US aid chief tackles global food crisis
Samantha Power rose to prominence as a human rights advocate and was chosen by President Biden to lead the agency that distributes billions of dollars in U.S. aid overseas, including providing more food aid than anyone else in the world. But since Russia invaded Ukrainethis job includes a new task with a Cold War feel – countering Russia’s messages abroad.
As administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Power now faces a global food crisis caused by local conflicts, the economic upheavals of the pandemic, drought and other extremes typical of climate change. As the Biden administration often explains, the problems have all been compounded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, worsening food shortages and rising prices everywhere.
It has created a competition between hearts and minds reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union last month, when Power visited desperate families and struggling farmers in Horn of Africa countries. . She saw aid workers give emergency food to children, always among the first to die in food crises, and announced new food aid.
But unexpectedly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov followed her to Africa a few days later, visiting other capitals with a different message aimed at strengthening his country’s partnerships in Africa.
It is US and international sanctions against Russia for its six-month invasion of Ukraine that are responsible for cutting off vital grain supplies from the world market, Lavrov said. He dismissed “the so-called food crisis” on the hardest hit continent.
In fact, a Russian blockade has prevented grain from Ukraine from reaching the world. International sanctions against Russia exempt agricultural products and fertilizers.
“What we’re not going to do, any of us in the administration, is allow the Russian Federation, which still says it’s not at war in Ukraine, to award the last soaring food and fertilizer prices to sanctions and the United States,” Power, back in his office in Washington, told The Associated Press.
“People, especially when faced with a crisis of this magnitude, really know the difference between … whether you’re providing emergency humanitarian aid … or whether you’re on a podium trying to turn this into a new Cold War” , Power said.
“For Mr. Lavrov to go to Africa right after me, there is almost nothing tangible as a result of that visit that the countries he visited got from him, other than misinformation and lies “, Power said.
Even African officials whose governments refused to join in the official UN condemnation earlier this year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine say they called Russian leaders privately to urge Russia to let go Ukrainian grain from the ports, she said.
A former journalist, Power won a Pulitzer in 2003 for “A Problem From Hell,” a book about the genocide that has since fueled debates in government and among scholars about the wisdom and morality of intervening in atrocities in the stranger. She served as US Ambassador to the UN under President Obama before joining the Biden administration.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, creating new food and energy shortages at a time when record numbers of people around the world were already hungry, Power has mostly focused on the food crisis. After a previous decade of success in reducing the number of people without food, the estimated number of hungry people worldwide rose to 828 million this year, 150 million just since the pandemic, Power said, many of whom have an acute need.
Even in countries outside areas where aid organizations are warning of famine, high food prices are fueling political unrest, such as during the overthrow of the Sri Lankan government this summer. “Most analysts would be very surprised if the Sri Lankan government were the last to fall,” Power noted.
“The cascading political effects and the instability that comes from the economic pain and the need of people, the human need, to hold the authorities accountable for what is a terrifying failure to meet the needs of your loved ones – it’s a motivating factor if there ever was one” to protest, Power said.
“This, I can’t put it any clearer, is the worst food crisis of our lifetimes,” Power said.
There have been encouraging signs in recent weeks, she pointed out – with Russia allowing Ukraine to send its first grain ship in months out of a Russian-blocked port, and a drop in food and fuel prices.
But the hardest-hit East African states – Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia – “don’t have a plan B”, she said.
A farmer in Kenya told her she had cringed at the high price of fertilizer and realized she could only plant half the amount of food for the next season, a warning of a hunger still deeper to come.
Donor aid for Africa’s current food crisis is less than half of that for the last major crisis, in 2016, Power said. With no signs of an end to the war in Ukraine or the food crisis, wealthier countries tell Power they’ve given much of their relief money to Ukraine and are otherwise exhausted.
Tellingly, an account run by GoFundMe that Power announced in mid-July for ordinary people to help tackle the global food crisis showed just $2,367 in donations on Friday.
Power and other U.S. officials are increasingly urging China, in particular, to provide more relief. The Chinese Embassy in Washington, asked for comment, said China had donated $130 million to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“It’s not a topic of discussion,” Power said of the request to China. “It’s a sincere hope.”