Ronald Reagan Building

Remarks of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
Washington, D.C.
March 16, 1999

Thank you very much. I am overwhelmed and incredibly honored. I’ve also never seen a bigger plaque in my entire life. Thank you, Brian. Thank you, USAID, for this tremendous honor. But more than that, thank you for what you do every day to help people to help themselves to transform the conditions in which they live so that they can have a better future for themselves and their children.

I particularly want to thank Senator Leahy and Chairman Callahan for their leadership, especially on behalf of the children of the world. We will never fulfill our global responsibilities and we will never let the world see how we see ourselves, as a good and compassionate people, without the support of leaders like the Senator and Congressman. All of us owe them a debt of gratitude, and all the other members of Congress on both sides of the aisle who recognize clearly that leadership includes responsibilities, and therefore support the work of USAID.

I want to thank Ambassador Ssempala for her remarks and her friendship over the years. And I want to thank all of the ambassadors, many of whom I recognize here in the audience, for being with us today. I have been privileged to visit in many of your countries and to see firsthand the work that is being done there, and I am grateful for your attendance here.

I also want to thank the extraordinary Eastern High School Choir that you have enjoyed, and the Marine Corps Brass Quintet. And I know that there are students here gathered over in that area who are part of a new program called Operation Day’s Work --and these students from the McFarland Middle School here in Washington, and St. Louis Park Senior High School, are taking part in this first day of trying to reach out and help the people of Haiti.

We have realized that we need to do more to enlist the imagination and the work of young people who live here in our country in this time of great blessing and prosperity -- so that they would understand what the lives of young people around the world were like. And I am very hopeful that this new program will grow and grow so that many, many American students will have the same experience.

As I was listening to Brian speak -- talking about the many times that he and I have been together and the many places around the world we have visited -- I couldn’t help but think of how I have seen him at work and how I have watched his leadership and his tireless commitment in action. He has brought creativity and passion, effectiveness, and down-to-earth common sense leadership to USAID. And because of that we are gathered here in this beautiful atrium looking out at so many of you who do the work of USAID. And knowing that because of this man’s leadership, your work is more understood and appreciated and finally acknowledged than it would have been before.

In some parts of the world -- it may have been hard for those of us here at home to understand -- USAID assistant administrators are treated almost like rock stars. We show up somewhere together and people say to them, “I’m so glad to see you because you brought so much hope.” In very concrete ways they talk about the changes that have occurred since the last visit. And when I am there in a village, in a barrio, in any setting around the world, with those of you who work with USAID and our partners in the voluntary sector and in the private sector, I wish I could have every single American with me to see for themselves the work that you do.

Like many Americans, before I moved to Washington and began living in the White House, I hadn’t traveled very much around the world. I had traveled some, but certainly not to South America or Africa, most parts of Asia, Central or Easter Europe. And so for me, when I began the great privilege of representing our country, I began to see things that I had never seen before. I hadn’t seen them on our television programs, I hadn’t really read about them very often in our newspapers. I knew, because I had friends who worked for both USAID and other voluntary organizations that did development work, that there was a lot of work going on, but it had never been really visible to me. And I began to wonder, as I traveled, what I could do to try to make the work -- that before had been invisible, but now is not only visible but also is making an incredible impression on me -- more available to my fellow citizens.

One of the ways I chose was to be sure to go places that were not likely to make the evening news, because too often we only see the tragedies and the crises. We only hear the stories of deprivation; we don’t see the faces of people who are working for themselves and changing their lives. So when I began to travel, I wanted to go to those places. I wanted to see for myself where my tax dollars were going. I wanted to learn what was effective and how it could be more so. And I constantly wished and hoped that more Americans, perhaps through my visits, could see and learn what I was experiencing.

So when I was in South Africa, the first time I could I went out to a small plot of land which was very barren and met the women who told me with great pride that they were going to build their own village, they were going to build their houses, they were going to build the stores and the streets, and they were going to be moving out of the shanty town where they had crowded in deplorable conditions and start new lives with their families. I could see the determination, but the dream seemed so far out of reach. But through a combination of microcredit loans and assistance not only from their government, but also from religious organizations and USAID and from many independent organizations, when I returned a year later with the President, I said I have to go back out to this housing area. And it was hard to put it on the calendar, and I couldn’t get it on the President’s calendar, to be sure. But I said, “Well, there is open time here before the President has to make a speech; he’ll be working with his speech writers and advisors about what he’s going to say to the South African Parliament, so I could just sneak off and go see the women and how they’re doing.”

But when my husband heard that I was going to get to go off and see the housing project and he was going to be in a hotel room talking about a speech, he said to his schedulers, “No, I want to use that time to go as well.” And those of you who have ever been around a Presidential visit -- it’s hard to just kind of sneak off and show up. So the word went out that the President, indeed, was going to come to the housing project, and all of a sudden all kinds of things began to occur. But when we went out there, there weren’t the maybe one or two dozen houses I expected to see after a year’s worth of effort. There were, as Brian said, more than a hundred. And the women had purchased a plot of land right over the railroad tracks so that they could expand another four hundred houses. They proudly took me into the houses that had been completed, and they took me to the day care center that they had started, and they took me to the store. And they made Bill and me actually do some work ourselves so that we could contribute to the building of one of their houses.

It is that image, it is that reality, that I have been privileged to see in every corner of the globe. People who, yes, are poor, people without a lot of formal education, but with the same hopes and aspirations for their lives and the lives of their children as you and I share -- who need just some encouragement, some help, some technical assistance --and if given that, they’ll demonstrate their good faith and will be able to create a better future for themselves.

I wish every American could meet the women that I’ve met in health clinics in Bolivia or Brazil, in Istanbul, in places all over the world. Women who, for the first time, are being given the opportunity to have access to the health care that they and their children need; who are learning about how to care for their young children’s nutritional, physical, and other needs.

I remember so well the health minister in Brazil with whom I’ve met. He was a state health minister; he had been a doctor for many years. And I visited a maternity hospital which took care of women who were in the joyous experience of having their children and learning to take care of them, and also women who were there because they had no family planning and they had unfortunately sought out back-alley abortions. And I remember the health minister saying that his mission was to make sure that poor women had access to the same family planning services that rich women had always had. And that made a great impression on me, because in country after country -- sometimes even in my own -- I listen to people talk about what poor people are entitled to and what services they should have, in a way that seems to deny their rights to the same opportunities as the rest of us because of our positions in society can take advantage of.

I know that USAID has not always been well known in our country, and sometimes it is better known in other places around the world. But when USAID commemorated the 50th anniversary of U.S. foreign assistance two months ago, it should remind us that the roots of this program are deep. Its origins go back to President Truman’s inaugural address in 1949. The White House, as White Houses usually do, sent out a memo asking for ideas for a speech designed to be a “democratic manifesto addressed to the peoples of the world.”

A young public affairs officer at the State Department named Benjamin Hardy came up with one such idea. He suggested that we create a program that would allow the U.S. to share its technical expertise with developing nations. The idea was dismissed outright by his immediate superiors. But he refused to let it die. And he figured out a way to take that idea directly to the White House.

And when the idea reached President Truman, he loved it. In the aftermath of World War II, President Truman understood that America needed to play a pivotal role in creating a world that was safe and secure, peaceful and prosperous. He knew that the world was then, as it is now, looking to us for global leadership.

When the speech was being drafted, everyone assumed the foreign policy agenda would include three points: support for the United Nations, support for the Marshall Plan, and support for a security system for Europe that would become NATO. But Benjamin Hardy’s idea became point four. It drew applause from the world community and paved the way for the foreign assistance programs that we have enjoyed over the next years.

By adding that point four, President Truman was sending the message that investing in developing nations was not social work, but a pillar of our foreign policy. It was not only the right thing to do, it was the smart thing to do. And I think that that reasoning of President Truman’s is just as true today.

Now, certainly, the world in which we live is very different. We are living in what is called, for want of a better description, the post-Cold War era. That means that we know where we’ve been, and we sort of know where we are, but we’re not sure at all where we’re going. Because the world around us has changed so rapidly that we barely have time to catch our breath. And in time of rapid change, it is understandable that some are inclined to draw inward and pull back from the obligations, to catch their breaths, thinking that maybe there isn’t much that can be accomplished and that we should just tend to our business here at home.
But of course, in today’s world, that’s not even really an option. Every day we see how profoundly interconnected we are in this new era of globalization. Whether it is the international economic crisis or the extraordinary boom in worldwide communications or the threat of infectious diseases or terrorism. We have to acknowledge that, in many ways, our lives and even our destinies are intertwined.

If that is true -- and I think it is -- we have to determine what we do with this new set of conditions. It certainly seems an inappropriate time to turn back on commitments to multilateral organizations that help us understand and work through this new era of interconnection. The International Monetary Fund, the United Nations -- those are institutions that we had a great hand in creating, that we have had a great deal to do in leading and shaping, and which hold promise if we are committed to them in making the kinds of contributions that we expect to be made to build a stronger, stabler future.

It is certainly not the time to withdraw support from the United Nations or to be the number one debtor to the United Nations. It is time for the United States instead to demonstrate our leadership and commitment to the United Nations. It is certainly not a time to withdraw support from foreign assistance programs, but to do as Brian and Chairman Callahan and Senator Leahy have said: to make sure that our foreign assistance programs are effective. And I’m pleased that the President’s budget for Fiscal Year 2000 includes a $270 million increase for USAID.

As I talked with my husband about his recent trip to Central America last week, he kept saying over and over again how he was overwhelmed by all he had seen -- starting with the extraordinary site of the body of the young girl that was embedded in the mudslide in Nicaragua. But he wasn’t only telling me about the devastation he had seen, he was telling me also about the positive relief efforts that he had learned about -- what USAID and other American institutions and individuals had done to help bring food and shelter and medicine to Mitch’s victims.

And I want publicly to thank Senator Leahy and Congressman Callahan for supporting the President’s request for almost $1 billion in supplemental funding to further help the people of Central America and the Caribbean repair and rebuild their lives. The need, as anyone who has visited can see with their own eyes, is urgent. And I do hope that the Congress acts in a bipartisan fashion to approve this package quickly.

Now we know that in opinion poll after opinion poll, Americans say when asked, that they want to help people overseas. But then they’re asked how much money do you think we spend on foreign assistance, time after time, in poll after poll, Americans say they think we spend between 10 and 15 percent of our national budget. Now, of course, you know that we actually spend one half of one percent.

So, there is this paradox that exists. Americans are compassionate, Americans do care, Americans want to be helpful. But they have the wrong idea about what we are doing, and they need more information and education about what the facts are. How can we convey that to them?

Well, just as President Truman did 50 years ago, we have an opportunity, today, to make the case for how foreign assistance creates all kinds of obligations and opportunities that we can meet. How it helps us nurture and sustain democracies, strengthens economies and open markets for American goods and services. How it ensures our security in the face of new threats -- especially with the spread of infectious diseases, pollution, global climate change, population growth or the flight of refugees.

And we should talk about what our foreign assistance does, not in the abstract, not in percentages, or even in dollars, but with the stories, the down-to-earth stories that actually occur in village after village. So every time we talk about the need to help nations make the difficult transition to democracy and free-market economies, I hope we will humanize and personalize it so Americans have a better idea of what we’re talking about.

We need to hear the voices of the people throughout the world who are struggling now after the end of the Cold War to build their own countries, to strengthen their societies, to seek economic opportunities. I would like Americans to hear the voices of the family that I met in Siberia. The grandfather had been a well respected applied mathematician in the closed academic center, where he had worked his entire adult life.

I met with him and his wife, with his two daughters, his son-in-law and his two grandsons. He said, “I always yearned for democracy. I always believed in democracy, but now it makes no sense to me. I don’t understand how it is supposed to work. My pension is not paid. I don’t have enough money to live on. And my bicycle has been stolen. I don’t know what the future holds.”

One of his daughters broke in and said, “But Daddy, don’t you remember we used to have to stand in line for hours just to buy butter, starting at four or five o’clock in the morning, and often it wasn’t even available. Things are better now.” And then her father replied, “But all I know is that my bicycle is stolen and my pension is not paid.”

And listening to that dialogue, that conversation that could occur in so many different settings and so many parts of the world, brings home how difficult it is to make these transitions that we are expecting and hoping and working for around the world. One just doesn’t snap one’s fingers and say, “Have a democracy, open your markets, change the way you’ve always done things, create a new world for yourselves and your children.” It took years and years during the Cold War. It took billions and billions, even trillions, of dollars for us to defend our values. And now we have an opportunity, through our foreign assistance, to help people like that grandfather and to help countless men and women around the world be able to put into practice those values that America stands for and how they can be made real in their lives.

If we listen to people, we understand more what we can do to help them really create the conditions for democracy to flourish. Brian mentioned a visit that he and I and the President made in Senegal. The year before, when I was in Senegal, I went to a village where, with USAID support, people were learning the fundamentals of democracy. Both men and women were standing up and having discussions and taking votes about what should happen in their village -- a totally new concept that had never before been part of their culture or tradition. And out of the skits and efforts that one of the groups engaged in, they began to ask themselves about things they would like to change and they decided in one village to start talking about the ancient practice of FGM [female genital mutilation]. That conversation led to a vote. That vote led to the banning of FGM in that one village.

And then two men in that village began to walk from village to village talking with other men and women about what they had just done through a democratic process in their village. And pretty soon another village and another village -- and 13 villages in all -- voted to ban FGM. Then they decided to go to the Capital and bring a petition to the president. And just last month, Senegal adopted a law banning FGM. And it became a model and it started with a very small USAID grant that over years began to change attitudes and behaviors.

I believe that we have learned a lot about what makes for effective foreign assistance. We’ve learned how to be very targeted with our assistance, we’ve learned how to leverage our assistance, and we’ve begun to see the results of that changed approach.

In Bulgaria, I met entrepreneurs whom USAID is helping to start businesses to get that economy going as strong as it can. At a small clinic in Nepal, I saw how this little box -- a safe home delivery kit which contains a bar of soap, twine, wax, a plastic sheet, and a clean razor blade -- can dramatically reduce maternal and neonatal deaths. And in Bangladesh, I learned how the government is providing food and money to encourage families to keep their daughters in school.

Now these may seem, in the great scheme of things, small little steps. But every time we stand up as Americans for human dignity, for education, for health care; every time we say we want to help you become full participants in your society, to understand how markets work, to build a democracy; we are saying not only we want to help you, but we want to help ourselves be the kind of leaders that we should be for the next century. We’ve also brought home some of those lessons with a USAID program called “Lessons Without Borders,” and I hope we continue to bring home lessons that we learn that can help right here in our cities and our rural areas.
I’m going to continue doing what I can to highlight the work of USAID. This Saturday, I will begin a trip to North Africa, with stops in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. I am looking forward to that because I know that with populations that total almost one-half of the Arab world, these countries represent a diversity of cultures, ethnic groups, and histories, and provide us an opportunity to learn more about what they are doing, about their history, and to become closer friends and partners in building a better future
For too long, our close ties with the Arab world have been compromised by negative stereotyping on both sides. It is my hope that this trip will help strengthen the bonds of friendship among our nations. Each country I will visit will have certain opportunities for both my learning and, I hope through coverage and the press, learning by Americans in general.

While in Egypt, I will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and the breathtaking culture that distinguishes that nation and its past. In Tunisia, I will hear about their remarkable record on women’s rights -- which is the envy of most of the world. And in Morocco, I will see how that country’s unique experiment with political pluralism, religious tolerance, and the growth of civil society could serve as a model to others.

To be sure, there are many challenges that remain in those three countries, like in any country around the world. Challenges that find people asking themselves: How do we combine political stability with respect for human rights? How do we adapt to the global economy without leaving vulnerable citizens behind? I hope to see how USAID is helping to answer those and other questions.

Later this year, I will complete my tour of this region with visits to two other important allies -- Israel and Jordan. Because of the election in Israel and the mourning of His Majesty King Hussein in Jordan, it was not appropriate to schedule trips there at this time. But I very much look forward to visiting Israel and Jordan in the months ahead.

If we are now looking forward, as we must, to the end of this century and to the beginning of the next one, we can take no better model than to look back at President Truman and the creation of foreign assistance, the creation of the Marshall Plan. I’ve read a lot about it, and I know it was a difficult sell for the President and others to go around our country and say, “We want to use to your tax dollars to rebuild Nazi Germany.”

But because a broad coalition of people in government, and the private sector, and academia, and throughout our country came together and we made the case for engagement and leadership -- and that is what we must do again today.

Members of Congress, business leaders, journalists, and others who travel throughout the world can help all of us here at home better understand why it is in America’s interest to support the work that goes on in this building.

People like Benjamin Hardy had a good idea, and many of you who are development professionals have had many other good ideas over the years. I hope that I will be able to continue to support you, but I hope more than that, that many Americans will come to understand what you do and how your work is part of a fundamental debate about what role our country will play in a changing world. It is not a debate that is limited to one sector of our society -- it is a debate that should engage all Americans. I’m convinced that if Americans have the information about what you do, they will support your work, and they will not only support it, they will understand why it is an integral part of the kind of leadership that we expect to exercise in the 21st century.

I’m fully confident that when the history of the past 50 years is written, we will not only point to the Cold War and its ending, we will not only recognize that the values of America have been given an opportunity unlike any opportunity in human history to flourish, but we will also recognize that our nation has a great deal at stake in working with people all around the world who wish to build a better, more peaceful, more stable, economically prosperous future. And when we recognize that, then the role of USAID and foreign assistance will be understood as I think it deserves to be -- as truly one of the pillars of American leadership.

Thank you very much.


[Footer icon]

[White House icon] [Help Desk icon]

To comment on this service,
send feedback to the Web Development Team.