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Exclusive: USAID Contractor Resigns After Presentation on Maternal & Child Mortality in Gaza Canceled

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In a broadcast exclusive, Democracy Now! speaks with Alex Smith, a former contractor with the U.S. Agency for International Development who resigned in protest over the Biden’s administration’s support for the war on Gaza. Smith worked as a senior adviser on gender, maternal health, child health and nutrition at USAID until last week, when he was set to deliver a presentation on maternal and child mortality among Palestinians. One day before he was scheduled to present, the USAID leadership canceled his presentation. Smith says he was then given a choice between resignation and dismissal. “I would like them to stop gaslighting and speak truthfully about what is happening,” says Smith, who says USAID must do more than acknowledge famine is happening in Gaza. “We need to take the next step of saying it is illegal and who is doing the starvation intentionally.” Smith condemns the Biden administration for silencing U.S. experts while supporting Israel, which claims there is no famine in Gaza. “It’s shameful that that misinformation can go around the world to millions, while we at USAID can’t even whisper about it in a conference on gender and human rights and health outcomes.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Our next guest was a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID. He resigned in protest over the Biden’s administration’s support for the war on Gaza. For the past four years, Alex Smith worked as a senior adviser on gender, maternal health, child health and nutrition at USAID. Last week, he was scheduled to deliver a presentation on maternal and child mortality among Palestinians to a conference of USAID’s colleagues and partners. But a day before he was scheduled to present, the leadership at USAID canceled his presentation. Smith says he was then given a choice between resignation and dismissal. He chose to resign.

In his letter of resignation addressed to the head of USAID, Samantha Power, he wrote, quote, “I cannot do my job in an environment in which specific people cannot be acknowledged as fully human, or where gender and human rights principles apply to some, but not to others, depending on their race. I can no longer in good conscience continue to be silent amidst USAID’s de facto policy of ignoring human suffering when that suffering is perpetrated by an ally,” Smith wrote.

Alex Smith joins us now from Portland, Maine, in his first broadcast interview.

Alex, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain what happened, how your presentation was canceled. It was a competition for having this place, this address, where Samantha Power also addressed the conference. Can you talk about what happened?

ALEX SMITH: Good morning.

Yes, absolutely. I would like to talk about what happened, but I also do want to keep the focus on the people of Gaza and the West Bank, and not make the headline about a privileged white guy who resigned his job. But, yes, I’m happy to talk about what happened.

Back in February, I submitted an abstract to the conference. It’s a global gender equality conference that was going to be held in May. And that abstract was one of 368 that were submitted. One of the themes of the conference was going to be on intersectionality and maternal health. And I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to talk about Gaza, as we know there are severe limitations for women to reach health facilities. Where previously Gaza used to have very good attendance of skilled birth attendants, now almost all of the hospitals are nonfunctioning. And so, I submitted my abstract.

To my surprise, it was accepted, in March. It went through three tiers of review. There were about 35 reviewers involved, and it was outsourced to an outside organization to review, as well. So, it was accepted, and I was very excited, and I was thrilled to have a chance, a platform to talk about maternal and child health outcomes in an ongoing crisis.

The day before — the Monday before the Wednesday that I was going to present, I was told that I needed to meet with the Middle East bureau colleagues and submit my slides. I did that. The slides went through many layers of editing and comments. I received a language guide. I was told to remove words like “Palestine,” “Palestinians,” “Israel-Gaza border” and several others. And then there was a column of preferred language. I went along with that. I removed the word “Palestine” from the organization name ”UNFPA Palestine,” because that was objected to. I removed a map that UNOCHA provided, that was acknowledged as an accurate map, but that couldn’t be included because it showed the borders and the sea borders of Gaza.

Also on that Monday, I was told this is a very sensitive issue, because an hour before we were having our chat, the ICC request for an indictment came down from the prosecutor. And so I was told that it’s a sensitive issue because of that. I mentioned that I was a legal fellow at the ICC back when I was in law school, that I had worked on specifically starvation as a weapon of war, and that was an area of interest of mine, and that I thought it would be useful to talk about international humanitarian law frameworks as they apply to every country, Gaza included. And I think that set off alarm bells. There were many more layers of editing. And then, on Tuesday, I was told that the presentation was canceled. Before I was told, the presentation was deleted from the conference website.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about another part of your letter. You write, ”USAID defends human rights, norms and international law when Ukrainians suffer from Russia’s crimes. In Ukraine, we call for legal redress when people are victimized, and name perpetrators of violence. We even work with human rights organizations collecting evidence for international prosecution. … When it comes to Palestinians, however, we avoid saying anything about their right to statehood, the abuses they’re currently suffering, or which powers have been violating their basic rights to freedom, self-determination, livelihoods, and clean water.” What was their response to this?

ALEX SMITH: There has been no response to my letter specifically, but that brings up a very important point, that we are very vocal. We don’t just deliberate. We’re vocal about human rights, democracy issues when it’s other countries or where adversaries are harming people, but we don’t talk about it when it’s people in Gaza and the West Bank.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to talk about the head of USAID, Samantha Power. In fact, I believe she was one of the people President Biden sent to Michigan to deal with the “uncommitted” vote and to talk to Arab Americans. She, as head of USAID, was the first top Biden administration official to publicly acknowledge that famine is present in northern Gaza. I wanted to go to a clip. She was questioned by House Democrat Joaquin Castro during a congressional hearing. Congressmember Castro said, “So, there’s famine already occurring there?” Samantha Power said, “Yes.” Castro then asked Power: How many children were at risk of dying in the coming weeks due to famine? She said, “In northern Gaza, the rate of malnutrition prior to October 7th was almost zero. It’s now one in three.” One in three kids. So, was she aware of the demand that was made of you to change all the language?

ALEX SMITH: I don’t know. I don’t know who in leadership was told about the presentation. I know that there was a lot of chatter that I wasn’t privy to about my presentation in the days leading up to it. But I don’t know if she has seen the presentation slides or my resignation letter.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Alex Smith, you have your moment here. Your presentation was canceled. You’re an expert in infant and maternal mortality. You were talking about the Palestinians in the speech you weren’t able to give. Tell us what is the situation.

ALEX SMITH: So, my presentation would have looked at snapshots of public health data, DHS data, that USAID funds, leading up to 2022. It would have talked about some of the challenges of not having clean water, of not having food security in most of Gaza, and also the checkpoints in the West Bank, that there have been risky roadside births, before 2023. And then, of course, it would have talked about the impact of not having access to hospitals, of not having access to any maternity care, of having UNFPA provide home birth kids to try to prevent infection.

But I really wanted to talk — I wanted to get the point across that if you stop food from going in and then you do start it again, it’s not like flipping a switch where everything is fine. The starving pregnant women and children is going to have long consequences. It’s going to have lifelong consequences for those people, can even have epigenetic consequences for future generations.

And I think it was important to understand that starvation as a weapon of war is illegal. And we need to acknowledge — and Samantha Power has acknowledged that — that there is a famine, but we need to take that next step of saying it is illegal, and who is doing the starvation intentionally.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end by turning to Samantha Power, the head of USAID, the author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. This was an award-winning book that she wrote. In 2008, Democracy Now! spoke with Samantha Power about the ’94 Rwanda genocide, a period of around a hundred days in which up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu militias, while powerful countries, like the U.S., stood by and refused to stop the mass killings.

SAMANTHA POWER: President Clinton didn’t even call a Cabinet meeting for the entire hundred days of the genocide, insisted on the withdrawal of peacekeepers, refused to pay for radio jamming, which would have blocked the radio that was being used not only to propagate the hate but also to broadcast the names and addresses of potential victims who were getting away. I mean, it was an all-systems failure. But President Clinton was at the helm of that failure, and I think it’s an American outrage, and I think President Clinton himself has made that plain, that it’s the greatest regret of his presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: “The greatest regret of his presidency.” Samantha Power would go on to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Alex Smith, can you share your final thoughts, as we go from President Clinton to President Obama to now President Biden?

ALEX SMITH: Surely. On the same day that I was supposed to give my talk on maternal and child health outcomes in Gaza, the Israeli minister of strategic affairs, Dermer, went on Sky News and told millions of people that there is no famine, there never has been a famine in Gaza. And I think it’s shameful that that misinformation can go around the world to millions, while we at USAID can’t even whisper about it in a conference on gender and human rights and health outcomes.

So, I would like our leaders to do better. I would like them to stop gaslighting and say and speak truthfully about what is happening. We haven’t seen that yet, and I think it’s long overdue.

AMY GOODMAN: Alex Smith, we want to thank you for being with us, just resigned as contractor for U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, in this exclusive interview. We’ll also link to your letter that you wrote to USAID.

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