As a journalist, author, teacher, and government official, Samantha Power has spent almost her entire adult life working to advocate on behalf of vulnerable communities around the world in an effort to alleviate suffering. As a war correspondent covering the brutal ethnic and nationalist conflicts in the Balkans following the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, Power knew she eventually “‘wanted to be on the other side of the microphone,’ in a position to make or change U.S. policy.” After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1999, writing the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning book “‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide,” and serving as the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, she got her chance to drive American foreign policy from the inside. She served four years on the National Security Council as senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights under President Barack Obama ’91 before being appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2013, where she worked until 2017.  In 2021, after four years teaching law, public policy, and undergraduate students at Harvard, Power returned to Washington, D.C., to lead the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, for the Biden administration.

As she explained in a conversation with the Harvard Law Bulletin in September, Power began her tenure at the USAID focusing on the need to vaccinate people in developing nations against COVID-19. But as the pandemic receded, her priorities shifted to spurring economic development, mitigating the effects of climate change, and, since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, trying to help the government and people of Ukraine fend off Russia’s attacks on its people, infrastructure, and economy.

Harvard Law Bulletin: You’ve been serving as USAID administrator since May 2021. What were your priorities when you started? A lot of things have happened since that time, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia being just one. So, how have those priorities changed in that time?

Samantha Power: USAID has missions in 82 countries, and programs in more than 100. Created by John F. Kennedy in 1961, the agency tackles the world’s biggest challenges, helping spur economic growth in developing countries, protect independent media who are under growing threat, provide food and shelter during times of conflict and natural disaster, help countries access affordable energy and adapt to climate change, expand access to girls’ education, and much more. When I took up my position, entire societies were still reeling from the pandemic, and my immediate focus was on seeing how USAID could help vaccinate the world — particularly reaching people in lower-income countries who hadn’t been able to access vaccines. A lot of disinformation, similar to the disinformation we saw in the U.S. information ecosystem, was making its way to developing countries, but people in those countries didn’t have vaccines on hand to administer, so they couldn’t really see the tangible benefits of vaccination, which constitute the most important counterweight to that misinformation. So, we had our work cut out for us. But over the course of the ensuing year and a half, we managed to get more than 688 million vaccines for free out to more than 100 countries. In parts of the world where skeptics predicted there would be little uptake, we saw vaccination rates increase from under 15% of eligible adults when we started, to more than 85% after we worked with our partners to get shots into arms. And then just as we did here in the United States, we moved to pediatric distribution. I think this effort played a role, among many other factors, in COVID becoming, at least for now, a manageable respiratory illness globally. It is still with us, still kills people, and is still something our programs are providing resources and training to manage. But it is not shutting down societies and causing the kind of heartbreak it was when President Biden took office. 

How are these countries faring now that COVID is receding as a threat?

Because so many economies shut down for so long during the pandemic, we are today still seeing countries struggling to redress the collateral social, educational, economic, and health harms caused by the pandemic. It will take a generation or more in many countries to recover the development progress that has been lost. And then, in February 2022, at just the time that recovery was beginning to pick up pace, Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, blocking invaluable global grain exports, disrupting fertilizer supplies, and contributing to a huge spike in food prices around the world, driving millions of people into crisis levels of hunger and malnutrition. The impacts of Putin’s aggression have been felt well beyond Ukraine.

Right now, many countries that had been economically stable are reeling from these compounding crises. A significant number had to borrow so much during the pandemic that they currently lack the fiscal headroom to address these development harms. In truth, even before the pandemic, many of these countries were already highly indebted. But then during the pandemic, as their economies ground to a halt, they had to borrow much more to provide social services and to keep their governments going. And so, one of the most pressing challenges facing our partner governments around the world is what is often referred to as debt distress. For example, I traveled not long ago to Tanzania, where the government is now spending more on servicing its debt, including debt repayments to the People’s Republic of China, than it is on water and sanitation and agricultural programs combined. Being on these aggressive repayment schedules, and trying not to go into default, is eating huge chunks out of developing countries’ finances, at just the time they can least afford it.

“Our agency now has to think about ‘climate-proofing’ as a design feature of all of our programming.”

The other challenge that is requiring enormous attention and resources right now is the significant spike in climate-related emergencies, whether extreme drought, flooding, wildfires, or other natural disasters. We are feeling the effects of climate-related emergencies here in the United States as well, of course, but poorer countries are even less equipped to respond. Subsistence farmers’ entire family income can get wiped out by the absence of rainfall, and most have no insurance and no fallback. Our partners have reported an alarming increase in suicides among animal herders, whose cattle, goats, and camels have died during recent drought. To give a sense of scale, more than 3 million livestock died in Kenya alone since the drought began in late fall 2022 due to water shortages and drying pasture lands. And when glaciers melt or rain comes in excess, cities, infrastructure, and homes have generally not been built to withstand the deluge. Nor can they count on FEMA or an infusion of federal funds to rebuild in the wake of a disaster. 

USAID is the U.S. government’s lead responder to humanitarian emergencies. And we are the world’s largest funder of humanitarian response, last year investing nearly $10 billion to provide food, shelter, medicine, and protection to people in need. Natural disasters have always required rapid response and significant resources. But what is different now is that the growing frequency of extreme weather events — along with a significant increase in conflict and displacement over the last decade — means the resource needs are gargantuan. And unfortunately, we know temperatures are continuing to rise and the harmful effects of those rising temperatures are likely to continue to hit the poorest countries and communities the hardest.

So, we are expending resources at a great rate just to try to keep people alive so that there can be some hope for recovery. But it is almost impossible to keep pace with the amount of need that is out there right now. And in an ideal world, we would be investing far greater resources in building indigenous disaster response capacity and in building community resilience to climate-related shocks. To be clear, we do a lot in this domain — providing early warning weather technologies and training to farmers and governments, supplying farmers with drought-resistant seeds and drip irrigation, and helping communities rebuild in a manner that will leave their infrastructure more climate-resilient. But the reality is that the growing need for emergency assistance inevitably leaves fewer resources for investments in building durability in societies. Our agency now has to think about “climate-proofing” as a design feature of all of our programming — in education and governance, in conflict prevention, and, of course, in agriculture and in health. But we also need to see a broad array of stakeholders — in the private sector, among foundations and philanthropists, and beyond — substantially increase their investments in climate adaptation so the next shocks take fewer lives and cause less economic pain.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is another event that has forced you to adjust your priorities. What role is USAID playing in the U.S. response?

The Ukrainian people rose up in 2013 to protest corruption, to demand democracy, and to assert their desire to integrate into Europe. Since that time, and in the face of Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, USAID and the broader U.S. government have been supporting independent journalism, judicial integrity, small- and medium-size enterprises, health infrastructure, the digitization of government services, and much more. In a sense, we supported Ukraine’s own efforts to strengthen its democracy and its economic resilience. In strengthening Ukraine’s checks and balances — whether formal anti-corruption bodies or scrappy journalists — we have seen since Putin’s full-scale invasion an ability to catch improper uses of funds at early stages before they have exploded into huge scandals that would have hurt the country and undermined the will of democratic governments to support Ukraine’s cause. 

Of course while we had been making these investments over many years, there’s nothing like a full-scale invasion by a major superpower with a huge military to require you to amend your playbook. Since February 24, 2022, the United States, through USAID, is helping keep the Ukrainian government afloat by providing monthly, so-called direct budget support. Without these funds, given Putin’s willful destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure and its businesses, the Ukrainian government would be at grave risk of collapse. Irrespective of how Ukrainian soldiers perform on the battlefield, Ukrainian officials wouldn’t have the resources to be able to keep the lights on. They wouldn’t be able to pay teachers. They wouldn’t be able to keep schools open or keep medical clinics open. Thankfully, with bipartisan support, Congress has given USAID resources that we have channeled to the Ukrainian government, tracing and verifying these expenditures to make sure that these resources are used for their intended purposes. So, this U.S. government support — which the Europeans have mirrored — has been a lifeline. This support has received much less attention than military support, but it is of equal importance. [Editor’s note: As this issue of the Bulletin was going to press, Congress was debating whether to provide the next tranche of direct budget support.] 

But at the same time, to their credit, even as the war has raged and Putin has pulverized Ukrainian cities, the Ukrainian people haven’t given up on strengthening their democracy. Even as one battle is being fought on the front line, an entirely different battle is being waged by Ukrainians determined to make their government more transparent and more efficient, using an amazing technological platform that USAID helped build, called Diia. It has become the most sophisticated tech platform for providing social services that exists in any country. If you’re Ukrainian, on your phone, you can open a bank account in under two minutes. You can get access to your marriage license or your driver’s license. Ukraine was the first country to create a digital passport, which became incredibly important for the millions of refugees who fled the country with little more than their phones. Ukrainians can vote via the Diia platform on whether they support a new bill pending before parliament or even on who the country’s contestant should be in the Eurovision Song Contest. When Russia started blocking and bombing Ukrainian television towers, Ukrainian journalists used Diia to stream television programming. Citizens have also used Diia to crowdsource Russian troop movements, to submit photos of property damage so they can access reconstruction funds, and to transmit stipends to internally displaced persons. So, this digital platform and phone app have become a godsend. And USAID made major investments to make it happen.

‌“Even as the war has raged and Putin has pulverized Ukrainian cities, the Ukrainian people haven’t given up on strengthening their democracy.” 

What other types of assistance is USAID providing to Ukraine, knowing there is so much to do?

In Ukraine, energy infrastructure is a life-and-death issue as winter approaches yet again. Last winter, Moscow launched more than 1,200 missiles and drones against energy facilities in Ukraine. When I first started at USAID, we weren’t spending a lot of time talking about autotransformers, and how many generators could we move in a hurry. Now, in an effort to support Ukraine to get through a second cold winter, and to prevent Putin from succeeding in weaponizing winter, this is a full-time preoccupation for many at our agency. 

USAID has been focused for years on enhancing Ukraine’s energy independence and supporting its efforts to transition to cleaner energy sources. Now, while we continue that longer-term structural, regulatory work that will one day make Ukraine energy independent, we have been forced to expand our collaboration on energy to address Russia’s attacks. When a missile hits, we are making sure the Ukrainians have the pipes, as basic as the nuts and bolts, to be able to make repairs on the fly, which could be the difference between an elderly person freezing or not. It’s hard to walk and chew gum at the same time, but three-quarters of USAID’s staff on the ground are Ukrainian nationals. And for them, this is immensely personal. They and our American staff work around the clock at great personal risk and sacrifice to try to save lives and build resilience for the future. 

USAID has long been experimental with cutting-edge technologies. For example, in recent years we have used drones for last-mile health care delivery in very remote parts of Africa, where roads might be impassable. Now, in Ukraine we have provided drones to farmers so they can apply fertilizer to their crops by air so as to avoid unexploded ordnance in their fields. We have also used drones that were donated to us by a company called Skydio to document war crimes in Ukraine, capturing, for example, Russian shelling of civilian infrastructure like a children’s camp and apartment buildings. 

The Black Sea Grain Initiative has been an on-again, off-again effort to address some of the global food insecurity issues the war has created or at least exacerbated. As we speak, Russia is currently out of the deal. But even when it was working, it wasn’t a panacea for keeping Ukrainian grain supplies flowing to global markets. What can the U.S. and its allies do to help stabilize food prices and supplies internationally? And are there longer-term solutions to help ensure that a future conflict like this doesn’t inflict the same amount of acute harm on countries and peoples hundreds or thousands of miles away?

I traveled to Odesa in July 2023, the day after Putin pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and his forces bombed the port infrastructure just before I arrived, and just after I departed, in the very area where we held our meetings. Moscow made no pretense of attacking military targets. It was very disturbing, but also very telling, as it showed that Putin wasn’t just determined to leave the deal; he was determined to destroy Ukraine’s agricultural sector and its economy.

To answer your question, Ukraine has been trying to integrate itself into Europe at the same time as it has been fighting a horrific war. Long before Putin pulled out of the U.N.-backed Black Sea Grain Initiative, USAID had started working with Ukraine to make its rivers a more viable means of exporting food, to streamline and open up more checkpoints along the border with Ukraine’s neighbors so that food exports can exit Ukraine more quickly, and to navigate the politics of food in Europe, particularly with farmers who are nervous that Ukrainian goods will flood the European market and bring their prices down. When the Black Sea Grain Initiative was destroyed by Putin’s departure from it, the Ukrainians quickly shifted to their Plan B: “If our throughput for grain exports before the war was 5 million metric tons a month, and we’re now exporting 3 million metric tons monthly by moving grains in other ways, how do we get back up to 5 million?” Along with the European Union, USAID is providing Ukrainian farmers and logisticians with help for those efforts on the ground, so as to expand farmers’ capacity to export by river, road, and rail.

Since Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, other wheat exporters have taken note of the vulnerability of Ukrainians’ wheat supply, because of Putin’s antics, and have stepped up and are trying to fill the breach. As a result, while wheat prices spiked significantly after the invasion, they have stabilized somewhat since then. It would be a great shame if, coming out of this war, Ukrainian grain farmers were crowded out of the global grain market because they had been attacked and pinned in by Russia’s blockading of their primary export route. So, we are continuing to find ways to ensure that Ukraine’s grains are very much part of feeding the world, via direct grain exports and via the World Food Programme, which this year has sourced 79% of its grain from Ukraine.

When you look back on your time at Harvard Law School, what experiences most informed or most prepared you for the work you’re doing now?

I have not practiced law in any official way since I left law school. But I feel I draw often on my legal education in this role, and in my previous role under President Obama as U.N. ambassador. I do so in internal policy debates — a big part of government life! — by not only articulating my own argument to advocate for some shift in a United States policy position, but also by anticipating the positions of my colleagues and their counterarguments, and trying to meet them where they are. That is definitely a skill I honed in law school. 

In addition, as both USAID administrator and U.N. ambassador, I have found it helpful as a policy person not working as a lawyer to have an instinct about the difference between something that is legally foreclosed and something where there are multiple legally available pathways, each of which has pros and cons. As an example, I recently launched USAID’s new policy on strategic religious engagement. And there were questions in some parts of USAID about whether we could work with religious organizations because of fear of running afoul of the Establishment Clause. Well, I don’t know that you have to be a student of [Professor Emeritus] Larry Tribe’s [’66] to know that the Establishment Clause, even read in an aggressive way, would not foreclose us working with faith-based leaders and religious communities to distribute humanitarian assistance or to educate citizens about COVID vaccines or to do peacebuilding. And I should add doing so is invaluable since religious leaders often have the trust to bring people together that government officials often lack. There are legal gray zones and there are black letter requirements, and probing those differences can help you understand how much scope you have to get done what you think needs to be done. The practicing lawyers in USAID’s General Counsel’s Office might wish I hadn’t gone to Harvard Law School because of all the questions about law that I pose. But I do think government deliberations benefit from distinguishing what is a policy judgment or a policy assessment, versus what is, strictly speaking, legally required by statute or by regulation.

“The practicing lawyers in USAID’s General Counsel’s Office might wish I hadn’t gone to Harvard Law School because of all the questions about law that I pose.”

From a management standpoint, also, much of the internal governance of USAID and its relationships with Congress and other agencies is governed by regulation or statute, so a comfort with digesting those texts has proven helpful. And I am spending a lot of time initiating memoranda of understanding with companies so that we can leverage public money to crowd in private-sector resources. But I must stress, whatever the benefits I feel of having been trained at Harvard Law School, I am very fortunate to be surrounded by a team of first-rate legal professionals in our General Counsel’s Office. I would encourage HLS graduates to consider working at USAID, where we have an incredible team of lawyers who get to do meaningful work in pursuit of development and humanitarian objectives. And as I think my own experience illustrates, while you can use your legal education to practice law at USAID, you can also draw on that training in other ways. HLS grads may be able to match their skills and experiences with USAID in a legal, policy, or programming capacity. 

The very last thing I’d say on Harvard Law School and the importance of law in general is that, at a time of hyper-aggression by Russia, and at a time when democratic backsliding is occurring in many parts of the world, you see how absolutely indispensable governance, democratic accountability, and the rule of law are to achieving economic development objectives. The countries in which we work want to put their economies back on track, and they want to provide young people with jobs. All of that needs to happen, but it has to happen in parallel with investments in fair and accountable governance and the rule of law, or the economic gains are not likely to be sustained over time. While at USAID, I have made an effort to link our work in strengthening the rule of law with economic opportunity and stability. As we work to create conditions to help countries transition “from aid to trade,” by attracting foreign direct investment, supporting small businesses to bring their goods and services to market, etc., strong checks and balances and legal institutions are key.

If you could go back in time, what would Administrator Power tell her younger, law student, self?

I think I would tell myself to take Administrative Law with Professor Cass Sunstein [’78]. And if I get back there to teach again, he may get stuck with somebody he already spends too much time with sitting in the back of his Administrative Law class. I think it’s immensely useful to know administrative law, even in the realm of American foreign policy and international development. So, I’m fortunate that I get some insight into it over the dinner table. But I think I need to lug that huge casebook around and listen to those lectures and hear from my would-be classmates, to enhance my understanding. It’s a great perspective to have, no matter what form of public service you do.

I would also take even fuller advantage of being on the Harvard campus. Being able to take courses at Harvard College, the Kennedy School, the School of Public Health, and the Business School can leave a student even better prepared to make a difference in this messy world of ours.

As the Bulletin was going to press at the end of November, it followed up with Administrator Power with an additional question.

How is USAID responding to the crisis in Gaza and Israel?

The scale of the grief and suffering we are seeing is heart-wrenching — in Gaza, in Israel, in the West Bank, and beyond. USAID has missions not just for the West Bank/Gaza, but also in countries like Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, and our teams throughout the region have responded to the crisis in numerous ways. In the immediate wake of the brutal Hamas attack on October 7, the U.S. offered support to Israel across a number of areas, including for the communities impacted by the terror attack. USAID’s focus for much of the past seven weeks has been addressing the grave and growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. I deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to both Israel and Egypt, so that our top humanitarian experts could work closely with Israeli and Egyptian authorities and trusted partner organizations (like the World Food Programme and other U.N. entities) to help establish a humanitarian corridor into Gaza through which we can send medical commodities, shelter, safe drinking water, and food. But as of late November, the pace of humanitarian delivery is still much too slow and the conditions for the people in Gaza are deteriorating. USAID and so many throughout the U.S. government are working around the clock to clear diplomatic and operational obstacles for humanitarian access, present solutions to all kinds of emerging problems, and significantly scale up this response to where it needs to be. 

Of course, well and apart from helping provide assistance, our teams are supporting President Biden and our diplomats in strongly advocating for the protection of civilian lives during armed conflict and respect for international humanitarian law. As Secretary Blinken said recently before the U.N. Security Council: “There is no hierarchy when it comes to protecting civilian lives. A civilian is a civilian is a civilian, no matter his or her nationality, ethnicity, age, gender, faith.” There’s not a conversation that U.S. officials are having with our Israeli counterparts that doesn’t reflect this deep concern over civilian casualties, and USAID’s teams have worked extensively on measures to help protect civilians, humanitarians, and civilian infrastructure.

Beyond the immediate humanitarian response, USAID has been dedicated to expanded collaboration among Israelis and Palestinians. Through our work under the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, for example, USAID works to support people-to-people peacebuilding programs and build economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. 

When this war ends, USAID will join with the rest of the Biden administration in determining how best to use its programming to support the objective of achieving a two-state solution — two peoples living side by side with equal measures of freedom, opportunity, and dignity. Israelis and Palestinians have an equal right to live in safety, dignity, and peace — and USAID will continue to work toward that goal. As elusive as it feels right now, the human toll of this latest conflict underscores its acute urgency.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Read more from the Winter 2024 Harvard Law Bulletin

Go to Bulletin issue