AP interview: US aid official tackles Russia’s food crisis

WASHINGTON – Samantha Power has gained 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 Russian 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 deliver emergency food to children, who are 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 a new Cold War,” the authority said.

“For Mr. Lavrov to travel to Africa right 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.

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