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Samantha Power acknowledges a hurdle for U.S. climate change funding for developing nations: Corruption

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GLASGOW, Scotland — Samantha Power, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, said Monday that President Biden’s pledge to donate $3 billion annually to help developing nations adapt to climate change is a crucial commitment, but acknowledged that addressing rampant corruption in countries that will need those funds could prove challenging.

“I think it’s really important for donor countries to do what the United States has done, which is to elevate the anti-corruption agenda and mainstream it across development financing,” Power told Yahoo News in an interview just outside the U.N. Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. “That is something that USAID is doing for the first time this year. President Biden is the first president to declare fighting corruption a national security imperative, and of course he considers the climate crisis a national security threat.”

One week earlier at the conference, Biden vowed to quadruple U.S. funding to help vulnerable nations prepare for the onslaught of extreme weather disasters linked to climate change.

“We want to do more to help countries around the world, especially developing countries, accelerate their clean-energy transition, address pollution, and ensure the world we all must share a cleaner, safer, healthiest planet. And we have an obligation to help,” Biden said.

Yet ensuring that billions in U.S. taxpayer funds and loan guarantees can find their way into the right hands and have the desired impact is made more difficult in places where corruption has become endemic.

“In the short term, you know, you have to have a lot of auditing, a lot of vetting, you have to work with trusted partners,” Power said. “USAID has relationships with developing countries that date back the entire 60 years of our history. We have missions in 80 countries. There is a sense of where money can be well spent, and where there’s risk of waste, fraud and other forms of abuse.”

USAID Administrator Samantha Power.
USAID Administrator Samantha Power. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Power detailed a meeting she attended on Sunday with the environmental minister of Zambia, an African nation with a history of corruption.

“Zambia has just experienced a presidential transition that comes on the heels of rampant, systemic corruption. And we were talking about how USAID could support Zambia in reforestation, because the forest has just been gutted,” Power said, adding, “It was so clear that you couldn’t talk about reforestation or protection of nature, or even protection of agriculture, without talking about the fight against corruption.”

In 2009, at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the world’s wealthy nations pledged to donate $100 billion per year to the developing world by 2020, but that goal was not met. At COP26, debate continues to rage about exactly how much rich countries should provide to help poorer ones cope both with the ongoing extreme weather impacts of climate change and with a transition away from fossil fuels.

Power firmly believes that creating climate equity is a moral imperative, especially given the fact that industrialized economies like the U.S. are the ones that are responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions that have caused global temperatures to rise.

“Communities that start on the edge, they may have just made that development progress, they may have just sent the first member of a family to school and are primarily rural or agrarian. When that drought hits, there’s nothing else, there’s not the fallback,” Power said. “It comes down to how much resilience you have in your system. In developed countries, we don’t feel like we have a lot as we see our subways flooded and droughts on our farms, but we have so much more resilience built in through insurance schemes, through excess capital, through FEMA, that’s able to swoop in and offer emergency support to families. Much of that infrastructure does not exist in developing nations.”

Just as pledges from wealthy nations to help the developing world have gone unmet, pledges from some countries in the developing world have turned out to be equally suspect. Hours after Indonesia joined 120 nations in a pact to halt deforestation by 2030, it abruptly reversed course.

"The ongoing development of [Indonesian President Joko Widodo's] era should not cease in the name of carbon emissions or in the name of deforestation," Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said in a Facebook post. "Forcing Indonesia to zero deforestation in 2030 [is] obviously inappropriate and unfair."

While world leaders and their representatives continue to try to hammer out the details of new agreements to keep temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels, broken promises and corruption stand as reminders of how hard it will be for the world to act in unison to solve the problem.

For Power, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Obama administration, accountability is a product of robust diplomacy.

“This is what’s so challenging about climate. Climate touches everything, but so too does governance,” she said. “And our investments will not be as well spent in a government that is allowing its forests to be trafficked, where you don’t have accountability for the stealing of natural resources and putting them into the coffers of people in leadership positions, as it will be once that accountability is built in.”

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