Late last month, I stepped onto the tarmac at Vnukovo airport in Moscow to deliver life-saving ventilators to the people of Russia — and felt a connection to the long history of American generosity that fuels USAID’s mission.
From young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina using 3D printers to distribute face shields, to cities in Ukraine keeping local government services available through virtual platforms, to a tailor in Azerbaijan deciding to produce cloth face masks for her community free of charge, COVID-19 has challenged the global community to step up in the face of an equally global crisis. Governments, public health institutions, businesses, judges, journalists, teachers, and ordinary citizens alike have been called to serve above and beyond the scope of recent history, and sometimes at great personal risk.
But helping others in a time of need is at the core of the American spirit. I am incredibly proud of how USAID demonstrates that this defining quality of U.S. leadership will not be undermined by the coronavirus pandemic or any other challenge we might face in the future.
For more than a half century, the United States has been the largest contributor to global health security and humanitarian assistance around the world. We were on the front lines in the fight against Ebola, we support countries in their battles against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other infectious diseases, and we are leading the global response to COVID-19.
Since the outbreak of coronavirus, the U.S. Government has provided over $1 billion worldwide, and over $90 million to countries in need throughout Europe and Eurasia, the region I oversee at USAID.
This emergency support builds on the nearly three decades USAID has spent helping partner countries emerge from generations of neglected institutions, crumbling infrastructure, and suppressed entrepreneurship. Our partnerships have helped build resilience and self-reliance and prepared Eastern European countries to take on this crisis, pivot, and rebuild.
What strikes me as we undertake this effort is how swiftly our partners have pivoted to respond to COVID-19. Across the region, local health leaders have quickly moved to assess and respond to the public health needs unique to their countries and communities. Our support further enables this work.
In Armenia, USAID delivered 300 computers to the Ministry of Emergency Situations to enable the government to more effectively coordinate its COVID-19 response. In Belarus, USAID helps protect the safety of medical professionals on the frontlines. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we’re helping safeguard the well-being of children with disabilities, who are at particular risk in times like this.
We’re also empowering citizens to take an active role in shaping the COVID-19 response. In Georgia, we launched a rapid response grant program for local civil society organizations. These grants are helping communities minimize the spread of COVID-19 locally and scale up national response efforts. Young political leaders from the USAID-supported European Democracy Youth Network (EDYN) are stimulating important discussions about response efforts underway through digital outreach, while also doing their part to help protect vulnerable citizens within their communities through grassroots organizing. Lastly, USAID’s new partnership with Rotary International will bring significant new resources to local Rotary chapters in Italy and all across Central and Eastern Europe, enabling them to tackle COVID-19-related challenges at the community level.
But COVID-19 is not only a public health crisis. The pandemic has affected our systems of governance, our livelihoods, and public perceptions and attitudes. Social distancing orders pose real challenges for access to, and the functioning of, democratic institutions. While necessary to limit the spread of the disease, social distancing measures have also hobbled economies. And malign actors have exploited the opportunity to sow distrust through disinformation.
USAID has spent over 25 years working to help sow the seed of transparent, citizen-responsive governance across a region of young democracies. So now, when governments face unprecedented obstacles in meeting this mandate, I am encouraged by the commitment that so many in the region have displayed to providing citizens with the services they need and deserve.
In Ukraine, local governments have leveraged USAID investments in technology upgrades to hold official business online and to effectively communicate with rural communities. In Kosovo, where our partnership has prioritized judicial effectiveness and transparency, newly approved guidance clarifies judicial institutions’ mandate for ensuring continued operations. In North Macedonia, where snap elections are expected in July, a quick pivot in our programming will help ensure that poll workers and voters can safely go to the polls.
Our programs are also focused on keeping the engines of the economy running strong. In Moldova, where USAID has spent years helping small businesses capitalize on the agricultural, tourism, and IT advantages the country has to offer, we are helping many of these businesses pivot to e-commerce opportunities. We are supporting similar efforts in Albania. Across the region, we are working to provide energy-sector partners with the tools they need to keep power flowing to hospitals, homes, and businesses, while also planning for longer-term energy security.
All of these efforts are safeguarding the progress citizens, entrepreneurs, and governments of the region have worked so hard to gain.
The scale of the challenge before us may be historic, but it is not insurmountable. As our plane landed in Moscow, I remembered that, while we are facing a grave crisis, we at USAID have done a great deal to help others to respond rapidly to this global emergency. I am proud to know that, as Americans, we will always offer help when a disaster strikes.
About the Author: Brock Bierman is the Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia. Follow his work @BBiermanUSAID and @USAIDEurope.