From the Desk of Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs

Washington, DC
February 23, 2010

Dear friends,

It has been a busy winter, despite Mother Nature’s best efforts to slow us down with blizzards. Of course, the issue at the top of everyone’s minds is Haiti, a nation of enormous need even before it was hit with the greatest humanitarian disaster in memory. Under the leadership of USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, the U.S. Government is working with the United Nations, NGOs, and major development banks to ensure that the relief and rebuilding efforts in Haiti are efficient and sustainable. I am proud of the dedicated effort mounted by the bureaus that comprise the Democracy and Global Affairs (G) family, as we scale up our refugee, disaster relief, and health operations to respond to the needs of Haitians in both the short and long term.

Since last I wrote, “G” has grown—and with it, a new momentum that drives us all. We have established our foremost priority: to elevate and integrate the transnational issues of human security in the highest levels of the U.S. foreign-policy agenda. We have identified and made significant progress on three signature issues:

1. Democracy: Strengthen democratic institutions and processes, especially in regions at risk for conflict. Protect the space for vibrant and active civil societies in democratic nations.

2. Water: In an era of increasing scarcity, ensure access to clean water and sanitation for the poor. Understand water’s implications for food security, peace and conflict, particularly in regions of increasing shortage.

3. Population: Building on the 15th anniversary of International Conference on Population and Development, find sustainable solutions to population challenges related to family planning, infant mortality and maternal health.

I had the opportunity to explore and discuss these initiatives on a recent ten-day trip to East Africa. In Kenya, I met with President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga, parliamentarians, and human rights groups. I visited a USAID-supported rehabilitation center for girls who have been trapped in domestic slavery. On my second day, I spoke to over 600 enterprising university students about the potential of technology for youth empowerment. The students were keenly aware of their country’s challenges, asking insightful questions and even performing a parody of corrupt, big-bellied politicians blocking the planting of trees (an homage to Kenya’s native daughter and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, with whom I met the next day). Finally, I spent a day at the Dadaab refugee camps near the Kenya/Somalia border, which you can read more about here.

From Kenya, I traveled to Uganda to address human rights and the environment with key leaders; and from there it was on to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the African Union Summit, where I led the U.S. Delegation along with Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson. We met with Presidents and Foreign Ministers from 10 African nations, including President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and President Paul Kigame of Rwanda.

In all of my meetings, climate change was at the forefront of my mind, having participated in the Copenhagen negotiations this past December. The Accord that was reached provides a foundation for future progress on this pressing challenge, and I am pleased that African leaders are ready to support it. Moving forward, my office will be focusing on ways to adapt to changes in the climate, especially in the developing world where impact will be the greatest.

Just before my trip to East Africa, I had the privilege of joining Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis on President Obama’s delegation to the second inauguration of Evo Morales in Bolivia. The presence of a U.S. Cabinet Member was an important signal to the Bolivian government that the United States is committed to establishing a closer bilateral relationship.

Next month, I will be returning to Latin America, this time to Brazil, where I will lead the State Department delegation to the World Urban Forum, a biennial gathering hosted by UN Habitat to address the opportunities and challenges associated with rapid urban development around the world.

As Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, I had the pleasure of welcoming His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Washington last week. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton received the Dalai Lama and commended his spiritual leadership and commitment to nonviolence.

As Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, I am carrying out the vision set forth by Secretary Clinton in her key policy speeches of the last three months. We are promoting the United States’ human rights agenda through our work with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. We are supporting a renewed emphasis on our development priorities with USAID. And, as co-chair of the NetFreedom Task Force, I am uplifting the strategic use of technology in our diplomatic and development agenda.
It is clear that the strength of U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century lies in our ability to apply smart power tools to transnational challenges, and I am energized every day by the many opportunities to empower individuals, to strengthen societies, and to protect the environment for generations to come.

Warm regards,

María Otero
Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs

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