Samantha Power earned a reputation as a human rights advocate and was chosen by President Joe Biden to lead the agency that distributes billions of dollars in American aid overseas, including providing more food aid than anyone else in the world. But since Russia invaded Ukraine, that job includes a new task with a Cold War feel — dealing with Russia’s messages abroad.
As administrator of the US Agency for International Development, Power is now dealing with a global food crisis, caused by local conflicts, the economic turmoil of the pandemic and drought and the other extremes of climate change. As the Biden administration often reports, the problems have been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, deepening food shortages and rising prices everywhere.
That set up a contest of hearts and minds reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union last month when Power visited desperate families and struggling farmers in the Horn of Africa nations. He watched 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 took her to Africa a few days later, visiting other capitals with a different message intended to bolster his country’s partnerships in Africa.
US and international sanctions on Russia over its six-month invasion of Ukraine were responsible for cutting off vital grain supplies from the world market, Lavrov claimed. He dismissed “the so-called food crisis” on the continent as the hardest hit.
In fact, a Russian blockade has prevented Ukraine’s grain from reaching the world. International sanctions on Russia exempt agricultural products and fertilizers.
“What we’re not going to do, any of us in the administration, is simply allow the Russian Federation, which still says it’s not at war in Ukraine, to blame the latest increase in food and fertilizer prices on sanctions and United States,” Power told The Associated Press, back in her office in Washington.
“People, especially when they’re dealing with such a huge crisis, really know the difference as to whether you’re providing emergency humanitarian aid … or whether you’re one step away from trying to make it a new Cold War,” Power said.
“For Mr. Lavrov to travel to Africa immediately after my trip, there is almost nothing tangible after this visit from the countries he visited, other than misinformation and lies,” Power said.
Even African officials whose governments refused to join the official UN condemnation earlier this year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine say they have privately called Russian leaders to urge Russia to keep Ukrainian grain out of ports, he said.
A former journalist, Power won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for “A Problem from Hell,” a book about the genocide that has fueled debates in government and among academics about the wisdom and ethics of intervening in atrocities abroad ever since. She served as the US ambassador to the United Nations under President Barack 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, much of Power’s focus has been on the food crisis. After a previous decade of success in reducing the number of people going without food, the estimated number of people around the world who went hungry rose to 828 million this year, 150 million since the pandemic alone, Power said, with many in immediate need. .
Even in countries outside of areas where humanitarian groups are warning of famine, high food prices are adding to political unrest, such as the toppling of the Sri Lankan government this summer. “Most analysts would be very surprised if the Sri Lankan government was the last to fall,” Power noted.
“The escalating political impact and instability that stems from economic pain and people’s need, the human need to hold authorities accountable for a terrifying inability to look after the needs of your loved ones – that’s a motivation if ever there was one” to protest, Power said.
“This is, I can’t say it more clearly, the worst food crisis of our lifetime,” Power said.
There have been some hopeful signs in recent weeks, he noted — Russia allowing Ukraine to send its first grain ship in months out of a Russian blockaded port and easing food and fuel prices.
But in the worst-hit East African states – Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia – four consecutive rainy seasons have failed, withering grain in the field and killing hundreds of millions of livestock that were the only support for the region’s herders. “They don’t have a Plan B,” he said.
A female farmer in Kenya told her that she recoiled at the high price of fertilizer and realized she could only plant half the amount of food for the next season, a warning of even greater hunger.
But aid from donors for Africa’s current hunger crisis is less than half that for the last major one, in 2016, Power said. With no sign of an end to the war in Ukraine or the food crisis, the richest countries tell Power they have given much of their money to Ukraine relief and are otherwise being exploited.
Unsurprisingly, a GoFundMe account that Power announced in mid-July for ordinary people to help with the global food crisis showed just $2,367 in donations as of Friday.
Power and other US officials have increasingly urged China, in particular, to provide more relief. The Chinese embassy in Washington, which sought comment, said China had given $130 million to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
“This is not up for debate,” Power said of the request to China. “This is an honest hope.”