged on when I was in the prior Obama administration publicly and privately, consistently, on the basis of support for individual dignity and human rights, and pushing and urging greater liberalization and free and fair elections and space for civil society organizations to operate in, which they didn’t have.

So I have been consistent over my career and what I do any place I’m privileged to visit, and I’m very grateful to have been welcomed here today by so many Ethiopians. I’ve had to chance to meet with many of our partners but also government officials, and I am – I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to come and have the kind of dialogue that I think is really important, especially in an era of social media and of – where there is a lot of disinformation out there, it’s very good to talk face-to-face. And it was, I think, a constructive dialogue that we have had.

But I will continue, as will my colleagues here and in Washington, not to pick sides or take any one side of any conflict but to look at the principles in human rights law, in international humanitarian law, and to appeal to parties who are ignoring or violating those principles to meet those standards. I think to do otherwise, if you see that people are at risk of unnecessary suffering and to stay silent about that, it’s not something that the people of this country would have wished me to do when there was different leadership in this country. And I hope – and especially in coming here and in engaging directly – I hope they can understand that this is – our statements are based on our trusted partners on the ground who are providing us with the facts on where the blockages are coming from.

And we have a responsibility – if the TPLF is doing something that is blocking humanitarian access, we have a responsibility to say that. And so too, if Amharan militias are doing things that are harming civilians or that are blocking access, we have a responsibility to say it. If Eritrean forces are present on the ground and committing abuses and restricting convoys of their positions, we should say it. And if the Ethiopian Government is not allowing those convoys to move and it is safe for them to move, I believe that a neutral and objective and independent position would demand, again, that we state the facts as we know them to be.

Thank you.

Moderator: We have time for one more question.

Dawit Endeshaw – Reuters

Question: Thank you very much. Dawit from Reuters. Just a couple of questions. Was there any chance to discuss with probably Tigrayan officials or someone from Tigray there?

Second question is: In terms of rhetoric, not just the rhetoric, but also there have been harassment against Tigrayans. Some were illegally arrested. Have you also raised this concern with – during your discussion with Ethiopian officials?

And my third question is: Prior to your visit to Ethiopia, I think there was a plan to meet Prime Minister Abiy. Have you managed to meet him? If you managed, what was the point of discussion? Thank you.

Ambassador Power: Thank you. Again, this was a short, kind of compressed visit. I do want to state that this is only the second trip that I have taken as USAID administrator, and it was very important for me to get to Ethiopia on my first trip. I mean, that is how important our relationship with this country and the Ethiopian people is. And I really want to underscore that.

But by its nature, this was a short trip. And so many of – I can take, I think, your questions in one piece. We did not get, of course, to Tigray on this trip. We were able to get to the – at least one of the areas where we stockpile our provisions to talk to the people who drive the trucks and fill the trucks and want to move those convoys in – as quickly as possible. And I thought it was very

important, given my role in supporting with this funding assistance with Sean and the mission, very important to hear from these organizations who are not able to communicate right now out of Tigray, at least most of them, who many of them are unable to pay their local staff. They’re very severely restricted in whether they can bring cash into the area.

They’re – in early July, as you probably know, the Ethiopian Government said that it was authorizing the UN to resume humanitarian flights from Addis to Mekelle starting on July 8th. This was a very, very important agreement, we thought, as a kind of supplement to the land access. But unfortunately, the UN assesses that daily flights are needed to facilitate humanitarian operations, to bring personnel and other things in. And since this authorization of this humanitarian air service, unfortunately, UNHAS, as it’s called, has received permission for two flights with passengers. So we – again, July 8th is now a while ago, unfortunately, and two flights and two convoys since July 8th is not sufficient.

So really to your questions, the sum of your questions, my emphasis was really on these urgent humanitarian needs. And again, the assurance that I got was that the Ethiopian Government is committed to the welfare of civilians in Tigray, and I think the point – which is the point that I would have conveyed to Prime Minister Abiy and which the Minister assured me that she would convey – but is that this – humanitarian actors have been warning of severe malnutrition risks in Tigray now for many months. I even personally – and I’m relatively new to my job – have been warning for several months.

The organizations that we support are on fumes, literally. I mean, they have had to ration their fuel. They have had to think: Which programs do we maintain, which do we cut? For example, we heard today that they can maintain maybe educational programs because their staff are in there, and maybe they can walk to the local school – these organizations. And by staff, I mean this is Ethiopian staff who are doing the lion’s share of this lifesaving work. But if it requires too much fuel and you have to drive too far, you think to yourself, “Well, I could get to two communities if I use this much fuel in this way. But if I go those extra miles, that will eat into my fuel ration for the day.” I mean, this is not how aid workers can function with so little supplies. They are running out. And the only people who will be hurt by that are the civilians, are the parents, are the elderly, are the people who haven’t been able – who would love maybe even to leave and haven’t been able to get out.

So that really has – was my message. I also asked the Minister to convey to Prime Minister Abiy, who I’m sure I will have the chance to meet soon – and as you know, he was not in the capital today on my day here – but we are really worried about humanitarian aid workers, given the killings that have occurred and the number of aid workers who have been killed already in Tigray. And it is extremely important that there be independent investigations into the murders that have occurred, a point which the Minister assured me that she would convey.

But also, it is really important that government officials and all parties use their voices to affirm the good that humanitarian aid workers are doing for the Ethiopian people. I think in this polarized time of escalating rhetoric, and even it looks like escalating violence on the ground, it becomes so much more important that leaders use their platform to de-escalate the rhetoric. And I made an appeal that Ethiopian officials stress publicly again their support for those who are sacrificing so much to try to continue to get food and nutrition and health supplies to people who would like nothing more than to be able to fend for themselves and to have planted and be sowing their crops, but because that by and large did not happen, now find themselves – many for the first time in their lives – dependent on aid from the outside; and so again, for all parties to state publicly often and

always that all people in this country should respect the impartiality and the independence of these aid workers. I think this is very, very important to do.

Thank you so much, and thank you for your patience this evening. Thank you.

Moderator: Thank you. That concludes this evening’s press conference. I want to thank all the members of the Addis press corps for joining us here. Thank you.

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