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Briefing with Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources James L. Richardson
With Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration Carol O’Connell
June 19, 2020

On Sustaining U.S. Humanitarian Assistance Leadership in Response to COVID-19

MR BROWN: Hey, good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for dialing in. Today’s announcement, which you may have seen in the Secretary’s statement recently released of $93 million in new humanitarian assistance, makes very clear that the United States continues to lead the global response to combatting COVID-19. Of that 93 million, more than 75 million from the International Disaster Assistance Account will support emergency health, water, sanitation, hygiene, logistics, and protection programs, as well as food assistance, to address the secondary impacts of the pandemic. In addition, nearly 18 million from the Migration and Refugee Assistance Account will support some of the world’s most vulnerable and at-risk populations, and it comes as we stand to commemorate World Refugee Day tomorrow.

Joining me for today’s on-the-record briefing are our Director of the Office of Foreign Assistance James Richardson, and our Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration Carol Thompson O’Connell. They will offer brief introductory remarks and then be on hand to answer your questions. As always, the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call. Jim, please go ahead.

MR RICHARDSON: Great. Thanks, Cale, I appreciate it. It’s great to have a chance to have a chance to speak with you all again today as we continue to talk about U.S. global leadership in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At nearly $10 billion a year, the United States provides around 40 percent of the worldwide global assistance for health, which is five times larger than the next highest donor. Without a doubt, our foreign assistance investments over the past 20-40 years have truly laid the foundation for our COVID-19 response today. COVID has posed a unique challenge to the United States and the entire world in a way that we haven’t seen in a century, impacting dramatically both high-income and developing countries alike.

The State Department has received almost 1,000 requests from almost every country in the world. Time and time again, when there is a global challenge, the United States steps up to lead. That’s what we’re doing with COVID-19. With today’s announcement, Secretary Pompeo has authorized us to spend another $93 million in new humanitarian assistance for this response, bringing the total so far to 1.3 billion for health, humanitarian, and economic assistance to more than 120 countries around the world.

This new humanitarian assistance bolsters our ongoing efforts and will help the world’s most vulnerable populations to overcome the devastation that has been inflicted by this pandemic. Like our response to date, this new funding will go towards a number of different programs and activities to help communities in need around the world. This provides emergency health, sanitation, hygiene, logistics, and protection programs, as well as food assistance, to address some of the secondary and tertiary impacts of the pandemic. Thanks to the expertise of the American manufacturing base, our efforts now include ventilators, delivering on President Trump’s generous commitment to meet the request from many foreign governments now that we’ve been able to meet our own domestic needs. More than 60 countries have had access to American-made ventilators, and 39 of them will be donated. From just this week, a hundred American-made ventilators were delivered to India, joining previous deliveries for South Africa, Russia, and El Salvador, with many more deliveries to our partner countries and allies yet to come in every region of the world.

Our all-of-America approach to combat COVID-19 extends beyond just the State Department and USAID, as we closely coordinate with other U.S. Government agencies, including HHS, CDC, and the Department of Defense. Impressively, more than $12 billion has been committed across the U.S. Government to benefit the global response. This includes vaccine and therapeutic developments, preparedness efforts, and humanitarian assistance.

Without a doubt, our work is making a difference. Much of our State and USAID funding is already at work, enabling programs that are saving lives and mitigating the other second- and third-order impacts of the pandemic around the world. Let me just highlight a couple key programs that sort of demonstrate what we’re talking about.

In India, the United States has virtually trained more than 20,000 people on the frontlines of COVID-19, leveraging the power of digital technology to help state leaders prepare, to help train frontline health workers in strategic messaging, screening activities, counseling of patients, and basic clinical management.

In Thailand, the United States has created a mobile application where 80,000 health volunteers can now track the location of suspected cases, manage home visits, and deliver relief kits with essential staples.

The United States’ generous and positive impact in the midst of the pandemic is profound, and all of America should be proud of it and I hope that our colleagues from other parts of the world see the result and the tenacity of U.S. assistance in the face of this pandemic and continue to join us in this effort.

While the pandemic is far from over, I think it is important for us to start thinking today about what systems the United States and world needs to lessen the likelihood of another outbreak becoming a pandemic. In the age of globalization, I do fear that the next outbreak will look more like this one than in the ones past.

Let me walk through a couple lessons learned from this pandemic that I actually shared in a hearing yesterday in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The first lesson learned is that pandemics aren’t just a development or confined to the developing world. They are truly global in scope with the risk of severe health and economic impacts across the globe.

The second lesson learned is that the United States and global systems have to be prepared to respond internationally to outbreaks and pandemics. Third, the – and we need to build accountability into our global system.

Third, the world needs effective early warning system and data tracking to help detect and prevent outbreaks.

And lastly, we need to think about holistic – about preparedness and ensure that we are flexible, because we don’t know necessarily where the next outbreak will start or how it will spread.

I think the bottom line here is that we really do need more coordination, more data, more tracking, and more ability and options to respond globally.

As we look around – as we look forward with history as our guide, we have an opportunity to save lives, promote accountability, and ensure that pandemics of this size and scale are prevented to the greatest extent possible. We have a moral obligation to lead and build a safer system for the next generation.

So with that, I want to turn it over to my colleague, Acting Assistant Secretary Carol O’Connell of the Bureau of Population, Refugee, and Migration, who has been a really amazing steward of U.S. taxpayer dollars on the ongoing response to COVID. Over to you, Carol.

MR BROWN: Hi, Carol. You might be on mute.

MS O’CONNELL: I am. I was on mute, sorry. Okay. Thank you, Jim. I appreciate your remarks. Good afternoon, everyone. It’s a privilege to speak with you today as we look forward to commemorating World Refugee Day, which is, as Cale mentioned, tomorrow, June 20th. And this year, we also marked the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Refugee Act and established the Office of the U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, which has evolved into our Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

World Refugee is an excellent – World Refugee Day is an excellent opportunity to highlight four main points. The United States has a longstanding tradition of leadership in providing humanitarian protection and assistance worldwide. Our humanitarian assistance and diplomacy are hard at work as part of the all-of-America response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We emphasize support for refugee-hosting countries and communities, together with the refugees and other forcibly displaced people we seek to assist worldwide, and as part of the full array of our assistance, we continue the admission of refugees into the United States in line with the Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2020.

With regard to our longstanding tradition of leadership, we’re the single largest country provider of humanitarian assistance worldwide. To help those in need, we work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Organization for Migration, the UN Children’s Fund, and more than 80 other international and nongovernmental organizations.

For tens of millions of people worldwide, our overseas humanitarian assistance provides access to clean water, food, shelter, health care, education, livelihoods, child protection, as well as women’s protection and women’s empowerment. This commitment to the world’s most vulnerable individuals remains a critical component of the U.S. National Security Strategy. We’re focused on helping displaced people as close to their homes as possible so they may return to home safely and voluntarily to rebuild their communities.

In the context of COVID-19 pandemic, we have provided funding and response to the initial global appeals of our international and nongovernmental organization partners. We maintain an open and ongoing dialogue with our partners to assess the needs of our populations of concern, as well as the ability of our partners to meet those needs with funding both from the United States and in coordination with other governments and other actors.

It’s important to note that this unprecedented global response requires all donor governments, international financial institutions, and also the private sector to work together. Our longstanding leadership in humanitarian advocacy has focused on increasing humanitarian access and long-term solutions for refugees and displaced persons, urging states to uphold their international obligations, and expanding the number of donors to increase global contributions to humanitarian responses.

The United States applauds national governments and local communities that play a critical role by hosting refugees, even in situations where their own resources are already scarce. In many crisis situations, our assistance helps bolster national government and local community capacity to support refugees in ways that also benefit the host community, such as by increasing health care capacity. We welcome host country efforts to expand opportunities for refugees to thrive in their communities through access to legal employment and education. We also encourage host countries to provide durable solutions for refugees by offering local integration through permanent residency or granting citizenship.

Globally, permanent resettlement is a durable solution for a very small percentage of the world’s most vulnerable refugees. But we in the United States continue the admission of those who remain vulnerable even in a country of first asylum and meet the categories of the Fiscal Year 2020 Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions. The United States has welcomed more than three million refugees since the Refugee Act was signed in 1980. Through the full array of our assistance, we’ll continue to help the world’s most vulnerable, reflecting the generosity of the American people.

Thank you very much, and look forward to your questions.

MR BROWN: Okay, it looks like our – let’s see, if you want to get in the queue, dial 1 and 0. Our first question comes from Jessica Donati.

QUESTION: Hi, and thank you for doing this. It’s a question for Director Richardson. The World Health Organization is seen as the best position to take the lead in any global response to COVID-19 once treatments and vaccines are found. Are you prepared to work with the WHO?

And separately, we have not heard anything from the administration since Trump said that the U.S. was breaking, and from the WHO it seems that work continues business as usual. So could you enlighten us on what’s going on there? Thank you very much.

MR RICHARDSON: Sure. Thanks so much for that question. As the President has said, the WHO has failed to uphold its responsibility and grossly mismanaged its – this response. We have consistently seen the WHO be unable to live up to the world’s expectations, and we have seen this with Ebola, which is why the Obama administration paused contributions to the WHO, and now we’ve seen it with COVID. And so I think – I think the reality is that the WHO has not been able to live up to what the world needs, and it’s important for us to have partners that are transparent, accountable, and results-oriented, and unfortunately we have not seen that with the WHO.

In terms of our relationship, we are in the process of notifying the WHO that we are withdrawing. This is not a light switch moment. It’s more like unscrewing a light bulb, so it does take a little bit of time. But we are – the State Department is working very hard to give the proper notice that we are withdrawing from the WHO.

MR BROWN: Okay, next question. Let’s go to the line of Nick Wadhams.

QUESTION: Hi. I just had a follow-up on Jessica’s question. Any – I had two questions. The first is that the withdrawal from the WHO would essentially require a one-year notification and grace period. Could you confirm whether that’s the case? And then second, in April Secretary Pompeo recommended that the U.S. keep funding WHO programs where countries that were fighting polio and coronavirus essentially had no other option. The seven countries were Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, and Turkey. Is the U.S. still planning to fund WHO operations in those countries? Thank you.

MR RICHARDSON: Great. Thanks, Nick. On the one year, I have heard the same thing but I am not an attorney and I’m not with the International Organizations Bureau at the State Department, so I really would defer to them. But my – everything I have read has said a year, but I’ll defer to the experts.

On the exemptions piece, I think what the Secretary was referencing is that at that point in time there was a series of countries where there was no alternative for implementation, and since then State and USAID has found alternative implementers in most of those countries and those regions. We still have a hard time finding implementing partners for polio, for instance, and so we’re still working through an interagency process to come to resolution on that issue and see how we want to proceed as the government in those unique cases. But for many of the countries previously identified that the WHO was the only alternative, which was true at the time, it’s amazing – where there’s a void, other partners come in and fill that. We have an amazing cadre of faith-based, of NGOs, of contractors, and of other multilateral organizations that do a lot of the same work that the WHO does. The WHO is not a super-unique organization in that sense in terms of its ability to implement health programs.

And I’ll just remind that from a budget standpoint, the U.S. spends only about 4 percent of its annual health budget through the WHO. So it’s actually a fairly small implementing partner for the United States. We have a lot of other implementing partners when it comes to the health space, and we’re committed to ensuring that we find the right partner that we can trust that has the right set of accountability and structures and the results-oriented that the American people deserve.

MR BROWN: Okay. Our next question comes from Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. To follow up on my colleague’s WHO question, can you tell us exactly how much the U.S. has already paid this fiscal year to the WHO? And then separately, is there still a hold on NGOs and humanitarian organizations using USAID funding to purchase PPE? Thank you.

MR BROWN: Hey, your question about USAID funding’s best addressed by them, but I believe there’s been clarity provided on parameters under which they can purchase PPE.

MR RICHARDSON: Yeah, sorry, Cale. I was on mute. I apologize. So yes, so the specific amounts – there’s two accounts. There’s a mandatory account and then there’s a voluntary account, so we’d have to go back and get you the exact amount. In terms of PPE, the Secretary has provided guidance that covers both State and USAID to allow our implementing partners to purchase PPE locally and other sources that don’t divert from requirements and needs domestically here in the United States. So we have done that and that guidance has – is starting to go out.

MR BROWN: Okay. If anyone has a question, dial 1 0. We’ll give it about 20 seconds.

(No response.)

MR BROWN: Okay, looks like there are no other questions in the queue. Thanks to our briefers for coming on and taking the time to brief all of us on this most recent announcement, the continuation of the U.S.’s continued leadership in this space, and thanks to everyone who dialed in. Have a great Friday, great weekend.