[Theme music playing] Kelly: There is a 250-year-old tension in our country between getting involved in the world beyond our borders and focusing all our attention, resources, and might on our own people.
There are probably as many examples of essential interventions and glorious achievements abroad as there are of flawed thinking and crushing ineffectiveness.
These are thorny issues that the public, with access to almost no unbiased information, tries to form an opinion.
Samantha Power has been at the table, guiding policy and aid for decades.
It is her job to form an opinion, often choosing between a little better and a little worse or terrible now, but potentially much better in time.
She has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning tome on genocide, a best-selling memoir on idealism.
She has been the ambassador to the U.N. and now runs the largest foreign aid organization in the world, with two kids at home, wondering what's for dinner.
I'm Kelly Corrigan, this is "Tell Me More," and here is my conversation with immigrant, athlete, servant, and highly educated idealist Samantha Power.
[Theme music playing] ♪ ♪ Kelly: So many people know you as Obama's ambassador to the U.N., and then many other people, like my 18-year-old, just devoured your memoir.
But for the last year, you have been the administrator of USAID.
For the layperson-- - Heh heh!
what do you do every day?
Well, what USAID does, it was created by John F. Kennedy 60 years ago, and it goes forth into the world and tries to improve the health, wealth, and welfare of vulnerable people.
When there's an emergency, whether a volcano or a wildfire or a war, USAID goes forth in an emergency-response mode and provides humanitarian assistance, provides shelter, and we project American values and American generosity, and it's an incredible privilege to be in a position to say, "OK, what's the right set of tools "that America needs to deploy in this country "where there's just been a coup, or in this country where there's just been a drought?"
Think about problem-solving globally, and USAID is generally at the heart of figuring out what to do.
You're an immigrant.
You came to the U.S. when you were 9.
My daughter was quick to tell me when she was reading your book that you used to do your homework at the bar.
Your dad was an alcoholic... - Indeed, yes.
so you had what could sound like a very tough childhood, but you also had Vera.
- I did.
- Tell us about your mom.
So my mother was a girl from Cork City who desperately wanted to be a medical doctor and was told by everyone that girls couldn't do science, never mind medicine, but she set about from a community in which she wouldn't have had any role models, really, to pursue that dream of hers.
She got a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and then she went back to medical school not long after having me, but mainly, she's just one of the most curious and empathetic people that you'd ever meet, and so my childhood was spent where, if we're sitting around the dinner table, there'd be us, our little, small family, but then there would be all of her patients.
It was never just a job for her, just her commitment to her patients and to their dignity and their lives, and so I think that's probably been the most inspiring trait of hers, you know, nobody really being instrumentalized.
So if those are the marks your mom left on you, what marks did your dad leave on you?
My dad, unfortunately, died when I was very young.
He was an alcoholic and died back in Ireland after we had immigrated here, but in America, I was raised by Eddie, my stepfather, who is a walking encyclopedia... Ha ha ha ha!
and a walking curiosity machine, and so I think, if anything explains my interest in international affairs and other countries and cultures, but also really understanding kind of where they come from and what makes them tick, that comes from Eddie.
- Well, here's to Eddie, then.
You and many other people on "Tell Me More" have talked about the need to get closer and listen longer, you know, like, a little proximity goes a long way, a little humility goes a long way, so that sort of goes to this area of inquiry for me around behavioral science and, like, how it's meeting the moment.
Well, I just think the influence of behavioral science-- on so many domains, we're only just getting started, and this assumption that is so embedded in our--in our mindsets and in our public policy, even though it's completely defined by our own individual behavior, that we are wealth-optimizing, you know, rationality-optimizing creatures-- that we are Spock, when, in fact, you know, why do we drink more than we should?
Why do people smoke?
You know, the COVID crisis obviously has brought out a number of things that are maladaptive for one's health that have more to do with identity and belonging than they do with pursuing public health outcomes of a certain kind, so not presuming that someone's gonna be a rational actor, but actually studying their behavior so one assesses, "What biases do they possess?"
For example, vaccine clinics is the number-one predictor of whether you can improve vaccine uptake.
It's just whether you bump into it, so, again, the rational actor would assume, "If I want a vaccine, I'm gonna get it, even if it requires driving 10 or 15 miles."
It's not true.
- Turns out, if you actually look at the data, proximity to that vaccine location is going to affect, you know, one's own kind of cost-benefit analysis of the benefit of losing time to drive 15 miles against the perceived benefit of taking the vaccine in the first place.
The for-profit sector has known about shelf space and end caps in the supermarket and putting things at eye level.
Like, they've been optimizing for human behavior for a long time, and in the public sector, it seems like maybe we were slow to say, "Oh, wait a minute, "the--all that that they're using to get us "to buy their products and services, we should also be factoring into our solution set."
Yeah, I think there's definitely a lot to learn from kind of the marketing world.
On the other hand, this is truly science.
You know, these are randomized, control trials.
This is, you know, reams of data, and again, sometimes these are existential questions.
If I don't have a paycheck, you know, how am I gonna send my kid to school?
How am I gonna pay the school fees?
Where am I gonna get clean water?
So the key, I think, to apply behavioral science at USAID is to make sure that yes, OK, we use the data that's available to us at the outset, but we're constantly iterating and checking.
Is it working?
Is there the uptake that we seek?
♪ Kelly: So we're walking and talking... - Heh heh!
- in a government building.
- So it seems.
- Sort of reminds me of "West Wing," and then, of course, I'm, like, I've watched every minute of "Veep" twice.
- OK. - Is there any television show or movie that gets government right?
"Homeland" had its-- had its moments... - Uh-huh.
I think, back in the day.
"West Wing" certainly captures the idealism of some of my colleagues.
I'm--I can't say I'm an expert.
I have not exhausted the-- - Yeah.
When I get--come home from government at night, I'm watching sports.
- Not government.
- Right, right.
- Not government mock-ups.
So, in your memoir, you shared, you know, some really personal stuff about panic attacks, which--I've had a few myself and back pain... - Mm-hmm.
- and many miscarriages.
You also said that you did some therapy.
What did you learn in therapy that's useful information for the rest of us?
Well, back pain is often not simply back pain.
- Yeah, yeah.
- [Chuckles] What I learned about myself is that I was carrying around a lot of unresolved questions about my own childhood, about loss.
I was carrying a lot of guilts that I didn't even know I was-- you know, I was a very self-aware and introspective person, and then, once I went in and someone who knew what they were doing really started to probe, it just all kind of-- and just purging that and understanding the role it was playing, I think-- I think, just was very, very cathartic, but also helped me understand why I was drawn to war zones and bad boys.
And all the rest, so I credit, you know, that deep dive into myself with much more of a sense of peace now at this stage in my life, so I feel really, really lucky.
Do you ever feel your idealism caving?
Like, do you ever just put your head down on your desk and think, "I can't take it anymore, there's too much to do, it's too hard to get done"?
I guess I've just never lost that sense of kind of wonder, you know, as an immigrant, maybe, or as a former journalist, but that I'm in a position, I mean, that I even get to try to help.
Who gets to be in a position, working at USAID with all of these resources to bring to bear to try to support other idealists out in the world?
I think you can always find a way with perspective to put whatever frustration you feel in some context, and I'm--I've-- I'm decent at that.
♪ Kelly: Is it safe to say that when you were 18 and you thought you were gonna be a sports journalist that, like, one picture from China changed your whole career?
Sam: Given the influences of my parents, I don't think one picture can do it all, but I did have the experience of thinking that I would never love to learn about anything the way I loved to learn about sports.
Sports was something that I bonded with my father, my mother about as my way of fitting in in America when we came as immigrants.
- You're a basketball player.
- I was a basketball player-ish, but I was mainly just really into sports... - Right.
- so I'd rattle off the statistics, but as I was interning in the sports department of the CBS affiliate in Atlanta, Georgia, where I had gone to high school, I did see footage from Tiananmen Square, some of the most graphic footage even probably that exists to this day.
And I did, with my clipboard, and just thinking there were these, you know, enormous events and such bravery and determination and longing for dignity out there, maybe there's a different-- a different path.
You know, maybe there's something more one could do, but--but again, it's pretty presumptuous to then say, "Well, one day, "I shall be running the United States Agency for International Development" or "one day, I will be an ambassador at the United Na--" I mean, you know, for me to say I'd like to make a difference is really different than having a clue as to how to go about doing that.
And so I do want to say that, because that's where the idea that there's a, you know, a dotted line between the Tiananmen Square footage and me ending up here, so much luck along the way.
You went on to be a war correspondent.
I wonder if you think about the different tools of change, like the pen is powerful and the camera is powerful, but now you have a whole new set of tools.
You must have learned so much about strategic persuasion.
I'm not sure how much I learned, but I know that storytelling and narrative and conveying the good of the impact that we can have as a country-- there's been a bit of a loss of faith in America's ability to do good, even if we set out to do so.
That kind of loss of faith--I think it's really important for us at USAID to tell our story and to show just how many lives have been saved through providing antiretrovirals, to show what the trajectories would have been if we hadn't began to donate our vaccines, in terms of the COVID loss of life, to show how many kids have been lifted out of poverty because of the investments that the United States has made in schools and in education in communities that otherwise wouldn't have had access to those resources.
All of that work is being done with the support of American taxpayers, but I'm not sure we're telling the story as effectively as we can, and I think that that's on me to use whatever platforms I have to make sure that Americans can feel that pride because there's so much to take stock of and so much to take pride in.
I will say I was just in Bosnia, where I started my career as a war correspondent, and it was somewhat surreal to go back and, you know, to give my own press conferences and have the scrum of journalists around me and to remember being in that position, and it's such an important position.
- Being the journalist.
- And so that check-and-balance and the support for that and being in a position now as USAID administrator to support independent media, in particular, again, local media--I mean, that is absolutely important, but at the same time, knowing that half the population of this country is in the midst of almost a war against migration because half the population in the country now lives in other countries because there are so few economic opportunities, now, to have that tool box to say, "OK, this is a stunningly beautiful country; "you know, it's great ski resorts, "it's a mountain biking capital of the world.
"What can we at USAID do "to connect tourism ministers in the region with TripAdvisor?"
Like, that's what it comes down to, is these, like, tiny, specific strategic connections that allow people to, like, flourish on their own.
Completely, but to think-- I mean, most of my career was spent looking at human rights almost through the prism, again, of that Tiananmen crackdown--atrocities, human rights abuse, repression--but seeing the extent to which a lack of economic opportunity... - Right.
- give extremists a chance to exploit that, but also the extent to which that really undermines quality of life and insecurity and anxiety for families who really just don't know whether they're gonna be able to meet the needs of their families.
So what USAID does, it brings all of these tools to bear-- yes, focusing on what can be done to contest undemocratic tendencies, to strengthen the rule of law--but also, how do we create an environment that makes it easier to create a business... - Right, and live a life.
- to create more economic opportunities so people don't migrate?
And by the way, when young people don't migrate, that almost inevitably has an effect on whether there's a more pluralistic culture or whether the old guard that wants to, again, spew nationalism prevails, but who participates in society also dictates what that society becomes.
♪ You used to play pickup with Obama.
Uh, there's a whole story there.
Actually, the-- I played basketball on Obama's court often with the senior staff, but the one time he invited me to join him, I said no because I had to deal with the earthquake in Haiti, and it became the stuff of mockery, where people were like, "You had the chance to play basketball with Obama!
You--" - You're an "A" student.
- You did your job.
- I did my job.
♪ How much does being an immigrant make for a more compassionate outlook?
Certainly, there's no "over there."
As an immigrant, you don't have a sense of "there's over there" and "there's here."
You just feel that connectivity, but I also think to be able to see America from the inside out and to--and also from the outside in.
You know, not so much that I retain my Irish perspective on everything, but when I, certainly, go back to where I'm from and get an earful from my... - Heh heh!
- aunts and uncles and my cousins, you know, that'll remind you how you're coming across in a hurry.
I ended up watching you speak at your nanny's service.
Yeah, naturalization ceremonies are the most moving events to be a part of, and you really feel, if ever you're growing cynical or despairing about America and our dysfunction of our institutions or of Congress or the--you know, go to a naturalization ceremony and see the looks on the faces of the people who are becoming American and the belief that they bring and the faith they bring fundamentally to our ability to set ourselves on a better course.
I mean, it's a beautiful, inspiring experience.
Everybody should do that.
Everyone should go to a naturalization ceremony.
Absolutely, and they can.
- Once a year.
- Yeah, indeed.
Just to feel it again, just to remember.
♪ OK, so we do a thing at "Tell Me More" called "Plus One," which is where you shine a little light on somebody who has been deeply impactful to you in your thinking, in your work.
Who's your Plus One?
My Plus One, I'm afraid to say, is my plus-one.
My actual--my actual plus-one.
Cass Sunstein is his name.
I had read Cass' work before I met Cass.
He's written so much.
Every day, he wakes up with a thousand questions.
I mean, I was just talking to him before I sat down with you, and he's writing for the Journal of Beatles Studies.
Not--not beetles like the animals... - The Beatles?
- but the Beatles... - Heh heh!
- and working as well to try to save DACA as part of the Department of Homeland Security.
And just full of joy and mischief and questions, and so I get to be married to that, and that was a late-breaking development in my life, and it has changed everything.
When you think about COVID and pandemics, you must think about Ebola.
Wasn't that a great example of American ingenuity and innovation?
I was certainly blown away by what we were able to do with our private-sector partners, with NGOs like Doctors Without Borders that were right there on the front line well before governments.
Our U.S. military was involved, helping actually transport materials to places that were inaccessible because of muddy roads.
We brought American lab technology to bear, so we could turn around Ebola tests far quicker than had happened before, and that enabled people to be separated who had Ebola, so they weren't infecting more people.
It was just--it brought everything together, and it was an instance of international collaboration, but COVID is different.
It's, uh-- the Ebola outbreak of 2014, 2015 was really confined largely to 3 countries, and now we have to muster something comparable globally, and so what we need to do is to step up at scale.
We've created something called a global COVID core, which is about bringing the private sector into this question, in fact, of how to reach the last mile, how do you get vaccines to places where there hasn't even been, necessarily, great childhood immunization because they're so inaccessible?
There are many companies that know how to get their products out there, so if they get their products out there, surely we can get a vaccine out there as well.
When we are in a position to do that--and we've launched a big initiative to really emphasize that aspect of delivery of vaccines--I think we'll be in a strong position to hit the target of actually getting to 70% of the world vaccinated.
I think it's interesting to think about how to get people to care about something they haven't experienced, you know, that old research about, like, if there's a baby in a puddle and you pass it, everyone will lean over and lift the baby out of the puddle.
But if I tell you there are a million babies halfway around the world that are drowning in puddles, almost no one acts.
How do you get people to care about things that they haven't experienced?
It's challenging, for sure, but I think that the truth is every large number is, in fact, a lot of individuals aggregated into that large number.
And we try to lift up those individual stories, and sometimes the part stands for the whole, and when you can inspire somebody to see the humanity behind the statistic, that can make a profound difference.
It's challenging because the media generally gravitates toward the darker underbelly-- heh!--of what is happening in the world, and when we are in a position, for example, on vaccines, to show, "Hey, you know, this was what the uptake was "before the public service announcements "and before we got footballers and musicians to be a part of it, and now look at the uptake."
We need as well to tell those success stories because I do think the empathy is there, and I think where things break down sometimes is a despair about what you do with it or a confusion, again, about where you go with it.
We also need to be in a position to give them pathways for action, and that's a behavioral point as well, right, is that-- to connect people directly with the beneficiaries of their good deed, I think, is--creates more of a virtuous cycle, so we need to do more of that.
And there's 3 things you guys are really obsessed with right now: corruption, COVID--and maybe the next pandemic-- and the climate.
What are you guys doing that's making you feel optimistic?
Before the pandemic started, there were actually more protests globally than in any prior two-year period in recorded history, and the majority of those protests were motivated, actually, by citizen disgust and despair over corruption.
So one of the things that is working, I think, is that there is grassroots enthusiasm, attention to the corruption of elites.
There is more now, even, in developed countries like ours that stands in the way of voting and stands in the way of citizen participation.
But there is a popular appeal, I think, right now globally to the idea that leaders need to be accountable to their people.
And you say corruption is development in reverse.
Yeah, corruption is development in reverse.
It is taking countries backward, however, it is also an Achilles' heel.
They may shut down an independent media organization.
They may try to change or bend the electoral rules to extend their term in office-- all these undemocratic trends which are very disturbing, and those may not necessarily generate public protests.
But that generates, I think, something that is making some leaders right now, who are repressive and heading in the wrong direction, quite nervous, in fact, about exposure.
Part of what we do is try to support those actors that want to hold their governments accountable.
One of the tools that autocrats and even oligarchs are using increasingly is lawsuits.
- Mm-hmm, against the media.
Suing the media or suing the civil society organization, so, in order to adapt to that, we at USAID are creating a defamation fund, basically, that will help ensure those actors who are doing this essential work of democratic accountability, of economic accountability in opposition to corruption, for them to know that someone has their back, that if they get sued, they potentially will have the insurance in place to be able to withstand that and keep doing the work that they're doing.
♪ Kelly: We add a little speed round.
- OK, yes, yes.
- If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
"Try, Try, Try, and Try Again."
Ha ha ha!
Um, if you could say 4 words to anyone, who would you address and what would you say?
I would probably direct the words to my mother and father, so, Vera and Eddie, and I would say, "Thank you for everything."
If your high school did superlatives, what would you have been most likely to become?
Well, actually, my college did superlatives and actually voted and came up with the same thing my high school would have said, which was "Most Likely to Come Back from the Intramural Sports Fields with Bloody Knees."
Ha ha ha ha!
- So that's not one... - So you're scrappy on the fields.
- that I should advertise.
- Uh, again, "Try, Try, Try, and Try Again."
What a joy to spend time with you.
- Thank you.
- Thank you for telling us what USAID does and make us feel our Americanness in a positive way.
It's really nice.
- Thank you for giving people hope.
That's a really important task at this time.
Kelly: If you loved this conversation, you might really enjoy our episodes with Melinda French Gates, Ai-jen Poo, and Bryan Stevenson.
For more on the science of grit and perseverance that is so evident in the work of Samantha Power, please listen to my follow-on podcast at "Kelly Corrigan Wonders."
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