|Sen. Robert Menendez. Photo: Associated Press|
Menendez is chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Sitting before him at the hearing was Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
Administrator Shah, welcome back to the Committee.
You come at a time when USAID is making headlines for, in my mind, doing nothing more than the job you were appointed to do.
Let me say for the record: When it comes to the issue of Cuba or your work in any closed society, I do not believe that USAID’s actions – as clearly articulated in your mission statement – to promote “resilient, democratic societies that are able to realize their potential” are, in any way, a “cockamamie idea.”
I believe it is exactly what the people of Cuba, Iran, Burma, Belarus, North Korea and other authoritarian nations need to help them communicate with each other, to help them achieve USAID’s stated mission of a “free, peaceful, and self-reliant society with an effective legitimate government.”
So, I commend you for helping people have a less-controlled platform to talk to each other, for helping them to find a way to connect, and to share their views.
Global internet freedom programs, U.S. International broadcasting, and support for human rights activists are all fundamental components of our country's longstanding efforts to promote democracy overseas.
For more than 50 years, the U.S. has had an unwavering commitment to promote freedom of information in the world.
Our work in Cuba is no different than our efforts to promote freedom of expression and uncensored access to information in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Iran, China or North Korea.
It should be noted that in the FY14 Senate Foreign Operations bill there is 76 million dollars set aside to promote global internet freedom and democracy in closed societies like Cuba, where the regime allows no independent press and limits access to the internet. It also states that “with respect to the provision of assistance for democracy, human rights, and governance activities” that these programs “shall not be subject to the prior approval by the government of any foreign country.
It is common sense that we shouldn’t ask the Government of Iran or Egypt or China for permission to support advocates of free speech, human rights, or political pluralism or to provide uncensored access to the internet or social media.
At the end of the day, just giving people the opportunity to communicate with the outside world and with each other is, in my mind, a fundamental responsibility of any democracy program.
As Bill Gates said: “The internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.” Bill Gates is right, but to go one step further – that town square will be more free and inclusive thanks to the democracy efforts of organizations like USAID.
That said, thank you, Administrator Shah, for coming before the Committee.
We look forward to your perspective on how we make certain that U.S. development assistance is aligned with overall U.S. foreign policy and I look forward to hearing about your priorities for the FY2015 USAID budget.
I know I speak for all the members of the Committee when I say how impressed I have been by your creativity and energy, which has been essential to USAID reform and to your agency’s pursuit of international development priorities in ways that focus on best practices and results.
As we’ve discussed on numerous occasions before, I do, however, remain deeply concerned that resources for Western Hemisphere Affairs are insufficient to meet the challenges of the region and its importance to our own economic prosperity, security, and our shared interests in health and development.
As I look at the overall International Affairs budget, there is a cut to every other major account in the hemisphere save for Cuba, with cuts totaling $100 million or 12 percent over previous years.
And while efforts to address the challenges of domestic and transnational criminal networks pose the greatest short-term threat to stability in the region, a long-term strategy that boosts economic growth and consolidates the rule of law is fundamental and, in my view, is currently lacking.
Likewise although democracy assistance for Cuba has been restored to its traditional level, cuts to similar programs in Venezuela and Ecuador, I believe, underestimate challenges for democratic governance in those countries.
I believe we can do more in the hemisphere and around the world and I think we can do better in meeting our international development priorities.
I look forward to an on-going conversation with you about how to get the best results for USAID, for our foreign assistance, for donors, for NGOs, and for the taxpayers.
Again, thank you, Administrator Shah, for being here today.
With that, I turn to Senator Corker for his opening statement.