MODERATOR: Greetings from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub. I would like to welcome journalists to today’s on-the-record briefing with USAID Assistant Administrator for Asia Michael Schiffer and USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator and Senior Advisor Anka Lee. The speakers will discuss USAID Administrator’s Samantha Power’s upcoming visit to Papua New Guinea and Fiji from August 13th to August 16th, USAID’s efforts in the Pacific Islands, and the U.S. Government’s commitment to the region.
With that, let’s get started. Assistant Administrator Schiffer, I’ll turn it over to you for your opening remarks.
MR SCHIFFER: Terrific. Thank you very much. Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening depending on where you are, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us today. I’m Michael Schiffer, the Assistant Administrator for the Asia Bureau at the United States Agency International Development, or USAID, and I’m joined by our Deputy Assistant Administrator for Policy, Planning, and Learning and Senior Advisor Anka Lee.
For those of you who are not familiar with USAID, since our founding more than 60 years ago, USAID has heled to tackle some of the toughest challenges of our time. With development partners around the world, we’ve helped lift millions out of poverty and push back against oppression. We’ve helped start the Green Revolution in the 1960s and avert an age of global and continuous famine. We’ve helped eradicate smallpox, reverse the spread of AIDS, and dramatically decrease the incidence of malaria and tuberculosis around the world. We have supported dozens of transitions from autocracy to democracy, enabled tens of millions of girls to attend school, and provided lifesaving aid to communities torn apart by disaster, war, or other crises.
Much of our work has happened alongside our partners in Asia and the Pacific region, and as we seek to deepen our partnership with the countries in this region and in the Pacific, the head of our agency, Administrator Samantha Power, will travel to Papua New Guinea and Fiji next week.
The administrator will be in Port Moresby on Sunday, August 13th, and Monday, August 14th. While there, she will speak with people benefiting from clean and reliable energy for the first time because of USAID programming. She’ll also have the chance to hear from women and civil society leaders about their vision for the future of Papua New Guinea, and she’ll meet with government leaders to discuss how USAID can further support democracy, human rights and good governance.
Underpinning all of this, Administrator Power will officially open USAID’s PNG Country Representative Office. With this new and expanded office, our agency will be in a better position to listen, partner, and deliver lasting development progress for the people of PNG and the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
She will then continue her trip to be in Fiji August 15th and 16th. While in Fiji, she’ll engage with future leaders of the Pacific Islands at the University of the South Pacific, meet with Fijians in an HIV/AIDS clinic to discuss how we can continue to strengthen health systems, and she will see how USAID is creating greater economic opportunities and preparing villagers for future disasters as the climate crisis intensifies.
While there, at the invitation of Admiral Aquilino, she will speak at the Chiefs of Defense Conference about underpinning U.S. engagement in the region based on defense, diplomacy, and development – our 3D concept, the three legs of the stool for U.S. foreign policy and national security engagement in the Indo-Pacific.
Critically and importantly, Administrator Power will also open USAID’s regional mission in Fiji, and we’ll be doing that ahead of the schedule promised by President Biden at last year’s Pacific Islands summit. This new regional mission will cover nine Pacific Island nations so that we can work even more closely with our Pacific Island partners and neighbors to be a positive and constructive partner in the region and in the lives of Pacific Islands – Pacific Islanders.
I will be accompanying the administrator on this trip, and we are thrilled to be in the region and to have the opportunity to listen to our partners and to discover how we can more effectively deliver on the priorities set by the Pacific Islanders.
As the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific put it, a resilient Pacific region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion, and prosperity that ensures all Pacific peoples can lead free, healthy, and productive lives is the goal that we share with our partners in the Pacific.
Thank you, and with that, we look forward to answering your questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Assistant Administrator Schiffer. We will now turn to the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing.
Our first question was received in advance from Kirsty Needham of Reuters, based in Sydney, Australia, who asks: “Can you update us on USAID to the Solomon Islands? Recently, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy said in a TV interview that the U.S. had offered to provide hundreds of millions for infrastructure funding, but was waiting for approval from Solomon Islands Government.” Over to you.
MR SCHIFFER: Thank you. Very good question. One of the reasons why we’re so excited about opening our Country Representative Office in PNG, which will cover PNG but also the Solomons and Vanuatu, is that it’s going to provide us with the footprint and the presence in the region and allow us to build the relationships that we need so that we can better listen to our Pacific Island partners as we engage in our shared and common problem-solving, and that obviously very much includes working in the Solomons.
So having that presence is going to allow us to really step up as we look to better meet our partners where they are and to be able to work alongside them in fulfilling their own vision for their development pathways.
Earlier this year, I was part of an interagency delegation that went out to the Solomons as well as PNG, Vanuatu, and Fiji, and we engaged in some very, very good and wide-ranging conversations with both local communities but also representatives of the of the Solomons Government, including Prime Minister Sogavare and others in his cabinet, where we were able to have a good conversation about their views on what their development needs were, and we offered to be able to engage in ongoing and continuous development dialogue to figure out how we could work better together. And that includes possibly – and we talked about this directly with the prime minister – being able to expand the work that we’re doing in Malaita Province with our SCALE, our Strengthening Competitiveness, Agriculture, Livelihoods and Environment project, which is a 25 million, five-year project that USAID is undertaking in the Solomons; as well as other efforts.
I don’t want to get ahead of where that conversation is with both the government and local communities in the Solomons, but just to underscore that we are very, very open to ideas, thoughts for how we can go about better designing and implementing across a whole range of economic and governance and development initiatives in the Solomons, and looking forward to working closely with their government and local communities as we do so.
MODERATOR: All right. Our next question goes to Marjorie Finkeo of The Post Courier, based in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Marjorie asks: “How much does USAID in total offer in PNG?” Over to our speakers.
MR SCHIFFER: Can I ask for clarification of that question? Is that a dollar-figure issue, or is that – and I apologize if I’m – it’s early in the morning here for us – or is that the complexion of the types of programs that we offer?
MODERATOR: Marjorie typed her question in the tab, so I don’t know if she’s able to unmute herself. The – if I’m going to allow her to unmute herself, if she’d like to. But maybe you could speak to both if you’re able to.
MR SCHIFFER: I can – I can certainly try to. Since – over the past 20 years, total U.S. assistance to PNG, the Solomons, and Vanuatu have totaled close to $400 million, and we can get you an exact – loop back with an exact breakdown for PNG if that is – if that’s of interest.
In terms of the types of programming we do, we have been engaged in the – in electrification projects that there’s been a major focus of attention, and that will be part of the administrator’s trip through the PNG Electrification Partnership, our PEP activity. We also have health and basic education programs that we work in PNG. We have done considerable work helping to manage and protect, alongside local partners, tribal land with our “Look After the Environment” – not “Look After the Environment; it’s in quotes – activity.
So it’s a wide range of undertakings. We’ll be happy to make sure that you get a fact sheet on all of our activities in the PNG – in PNG. And again, I’ll just underscore that all of that work has been done in close consultation and collaboration with local partners so that we’re making sure that the work that we’re doing is responsive to the needs of people on the ground and fits with their vision for what they want their development pathways to look like.
MODERATOR: All right. Our next question comes from – was submitted in advance and comes from Nicholas Ludlam of SBS, based in Sydney, Australia. Nicholas asks: “Australia recently signaled a shift in aid policy in the Pacific to combat China’s growing influence. Is that something USAID is looking to do?”
MR LEE: Yeah, no, thank you. I can go ahead and take that one. And good morning and afternoon, evening, to everybody, too, and thank you so much for joining this call.
I think the first thing I’ll say is I want to double down on everything that my colleague Michael Schiffer said, which is exactly right. Our goal, really, there is really more about our partners and about us, and about us working with them, listening to them, demonstrating our resolve and commitment to the region, and I think making sure that we are answering to the needs of what they want us to be helping them to do when it comes to climate shocks, when it comes to electrification, when it comes to making sure that fishing is still open and transparent and are able to sustain livelihood and people can feed their families in the region.
But if the question is: Is the United States truly there to be committed to the region? And I think there’s nothing more demonstrative and I think nothing more that shows our true commitment to Asia and the Indo-Pacific than history.
And I think I – last year, I actually went to Seoul, South Korea, and had a great conversation with our partners in the Korean Development Agency. And if you’ve ever been to the headquarters building, you walk in the lobby, you notice there’s a museum. And I noticed there was in the display case an old flour bag with the logo “From the American people.” There was no USAID at the time yet, but it was an American flag and “From the American people.”
What really struck me was the extent to which the partnership we built really over 70, 80 years ago is enduring. It lasts. We no longer offer foreign assistance to South Korea today. We stopped that in 1980. But they have since become a donor partner to us. They are now working with us. They have given last year $3 billion globally to work with us to make sure that we’re able to advance open, transparent, and sovereign societies. That is the kind of story that we want to be able to tell in the Asia Pacific. This is our story in the region. We are committed. We are committed for the sake of our partners and of the long-term commitment, and that’s what we are there to do.
Now, you’ve all heard from our colleagues at the State Department – Secretary Blinken has said it before – China’s presence is growing in the region. We have seen some problematic activities there from the way that investments are done and how that’s detrimental and potentially in some cases to sustainability and also to good governance issues. China will do what it chooses to do, but the United States will also do and choose what we choose to do.
I think what we want to focus on, one, is making sure that we are answering the needs of our partners; and two, offer more choices so that they can make the right decisions and good decisions for themselves and what’s good and what’s best for them. We want to make sure that we are offering assistance that are in grants, not in loans. And our goal really is to be able to empower our partners to invest in their own futures.
And finally I’ll say what we want to do – and I think this is where we want to really just amp up the unique nature and the positive nature of the work that we do in our right – and that is we want to work with local partners. There are so many great experts, as Michael knows who works in that region so long, who are having the greatest ideas and expertise and commitment to solving climate issues. We want to reach down to the communities, not just at a high level, but reach down to the communities, work with the communities, and be able to find solutions that are good, that come from them, and ultimately will benefit their own interests.
So I’ll say it’s about our enduring commitment. It’s about showing that we actually care and can deliver. But in the end, it’s also about making sure that we’re answering to the needs and what our partners want us to be working with them so we can actually build a good community together going forward.
MODERATOR: Okay. Our next question comes from Takumi Kobayashi of Nikkei, who is based in Tokyo, who asks: “Do you believe that PNG’s goal to achieve 70 percent regarding electrification by 2030 is achievable with the U.S. aid? If so, what are the specific plans to achieve it?”
MR SCHIFFER: We do believe it is achievable, and at the very least we think that it is the right target for us to be shooting at. And we are looking as we work through with our partners in PNG as well as other partners in the international community through the PEP project to help PNG achieve that goal. If we come in at 69 percent, that won’t be a failure. If we come in at 71 percent, that’ll be – that will be a little better than expected.
But I think the point is that helping PNG and working with PNG as they seek to provide electricity to 70 percent of their population by 2030 is a worthwhile goal. It’s a good goal. It’s the sort of aspiration that we should have together for how to better livelihoods and how to create opportunities for economic growth, and do so in a way that is environmentally sustainable given the challenges that we face with climate change.
So it’s precisely the sort of aspiration that we want to be able to engage in with our partners, so we intend to continue to work with the PNG and, as I said, other international partners on the PEP project in the years ahead. And that’s precisely why one of the administrator’s stops, as I mentioned, is intended to highlight that activity while she is in PNG.
MODERATOR: All right. Our next question goes to the live queue to Stephen Wright of BenarNews and Radio Free Asia, based in Brisbane, Australia. Stephen, you should be able to unmute yourself now.
QUESTION: Thank you. Can you hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, we can.
QUESTION: Okay. In Malaita Province in the Solomon Islands, with the SCALE project operates – there was frustration about the length of time that it was taking to provide benefits or expectations of benefits to the local community. Will USAID efforts take – or need to take a different approach and scale in the future in the Solomon Islands or – and if so, how?
MR SCHIFFER: Yeah, I would offer that we – we have heard some of that frustration as well. We’re trying to be responsive to it. I think for scale, as with all of the work that we do at USAID around the world, we are trying to constantly listen, learn, course correct, and do better – and do better in ways that are, as I’ve said before, responsive to the voices and the needs that we’re hearing from our partners at – in local communities, at the provincial level, and at the national government level.
There is no shame in titrating as you go and improving your programming so that you can be better. We are constantly trying to be a learning organization that can work better to meet partner needs. And that’s our intention with SCALE in Malaita Province or if we’re able to work with the government in the Solomon Islands and local communities in other provinces to expand its footprint. We think – and I think there are voices in the local communities in Malaita that would agree – that even with the frustrations that may sometimes exist because people want, understandably, more – more progress, faster, better; we share that – even with that, we think SCALE has done a lot of good and delivered considerable progress in the Solomons, and we hope to be able to continue to do so.
MODERATOR: Our next question goes to Lawrence Fong. Lawrence is joining us from The Post Courier in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Lawrence asks: “PNG Prime Minister James Marape during all his engagements with foreign leaders who have visited his country promoted the need for committed economic development for his country by the bilateral partners, including the U.S., Australia, India, China, and, more recently, the French. How can the U.S. help Mr. Marape achieve his desires of economic development apart from military cooperation?”
MR SCHIFFER: Well, look, I think that very much gets to the heart of the administrator’s trip and the heart – and to the heart of our approach across the U.S. Government of making sure that we are knitting together diplomacy, defense, and development as the three D’s, the three legs of the stool for our engagement in the Pacific Islands and indeed in the Indo-Pacific more broadly.
Opening up the Country Representative Office we think represents a significant signal of our investment and our commitment in working with the PNG on economic development, social development, good governance, and other development programs that the government and local communities and partners are helping us to identify so that we can be responsive to their needs and their vision for their country. That’s what we want to be able to support. Projects like the PEP project that we’ve talked about to work on providing electricity – that’s obviously a key driver both to better livelihoods, but also energy is at the core of any economic development pathway. We have supported the launch of the American Chamber of Commerce in PNG to seek to encourage greater private sector engagement and investment in PNG. That’s essential for our model for what sustainable development looks like.
And critically for USAID, the work that we do with our partner countries is primarily grant-based, not loan-based, because we see saddling countries with unsustainable debt burdens as not being a contributing factor for sustainable economic growth. I’ve also mentioned the work that we do in governance, because we see that as a critical enabler, again, for sustainable economic growth over time, not just an immediate hit or sugar rush but something that can last for years in helping to provide for beneficial livelihoods.
And the same goes for the health and education work that we do in PNG and elsewhere, which helps to provide the predicates for what successful and prosperous societies look like; the work we do on the climate resilience side of the house so that – literally and metaphorically – so that communities and countries are better able to weather natural disasters, particularly natural disasters that are getting more intense and more frequent as the climate crisis deepens so that societies and economies can be more resilient and weather – again, literally and metaphorically – the storms that might otherwise knock them off being able to achieve their development goals and move forward on their development pathways.
So that goal of helping PNG as it fulfills its own vision for what its economic development future looks like is at the very, very heart of why we’re opening the Country Representative Office and looking to deepen our engagement.
MR LEE: And to just add something very quickly and just very briefly as well, I think this is why the work that we do for Michael and myself is so exciting, because I think if you think about where development really weighs in to this conversation and to the region – if you think about sort of the diplomatic front, that’s where you are forming some of these partnerships at a very high level. You think about the fence – you’re guaranteeing security. But development – I mean, Michael’s use of the word “heart” is absolutely right. This is where the heart of our whole-government approach to demonstrate endurance, because this is where we meet people where they are.
And I think the third leg, the development leg, is so critical and makes it so important but exciting – it’s because we’re actually reaching into the communities. We are in many ways the ground game for the United States Government. We’re there to meet the people and to meet where they are to address their needs. So I think this is where – this is where we’re seeing increasing opportunities in leaning forward to demonstrate again, to show we’re committed to the region.
MODERATOR: So I’ll now ask Assistant Administrator Schiffer, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you for last words.
MR SCHIFFER: Well, I guess just in closing I’ll just underscore how excited I know the administrator is that I – and that I certainly am to be able to travel out to PNG and to Fiji next week and to be able to open up our Country Representative Office in PNG, our full mission in Fiji, and to demonstrate, as my colleague Anka just put it, the endurance of our commitment and to be able to engage in further conversation so that we can better understand how our partners in the region are viewing their challenges so that we can work with them together in a spirit of genuine partnership, constant and consistent with the Pacific way, to see how we can be helpful in meeting those challenges.
MODERATOR: All right. That brings us to the end of our time for today. Thank you for your questions and thanks to Assistant Administrator Schiffer and Senior Advisor Lee for joining us. We will provide a transcript of this briefing to participating journalists as soon as it is available. We’d also to love to hear your feedback, and you can contact us at any time at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Thanks again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another briefing soon.
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