As one of the few U.S. Ambassadors who rose through the ranks of America’s primary development agency, the United States Agency for International Development, I’m in a unique position to talk about how our development programs – USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps, and others – positively impact the countries where we work.
But first of all, I want to begin by saying that the loss of life and destruction of property in Honiara is tragic and should not have happened. Those who wish to appeal to their government must do so in a peaceful manner. My sympathies go out to everyone who suffered in the November 24-26 unrest in Solomon Islands. We share a deep bond with the people of Solomon Islands dating back to World War II, and that bond has only intensified as the government of Solomon Islands appealed to the White House and requested development assistance to help rebuild after the terrible civil unrest in Guadalcanal and Malaita in 1998 and 1999. We responded with a survey team that resulted in the launch of a number of development programs in the areas most affected by the conflict.
Who receives the funding that we talk about in our press releases? And who benefits? Quite simply, our development assistance is an investment in people, from the American people. It is an investment that lasts a lifetime, and endures through generations. We don’t build roads; we give governments the power to build a road and build their capacity and self-sufficiency to maintain it on their own without outside help. We give communities the power to keep children healthy so that the nation grows strong. We give knowledge that enables individuals to acquire the skills needed to generate wealth and stand strong on their own two feet. And I’ll explain how it works, because I’ve been there. I’ve seen development in action. And I’ve seen how everyone benefits from a fair and just development system.
When the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was created, it brought together several existing foreign assistance organizations and programs. Until then, there had never been a single agency charged with foreign economic development, so with the passage of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 by Congress, U.S. foreign assistance activities underwent a major transformation. Leading this transformation was President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy recognized the need to unite development into a single agency responsible for administering aid to foreign countries to promote social and economic development. On November 3, 1961, USAID was born and with it a spirit of progress and innovation. We develop people, we provide skills, and we build communities that can care for themselves. Our objective is to support our partners to become self-reliant and capable of leading their own development journeys. We make progress toward this by reducing the reach of conflict, preventing the spread of pandemic disease, and counteracting the drivers of violence, instability, transnational crime and other security threats. We promote American prosperity through investments that expand markets for U.S. exports; create a level playing field for U.S. businesses; and support more stable, resilient, and democratic societies. We stand with people when disaster strikes, or crisis emerges as the world leader in humanitarian assistance. Our deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines to Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands are proof of that.
I would like to take the opportunity to explain how our assistance programs operate in the region, and how they change lives. USAID has more than 10 distinct activities in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, promoting health, securing energy, protecting the environment, and providing disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. The majority of USAID funds are awarded competitively and transparently through contracts, grants, or cooperative agreements. The funding we provide primarily goes toward partnerships with Solomon Islanders that are sustainable and long-lasting. We fund technical experts who arrive at the request of national leaders. Their first task? To listen. Experts from multiple U.S. government agencies meet with host country government, business, and civil society stakeholders, listen to the challenges they face, and then create a mutually agreed upon action plan that takes everyone into account. Then, our experts begin the task of building partnerships and providing the skills needed for individuals and communities to help themselves. In time, families are identifying their own health needs. Towns are developing their own action plans, building their own roads, and creating their own destiny. Countries are working with their constituents and private businesses to create policies that help expand everyone’s opportunities. And most important, everyone has a say. Every member of the community is vested. Everyone takes part, and everyone receives the benefit. That’s what American development looks like.
Let me give you a few examples of development projects in our three partner nations here in the Coral Sea.
Papua New Guinea has the highest burden of HIV among the Pacific Island countries. While people living with HIV can enjoy full, healthy lives, they must receive routine health services, which can at times be discriminatory, difficult to access, and generally not meet their needs. To remedy this, USAID supports health service providers and clinics through a process called community-led monitoring. This allows communities themselves to design and carry out routine, ongoing monitoring of the quality and accessibility of HIV treatment and prevention services. The patients themselves can then pinpoint persistent problems and design the solutions. This activity is led by the community, for the community and empowers those affected by HIV to be the custodians of their own care. This model of community-led design and implementation is at the very heart of USAID’s mission in Papua New Guinea. Our goal – not only in HIV and AIDS support, and not only in health, but in everything that we do – is to empower communities to be the drivers of their own development and the owners of their own future.
In one component of our work in Solomon Islands, USAID and our partners work with the government to implement the Strengthening Competitiveness, Agriculture, Livelihoods and Environment (SCALE) project. We launched this project after an exchange of letters between Prime Minister Sogavare and Vice President Pence. USAID led an interagency scoping mission to Solomon Islands in August 2019 which included a representative from the United States Trade and Development Agency and two engineers from the United States Indo-Pacific Command. The team, working with and on the advice of government partners, found that Malaita Province was struggling to meet development goals twenty years after the civil unrest ended in 2000, and so they developed the SCALE project to support both the Solomon Islands’ National Development Strategy and the recommendations of the UN Security Council-endorsed Townsville Peace Agreement. And now, SCALE is working where aid is needed most – helping rural cacao, kava, and cassava farmers, business owners, fishers – including women in all sectors – develop their businesses while protecting these resources and their environment for future generations. All this is done inclusively, with every stakeholder in the market chain taking part. SCALE works with stakeholders to identify key infrastructure needed to link resources with opportunities; seeks to design and build agricultural processing centers, warehouses, water and energy supply, and wharves; links rural sellers with urban buyers; and works with the government to streamline the process of starting a business by clarifying and harmonizing requirements at multiple levels of government. The SCALE project seeks to make business permits more effective tools for sustainability, enhances agribusiness productivity, emboldens female entrepreneurs, and addresses the underlying causes of forest degradation. In many cases, it is the communities, including women and youth, who take the lead on these projects. They then have the skills to continue these development steps themselves in the future.
Another separate development agency is the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). MCC is an innovative and independent U.S. foreign assistance agency that is helping lead the fight against global poverty. Created by the U.S. Congress in 2004, MCC has changed the conversation on how best to deliver smart U.S. foreign assistance by focusing on good policies, country ownership and results. MCC forms partnerships with developing countries who are committed to good governance, economic freedom and investing in their citizens. MCC’s compacts and threshold programs are promoting growth opportunities, raising standards of living and creating a more prosperous future for some of the world’s poorest people.
MCC Compacts are large five-year grants awarded to an eligible country, providing funding for infrastructure or other significant programs targeted at reducing poverty and stimulating economic growth. Threshold programs are smaller-scale grants awarded to countries that may/may not qualify for compact funding but are firmly committed to improving policy performance. All MCC investments take the form of a grant to our partner countries, and the funds are predominantly disbursed through contracts to private firms and NGOs that are involved in implementation.
MCC has engaged with Pacific countries since 2006 and completed a Compact with Vanuatu in 2011 that strengthened roads and supported the Public Works Department. An MCC threshold program in Solomon Islands, for example, could help resolve the challenge of depleted forest resources. By working with communities to develop alternative forest management strategies, forests can be managed in new ways which ensure that they remain an important economic and environmental resource for Solomon Islands and its people. A threshold program could also support Solomon Islands efforts to grow new sectors such as tourism, leveraging the diversity of natural and human resources of the country and helping Solomon Islands diversify its economy, strengthening the social contract between the state and its citizens.
Another way that America partners to invest in people is the Peace Corps, which will return to Vanuatu as soon as it is safe to do so. Also started in 1961 by President Kennedy, the Peace Corps is not development but an exchange of knowledge that goes both ways. Peace Corps Volunteers are private American citizens who serve where their skills are needed the most. They partner with communities in the areas of education, agriculture, community economic development, environment, youth in development and health. But they also build lifetime friendships. Peace Corps Volunteers turn down their salaries in the United States to serve overseas and work at the local level. Whatever salary their fellow teacher, community health worker or local counterpart makes, that is what Peace Corps Volunteer also makes. The best way to understand challenges and successes faced in Vanuatu, is to live there, side by side, working at the same schools and hospitals, living in the same communities. We are currently in discussion with the Solomon Islands Government to return our Volunteers and I think many will recall with fond memories the good work our Volunteers undertook in that country, which helped build mutual respect and understanding.
And as I close, I must mention that the United States leverages the extraordinary expertise and resources of the Department of Defenses’ Office of Defense Cooperation and other tools to provide humanitarian and disaster relief, build infrastructure, supply equipment, and deliver military-to-military training across the Pacific.
And last, I want to talk about educational and cultural exchanges managed by the State Department. Every year, citizens of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, travel to the United States to study and learn through programs such as Fulbright, Humphrey, the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program, Community Solutions, Young Pacific Leaders, the U.S. South Pacific Scholarship Program, and many others. Students and professionals apply to these programs, which are all free of charge, and travel to the United States with no strings attached save one – that you return to your home country to use the skills you learned to make your country better. What’s best about our programs is this – you live alongside everyday Americans, observe how they live, and understand our values and culture. You can then decide for yourself who Americans really are. America is a country built on fundamental democratic values such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from unjust persecution. Our exchange programs allow you to see democracy in action for yourself and then return with new knowledge to enrich your home country.
So, I ask you to decide for yourself what type of development and future you want for you and your families. Do you want aid that benefits one person, one party, and one bank account? Or do you want assistance that empowers entire families, strengthens entire communities, and enriches entire nations? As democratic and independent states, you have a choice of who to partner with. And I believe that the choice is obvious.
Erin E. McKee
U.S. Ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu