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EFSAS Commentary

The USAID Chief’s visit to India and the burgeoning strategic ties between Washington and New Delhi


Samantha Power, the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the independent agency of the US federal government that is primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance, undertook a visit to India from 25 to 27 July to meet senior government officials, food security and climate experts, and representatives of civil society, and deliberate on furthering the over seven decades long development partnership between the two countries. A gifted and influential personality, Power has had the distinction of having been recognized as one of Time magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People’, Foreign Policy’s ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers’, and Forbes’ ‘World’s 100 Most Powerful Women’. An author and editor of multiple books, she was the recipient of the prestigious 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. In acknowledgement of her achievements, ability and stature, Power was inducted as a member of the US National Security Council, and she thereby became the first USAID Administrator to formally be presented with the opportunity to help development play a vital role in America’s responses to geopolitical issues.

The tone for Power’s visit to India was set by her tweet upon arrival in which she said, “I’ve just arrived in India, where I am meeting with food security & climate experts, civil society, and government officials about our development partnership. India is a vital leader in addressing the world’s most pressing challenges, including the growing food crisis”. USAID had earlier said last week that Power “will participate in meetings and events demonstrating US commitment to partnering with India, the world's largest democracy, as a global development leader in addressing some of the world's most pressing development challenges”. USAID similarly underlined after her arrival that Power aimed “to advance the United States’ partnership with the Government of India and the Indian people, and reinforce India as a critical global development leader in addressing urgent global challenges, including food insecurity, the climate crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic”. The common thread that ran through these communications was the assertion of India’s position as a global development leader with which the US was very keen to partner.

Power began her extensive interactions on 26 July with a meeting with Parameswaran Iyer, the CEO of the NITI Aayog, the Government of India’s public policy think tank, to discuss collaboration across sectors to drive and sustain development outcomes around the world. NITI Aayog elaborated that the two sides had deliberated extensively on the G-20 Summit, LiFE movement, Aspirational Districts, Trilateral cooperation, PM Gati Shakti and Trade and Commerce. Power also met other key India officials, including P.K. Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar, and Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra. These interactions, USAID said, were aimed at reinforcing “the U.S. and India’s long history as strategic partners and collaborators across development issues”. It added that “They also discussed the region and the importance of India’s leadership, and U.S. support, to Sri Lanka through this economic crisis. The Administrator underscored our joint commitment to providing humanitarian assistance and partnering to address remaining development challenges in India, Asia, and around the world”. Jaishankar tweeted after the meeting – “Pleased to meet @USAID Administrator @SamanthaJPower today. Discussed global development prospects in the context of food, energy and debt challenges. Also exchanged views on further expanding the India-US partnership”.

On 27 July, Power delivered a keynote lecture at the prestigious India Institute of Technology-Delhi to an audience of faculty, students, and press, in which she highlighted India’s history of international support and cooperation. She said, “For seven decades now, India’s legacy of support and cooperation has grown and strengthened into a commitment this past year of $2.3 billion in bilateral development assistance, stretching from East Asia all the way to Latin America. And while the majority of its focus has been on supporting neighboring states, India has never looked away from its partners in Africa… Since the turn of the century, the Government of India has provided more than $11 billion in concessional credit for development projects on the continent. It has offered 50,000 scholarships for African students to study at institutions just like this one. In 2003, when India’s GDP was almost one-fifth of what it is today, the Government wrote off the debts of Heavily Indebted Poor Countries—$24 million wiped off the ledgers of Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. And in medical emergencies, India has quickly raced assistance to hot spots… Across these past 75 years, India has always shown itself to be a friend to the world’s poor. Now, when the stakes have rarely been higher, India stands able to be an incredibly impactful development leader… I cannot think of a moment in history where we have more needed India’s know-how on how to lift people out of poverty, India’s technological entrepreneurship and prowess, or India’s core belief that countries and people of those countries, should be the ones to benefit from their own economic development”.

Power again stressed on India’s global leadership role when she said, “There is no question that India, with all of its ingenuity, all of its talent, all of its resources, all of its technological expertise in everything from pharmaceutical development to digital finance, can contribute massively to the development trajectory of many, many countries around the world. To be clear: now and in the years ahead, the United States sees India not just as a leader in the Indo-Pacific, but a leader throughout the world”

At the media interactions, Power highlighted the accelerated timeframe in which India had achieved great development progress as well as India’s contribution towards critical causes across the world. She said, “there are ways in which India is already contributing to meet urgent food needs. So, one example would be the country of Ukraine, or I think, nearly 200 tons of assistance had been provided, all forms of assistance, I think, including medical. Afghanistan, which as you know, has had its challenges, but particularly starting last year into this year, has been in a very, very dire situation as the government there really struggles to manage the economy and the regular markets and banking system and have a hard time constituting themselves since the takeover of the Taliban. There, I think India has committed to provide 50,000 tons of wheat, which I cannot tell you how critical that is. I believe 35,000 tons of that is already either on its way or has arrived. So, there are examples like that”. She added, “India has stepped up to exercise leadership, to provide humanitarian assistance, as we just talked about - to provide, for example, lines of credit to Sri Lanka in its great hour of need”.

Power dwelt at some length on Sri Lanka in her lecture. She commended India’s recent role while contrasting it with China’s response to the severe crisis in the island nation. She averred that “perhaps nowhere is India’s commitment to those in peril more on display actually than right now in Sri Lanka… India has reacted really swiftly with an absolutely critical set of measures. The Government of India has already supplied $16 million in humanitarian aid to Sri Lanka, it has exported 100,000 tons of organic fertilizer to try to help farmers stave off future food shortages, and it has supplied $3.5 billion in lines of credits to the Government of Sri Lanka as it attempts to steer its economy out of default and further collapse. Contrast this with the People’s Republic of China, which has been an increasingly eager creditor of Sri Lankan governments since the mid-2000s. Indeed, over the past two decades, China became one of Sri Lanka’s biggest creditors, offering often opaque loan deals at higher interest rates than other lenders, and financing a raft of headline-grabbing infrastructure projects with often questionable practical use for Sri Lankans—including a massive port that generated little income and was barely used by ships, an equally massive airport dubbed the emptiest in the world because it attracted so few passengers and the country’s tallest tower that was built as a tourist attraction yet has never unfortunately opened to the public. Now that economic conditions have soured, Beijing has promised lines of credit and emergency loans—this is critical since Beijing is estimated to hold at least 15 percent of Sri Lanka’s foreign debt. But calls to provide more significant relief have so far gone unanswered, and the biggest question of all is whether Beijing will restructure debt to the same extent as other bilateral creditors”

Continuing with her sharp denigration of China’s dubious role in Sri Lanka, Power stressed in response to a question at the media interaction that “when the price of receiving financing, receiving loans carries with it profound infringements on one’s own kind of sovereignty and independence, and very significant interest rates, that's going to prove problematic over time”.

On democracy and human rights, Power emphasized that India’s values, and not its assets, had positioned the country as a future development leader. She said, “Ultimately, what has positioned India as a future development leader has not been its assets but its values. It has been India’s multi-ethnic, multi-party democracy that has allowed it to withstand the challenges it has faced and come out ahead stronger and more resilient. It has been its support for free expression over decades that has allowed injustices to come to light. It has been its tolerance for diversity and dissent that has allowed reforms to take hold and institutions to progress. India’s trajectory has been so strong because, not in spite, of democracy”.

Power cautioned against the headwinds against democratic rule that were currently strong the world over, and she underlined the importance, both for India and the US, of protecting pluralism, democracy and individual rights. Within the US and India, she pointed out, there were forces who seek to “sow division; who seek to pit ethnicities and religions against each other; who wish to bend laws, abuse institutions, and wield violence against those who stand in their way. We saw this of course, on January 6 in the United States, back in 2021, just last year. How the United States and India rise to meet these injustices—how fiercely we protect our hard-won pluralism, how insistently we defend our democracy and individual rights—will determine not just our own trajectory but that of the world that we inhabit”.

Power expressed the US’s support for freedom of the press, and at a 26 July meeting with representatives of civil society she discussed freedom of expression, speech, identity, and the importance of protecting the rights of minority groups. The Administrator underscored the US’ continued commitment to work with civil society organizations around the globe to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms.

In an interview with Maha Siddiqui of NDTV, Power also elaborated on the US’s position on India’s neutrality towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She said, “Well, we have a difference, obviously, and it's a difference we discuss often behind closed doors. And everybody knows our position… India has a long tradition of being not aligned. And it has made tremendous progress making its own sovereign choices for itself. Of course, we believe that the more countries that stand together, the more likely we will be able to assert influence collectively over President Putin’s calculus, because we want this war to end. We want him to cease these attacks. But understanding, again, that every nation makes decisions for itself, we definitely appreciate, as well, the channel that India retains with the Russian Federation, and especially when that channel is used in promotion of humanitarian objectives”. Revealingly, she credited “India’s voice and its diplomacy” as being one of several factors that influenced the brokering of last week’s deal to clear the way for grain to be exported from Ukraine.

Not shy of criticizing her own country’s track record where such condemnation was due, the eloquent Administrator, during her several and varied interactions in New Delhi, was both lavish in her praise of India’s contributions to the global order ever since the country achieved independence from British rule, and unabashedly pragmatic about the importance and the instancy of democratic India to Washington at a juncture when the US is having to navigate a complex international environment with the likes of Russia and China directly and aggressively threatening its pre-eminence and the world order that it heads. The comments and opinions that Power voiced during her visit  were essentially an acknowledgement and acceptance of the fact that the US, at least for now but equally likely for a quite some time to come, would be content with keeping issues it does not see to eye to eye on with India on the backburner.

Concerns about India’s standing in the US taking a turn for the worse after its neutral and nuanced position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and due to other issues of divergence, that had been expressed by some commentators, both in the US and India, were largely put to rest by the time Power’s visit concluded.