Samantha Power rose to fame as a human rights advocate and was chosen by President Joe Biden to lead the agency that distributes billions of dollars in US aid abroad, including providing more food aid than anyone else in the world. But since Russia invaded Ukraine, that job has included a new Cold War-themed mission – countering Russia’s messages abroad.
As Administrator of the US Agency for International Development, Power now deals with a global food crisis, caused by local conflicts, the economic disruption of a pandemic, drought and other extreme phenomena typical of climate change. As the Biden administration often makes clear, the problems were exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, deepening food shortages and raising prices everywhere.
It was 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. I watched aid workers provide emergency food to children, always among the first to die in food crises, and announce new food aid.
But unexpectedly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tracked her back to Africa days later, visiting other capitals with a different message aimed at strengthening his country’s partnerships in Africa.
Lavrov claimed that US and international sanctions against Russia over its six-month invasion of Ukraine were responsible for cutting off vital grain supplies from the global market. He dismissed the “so-called food crisis” on the continent that is hardest hit.
In fact, the Russian blockade prevented Ukrainian grain from reaching the world. International sanctions against Russia exclude agricultural products and fertilizers.
“What neither of us in the administration will do, is just allow the Russian Federation, which continues to say it is not at war in Ukraine, to blame the recent spike in food and fertilizer prices on sanctions and on the United States,” Power, who returned to her office in Washington, she told The Associated Press.
“People, especially when they are facing a crisis of this magnitude, they really know the difference about … whether you are providing emergency humanitarian assistance … or whether you are on a platform trying to make it new,” Bauer said.
“For Mr. Lavrov to travel to Africa immediately after my travels, there is almost nothing concrete in the wake of that visit that the countries he visited have obtained from him, other than misinformation and lies,” Bauer said.
She said that even African officials whose governments refused to join the UN’s official condemnation earlier this year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spoke of secretly communicating with Russian leaders to urge Russia to let Ukraine’s grain out of the ports.
Power, a former journalist, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for Trouble from Hell, a book on genocide that has sparked debates in government and among academics about the wisdom and ethics of intervening in atrocities abroad ever since. She served as US ambassador to the United Nations under President Barack Obama, before joining the Biden administration.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, causing new food and energy shortages at a time when record numbers of people around the world were already starving, much of Power’s focus has been on the food crisis. Power said that after a decade of success in reducing the numbers of people who don’t eat, the estimated number of people suffering from hunger worldwide has risen to 828 million this year, 150 million immediately since the pandemic, with many in desperate need.
Even in countries outside regions where aid organizations are warning of a famine, rising food prices are adding to political unrest, as happened in the overthrow 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 cascading political effects and instability caused by economic pain and the people’s need, the human need, to hold authorities accountable for what is a horrific inability to look after the needs of your loved ones — that is an incentive if there is one” to protest, Bauer said.
“This, I can’t say blatantly, is the worst food crisis of our lives,” Bauer said.
She noted that there have been some signs of hope in recent weeks — Russia has allowed Ukraine to send its first grain ship in months from a port besieged by Russia, easing food and fuel prices.
But in the worst-affected East African countries – Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia – four rainy seasons in a row failed, wilting grain in the field and killing hundreds of millions of livestock that had been the only source of support for the region’s pastoralists. “They don’t have a Plan B,” she said.
A woman farmer in Kenya told her of her bounce back from the high price of fertilizer and, realizing she could only grow half as much food for next season, warning of a deeper hunger to come.
But Power said donor aid for the current hunger crisis in Africa is less than half of what it was in the last major crisis in 2016. With no sign of an end to the war in Ukraine or the food crisis, wealthier nations tell Power they provided plenty of relief money to Ukraine It was otherwise used.
Frankly, an account run by GoFundMe and announced by Power in mid-July to ordinary people to help the global food crisis showed donations of just $2,367 on Friday.
US and other authority officials are increasingly urging China, in particular, to offer more comfort. The Chinese embassy in Washington, in response to a request for comment, said that China had provided $130 million to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
“This is not a moot point,” Bauer said of the request to China. “This is a sincere hope.”