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At U.S.A.I.D., Juggling Political Priorities and Pandemic Response

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WASHINGTON — The coronavirus was spreading around the world, and officials at the United States Agency for International Development were anxious to rush humanitarian aid to nations in need. But first, they had to settle a debate over American branding and whether it should be displayed on assistance headed to conflict zones.

Political appointees from the White House and the State Department wanted the aid agency’s logo affixed to all assistance packages to show the world how much the United States was sending abroad, even as it grappled with its own outbreak.

Career employees at U.S.A.I.D. argued that the logo and other American symbols could endanger people who delivered or received the aid in countries that are hostile to the United States and where branding exceptions are usually granted.

At the end of the debate this spring, relief workers were allowed to distribute aid without the branding in a handful of countries in the Middle East and North Africa. But the discussion, as described by a half-dozen current and former officials at the aid agency and relief workers who were briefed on it, delayed assistance for several weeks to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities as the pandemic began to peak.

It was a cautionary example of the political intervention that has roiled an agency that prides itself as leading the humanitarian response to disasters, conflict and other emergencies around the world.

“As far back as I go, working on these programs, U.S.A.I.D. has really been an extraordinary, respected leader in global health and humanitarian responses,” said Representative Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York and the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. “To distort that mission is an insult, and it’s really outrageous to me.”

In an interview, Ms. Lowey said she had never seen the aid agency as vulnerable to partisan politics as it was during the Trump administration. She cited the agency’s accusation in May that the United Nations was promoting abortion in its coronavirus response fund as “an example of the Trump administration politicizing a global pandemic to appeal to antichoice voters here in the United States.”

The aid agency’s acting administrator, John Barsa, was selected for the job on March 17, hours before the coronavirus was confirmed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Mr. Barsa, who declined to be interviewed for this article, took extra precautions to prepare for the hurricane season and was quick to assist victims of the deadly explosions in Beirut, Lebanon, last month that have left at least 300,000 people homeless.

But as President Trump campaigns for re-election and the coronavirus has claimed more than 193,000 lives nationwide, the aid agency has been micromanaged by the White House and the State Department. That has prompted critics to say the intervention has slowed pandemic relief efforts to some places, weaponized aid in other areas to chastise Trump administration adversaries and disengaged the United States from the World Health Organization’s coronavirus response.

Credit…Aziz Taher/Reuters

Pooja Jhunjhunwala, the aid agency’s acting spokeswoman, said Mr. Barsa was “uniquely qualified to lead U.S.A.I.D. during this period,” given his past work at the Department of Homeland Security and NASA, dating to the George W. Bush administration.

“His strength and experience are in knowing how the U.S. government functions, how the various parts of the executive branch interact with each other and how leadership can make a difference,” Ms. Jhunjhunwala wrote in response to questions. “He has increased U.S.A.I.D.’s cooperation and coordination with other U.S. government entities and streamlined decision-making processes internally to improve our response to the pandemic.”

Thomas H. Staal, who worked at the aid agency for 31 years before retiring in 2019, said its relationship with political appointees at the State Department and the White House had historically “waxed and waned” depending on the scope of a crisis and its effects on the United States.

In Iraq in 2003, for example, the State Department and the White House “were very heavily involved in everything we did” in the first years of the American-led invasion and occupation, he said.

But Mr. Staal, whose last job at the aid agency was senior counselor to Mr. Barsa’s predecessor, said he was “very concerned” about proposed budget cuts and contentious staff appointments at U.S.A.I.D. under the Trump administration. He also noted that the agency did not have a representative on the coronavirus task force that was set up by the White House.

“Normally, U.S.A.I.D. would be a major player in that, as we were in all the other major health emergencies around the world,” Mr. Staal said. “That, to me, demonstrates the lack of the support and lack of understanding of the value of U.S.A.I.D.”

Last month, the aid agency distributed a three-page memo to humanitarian aid organizations outlining Chinese government oppression of Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region. The “information circular,” published on agency letterhead, sought to raise awareness about challenges to democracy, human rights and other freedoms, according to a copy obtained by The New York Times.

It was sent as diplomatic tensions between the Trump administration and the Chinese Communist Party continued to escalate; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a frequent and sharp critic of Beijing.

Attached to the memo was a 19-page advisory, dated July 1, from the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security warning that businesses, academic institutions, investors and other entities that dealt with products linked to Xinjiang “should be aware of reputational, economic and, in some cases, legal risks” of doing so.

That concerned relief workers who feared that they could be cut off from U.S.A.I.D. funding or otherwise targeted for relying on products they had no way of knowing were connected to Xinjiang.

Relief organizations were “confounded and worried,” said Jenny Marron, the director of public policy and government affairs for InterAction, a Washington-based alliance of global aid and advocacy organizations. She noted that the memo had been distributed by grants teams for the aid agency. When confronted by relief workers, the agency later said it merely meant to provide information, not set new conditions for funding.

“The circulars were factually accurate,” Ms. Marron said. “But the real question and concern was, was there a new requirement being asked of partners?”

Some agency employees have raised alarms over other policies that appear to deviate from the norm.

Credit…Abbas Momani/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In February, the agency released a 56-second video that directly challenged President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. The video showed burning trucks at the Colombian border that were identified as having been forcibly stopped from delivering humanitarian aid to Venezuela, where widespread hunger and lack of medical supplies are a hallmark of Mr. Maduro’s authoritarian rule.

The video addressed Venezuelans in English and Spanish. “Your perseverance is inspirational and freedom will overcome Maduro’s tyranny,” it said in large type.

The Trump administration has sought Mr. Maduro’s ouster since his widely disputed re-election in 2018. While promoting democratic values is part of the aid agency’s mission, Mr. Staal said it had usually been done quietly, with partners on the ground, to “let somebody else in the U.S. government do the politicization, if you will, the public voice of that.”

The administration is also considering centralizing efforts for pandemic preparedness under an outbreak response coordinator at the State Department, a role that critics say should be led by U.S.A.I.D.

“The immediate response to the pandemic is a humanitarian and disaster response,” said Conor M. Savoy, the executive director of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, a bipartisan coalition of international development experts. “That knowledge rests with U.S.A.I.D. They don’t reside at State.”

Perhaps the most evident example of the oversight and demands from the White House is the recent parade of political appointees who have been tapped for senior positions at the aid agency.

Bethany Kozma, the agency’s deputy chief of staff, spoke out in 2016 against President Barack Obama’s “transgender agenda.” She has since helped draft an update to the agency’s gender policy that eliminates mention of transgender people.

The new religious freedom adviser for the agency, Mark Kevin Lloyd, reportedly called Islam a “barbaric cult” while working as a Trump campaign staff member in 2016.

And before Merritt Corrigan joined the agency as its deputy White House liaison, she declared that the United States was “in the clutches of a ‘homo-empire’” that was advancing a “tyrannical L.G.B.T. agenda.” She left the agency in August, after three months on the job, saying she was targeted by congressional Democrats and the news media because of her Christian faith.

In June, Mr. Barsa said the criticism of the three staff members was “unwarranted and malicious.” He also said they were appointed by the White House “to carry out the president’s foreign policy agenda at U.S.A.I.D.”

Another political appointee at the agency, Peter Marocco, told colleagues he was “under pressure” from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to cut U.S.A.I.D. spending, according to another agency official. Mr. Marocco has delayed funding to help Ukraine’s government ward off Russian interference, the official said, even though he oversees efforts to prevent conflict in countries facing political transition.

“To load up an agency with political appointees who do not have the expertise, how then do you expect that agency to perform against its mission?” said Gayle Smith, who was the aid agency’s administrator during the Obama administration.

U.S.A.I.D. declined to comment about Mr. Marocco’s actions, which were first reported by Foreign Policy.

For the first time, and in direct response to the coronavirus pandemic, the aid agency’s Bureau for Global Health has begun to procure and distribute thousands of ventilators abroad. The ventilators have gone to at least 40 countries, including Uzbekistan, India, Colombia and South Africa.

Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, has demanded to know more about where the ventilators are being sent and the White House’s role in that decision.

Influence by the National Security Council “circumvents longstanding U.S.A.I.D. procurement and accountability policies and interjects political agendas” into aid delivery, Mr. Menendez said in a letter to Mr. Barsa in June.

At least 200 ventilators were sent in May to Russia, which is trying to interfere in the presidential election to help Mr. Trump, according to American intelligence assessments released last month.

Source:- The New York Times

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NDP won't give Trudeau 'excuse' for election, Singh says ahead of confidence vote in Commons – CBC.ca

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said today that his party will not give Prime Minister Justin Trudeau an “excuse” to send Canadians to the polls in the middle of a global pandemic — an apparent signal that Trudeau’s government will survive today’s confidence vote.

In a news conference just two hours before a crucial confidence vote, Singh declined to say exactly how his MPs would vote or whether they might abstain.

“We are voting for Canadians. We are voting against an election,” he said.

Singh said the NDP will still work to get answers on the WE Charity scandal through the Commons ethics committee, and that his party will push the government for more pandemic support for Canadians.

“People need help right now. They need confidence in the future. They’re not looking for an election,” he said.

“So New Democrats will not give Prime Minister Trudeau the election he’s looking for. We’re not going to be used as an excuse or a cover. We’re going to continue to do the work that we need to do.”

The Bloc Québécois had already confirmed it will support the Conservative motion, leaving the outcome in the hands of the NDP.

The vote is expected to happen around 3:15 p.m. ET and CBCNews.ca will carry it live.

The opposition day motion would create a special committee to probe the Trudeau government’s ethics and spending in response to the pandemic — including the controversial WE Charity contract to administer a student volunteer grant program.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not recuse himself from talks on the agreement, even though several of his family members had been paid for speaking engagements by the organization.

The Liberal government has declared the vote on the Conservative motion a matter of confidence that could trigger an election — a high-stakes move that NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has called a “farce.”

In a news conference before the vote, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said if the motion does not pass, he will continue to work with other parties to hold the government to account. He criticized the government and Trudeau for framing the vote as a confidence matter.

“His designation of this vote as a confidence vote shows that he’s willing to put the electoral fortunes of the Liberal Party ahead of the health, safety and well-being of Canadians,” he said.

“Most Canadians would think that’s unacceptable.”

WATCH / Erin O’Toole on confidence vote:

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole spoke with reporters just after NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh stated that the NDP would not bring down the government in the confidence vote. 0:56

Speaking to reporters after the Liberal caucus meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government needs the confidence of the House to do its job.

“I really believe at the end of the day common sense will prevail and we’re going to get through this,” she said.

Freeland also said that legislation for several new pandemic supports for Canadians and businesses needs to be passed and an election could jeopardize that.

WATCH / Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland on possible election:

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland says she’s focused on passing legislation to support Canadians during the pandemic as a confidence vote looms in Parliament today.  1:39

Heading into their weekly caucus meeting this morning, NDP MPs said they had not yet decided on a path forward and would talk about how to proceed behind closed doors.

“At the end of the day we have a lot of moving parts and we’re still in a pandemic and we’re still committed to fighting for Canadians and we’re going to continue to do that,” said Ontario NDP MP Matthew Green.

“We have to look at what all the variables are going in to this discussion and do what’s best for the country.”

Asked by reporters if the NDP had an obligation to support the Conservative motion, NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus said, “There’s many ways to skin a cat, my friends.”

WATCH / NDP MPs on today’s confidence vote:

NDP MPs arrived for their weekly caucus meeting in Ottawa on Wednesday. 1:26

Conservative House leader Gérard Deltell said the ethical questions surrounding the government require a special committee with a clear mandate. He said it’s the “duty” of opposition parties to hold the government to account.

“This is what the issue is all about with this motion, and what we see right now is a prime minister who will do whatever it takes to call an election,” he said.

“The only Canadian who would like to have an election today is the prime minister. The only Canadian who would like to freeze the government for a few months is the prime minister by calling an election.”

The Conservatives amended the original motion to state that voting to launch the committee should not be considered grounds to order an election.

It also dropped the “anti-corruption committee” label it initially proposed.

Bloc Québécois House leader Alain Therrien said the WE Charity issue is so complex that it requires a special committee to get answers.

He said the Liberals’ “scorched-earth” approach to politics is the product of a “club of cronyism” and renders compromise impossible.

He also criticized the NDP, suggesting the party’s MPs have obediently followed Liberal demands.

“The NDP have acted in the last little while a little like the Liberals’ lap dog,” he said.

‘Unwelcome drama’: Paul

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul issued a statement urging the parties to cool their jets, calling the brinkmanship “unwelcome drama.” 

“The Liberal and Conservative parties’ high-stakes, high-tech game of chicken can have no winner,” she said. 

“They should leave such games outside of Parliament, and focus on the urgent needs of people in Canada. I ask members of Parliament to dial down the rhetoric, which is not in keeping with the seriousness of this unprecedented moment, so that we can get back to working on the critical matters at hand.”

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Politics Podcast: The Most Competitive Races In 2020 – FiveThirtyEight

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In covering the 2020 election, we’ve focused plenty on the likeliest tipping-point states — the states likeliest to give the winning candidate his 270th electoral vote. Those states include Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan. While they may be the most important states in 2020, they aren’t actually the most competitive. Those contests are in Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and even Texas, which are polling closer to a dead heat. In this installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, Micah Cohen and Sarah Frostenson discuss where the most competitive races are for the presidency, House and Senate.

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above or by downloading it in iTunes, the ESPN App or your favorite podcast platform. If you are new to podcasts, learn how to listen.

The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

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How remote work has changed discussing politics in the office – CNBC

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With the U.S. presidential election just weeks away, political discussion is top of mind for many Americans, including among colleagues in the workplace. Back in February, a survey of 500 employees by the research firm Gartner found that 78% of people talk about politics at work, and 47% of people say the 2020 presidential election has impacted their ability to get work done.

In the eight months since, the election cycle, the workplace and daily life in general have transformed in countless unpredictable ways due to the coronavirus pandemic. And now that a widespread adoption of remote work has relaxed many workplace behaviors and policies, what does that mean for discussing politics in a virtual office?

Political conversations may be more intentional

In some ways, colleagues may be making an effort to have more meaningful political discussions in the workplace, says Roger Brooks, president and CEO of the educational non-profit Facing History & Ourselves.

“One advantage to being remote is that you have to be really intentional about your conversations,” he tells CNBC Make It. “If you want to have a conversation, you have to go out of your way to have it.”

“That intentionality can give you a moment before you start a complicated conversation to center yourself, and maybe your partner will as well, in a controversial topic,” he continues.

And because you’re more likely to enter a political workplace discussion more intentionally online, rather than riffing on the day’s headlines with a coworker you ran into in the hallway, “some of these conversations might be better than when they were just happening in-person,” Roger Brooks says.

Employers could play a role in encouraging respectful dialogue, says Dustin York, a communications professor at Maryville University who served as a consultant for Barack Obama’s 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. HR leaders can send a company-wide note with guidelines about discussing political news in the work setting, or they may invite trained facilitators to lead a discussion about having difficult conversations at work.

Heidi Brooks, an organizational behavior professor at the Yale School of Management, adds that leaders would do well to encourage and model behaviors that support belonging and inclusion at work, which may be strained during the pandemic. “It still matters to be a team that people want to be a part of,” she says, “and what makes a team one people want to be a part of is the quality of relationships among members.”

One way to take a stance on the election that fosters belonging is to encourage employees to vote, Heidi Brooks adds. Initiatives including Time to Vote and Civic Alliance are non-partisan efforts to increase voter participation by helping workers register to vote, providing polling place information and giving employees time off to cast their ballots.

Discouraging political speech could backfire

Though companies may want to avoid encouraging discussion on controversial topics at work, statements from management that seek to limit political speech can backfire. In late September, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong faced backlash after he published a blog post in which he discouraged employee activism and discussing political and social issues at work. Pointing to what he referred to as “internal strife” among tech companies including Google and Facebook, which “engage in a wide variety of social activism, even those unrelated to what the company does,” he wrote:

“While I think these efforts are well intentioned, they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division,” Armstrong said. “I believe most employees don’t want to work in these divisive environments.”

In response to the memo, more than 60 employees, or roughly 5% of Coinbase’s workforce, accepted exit packages as of October 8, according to Forbes.

Messages like this could be impractical to enforce, says Vanessa Matsis-McCready, associate general counsel and director of HR forthe HR service provider Engage PEO: “You can have a policy that all discussions at work must be work-related, but then you’ll have a morale issue.”

Furthermore, while workers don’t have a constitutional right to free speech at work (except in the case of government employees who have some protections), workers may have some protections at the state level for political expression and off-duty conduct. In California, for example, employers are prohibited from adopting or enforcing any rule that prevents employees from engaging in political activities. And Oregon’s Worker Freedom Act prohibits employers from forcing workers to attend political meetings and distribute political communications.

In other cases, political speech in the workplace may be protected if it relates to workers’ rights to engage in concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act. This includes talking with coworkers about your working conditions, pay or benefits — for example, if you’re discussing paid family leave and your support of a candidate proposing a policy at the federal level.

When politics enters the chatroom

Instead of attempting to limit political speech, Matsis-McCready suggests employers lay out clear guidelines about what is and isn’t appropriate that are neutral and enforced uniformly.

The mass switch to remote work could be a good time to clarify these policies, she adds. For example, you may say overall that Zoom backgrounds must be free of prominent slogans and logos, including but not limited to campaign signage and merchandise. Matsis-McCready says her employer provides workers with HR-approved virtual backgrounds with the company’s logo that can be used during video meetings. Leaders can reiterate if the same no-slogans rule applies to workplace attire during video calls.

For employees, keeping discussions neutral may be the best option if you don’t have clear rules on political speech, Matsis-McCready says. Disciplinary action may not be out of the question if your conversation isn’t about working conditions (and therefore isn’t protected under the NLRA) and it extends beyond your personal break time to the point that it impacts the work you’re expected to get done.

“My advice to employees,” she says, “is to keep workplace discussions neutral. I’d want to make sure that if I’m discussing my personal beliefs, that it’s on my own time — like a lunch break — and be mindful of the clock.”

Another guideline: If you wouldn’t have a certain conversation in the break room of your office, reconsider whether you’re willing to have it in a work-provided messaging platform.

Focus on values rather than candidates

As protests and movements showed us over the summer, many workers expect their employers to speak out on certain issues when it comes to racial justice, and the role policy plays in social issues and equity.

York recommends organizations make clear their stance on certain issues, such as diversity, equity and inclusion, rather than discuss any one party or political candidate if it’s not directly related to the work they do. It’s the leader’s role to set the tone and model expected behavior, he adds, and remember that tensions in the workplace are likely higher than normal due to circumstances of living and working through a global pandemic.

Individuals with more influence in the organization should be aware of how they’re using their position to share information and engage others.

“If you’re on the upper side of power, it’s your job to reach down and listen to equalize your power whenever possible,” Roger Brooks says. That includes being aware of power imbalances and whether people of dissenting views can speak openly in the workplace, facilitating respectful dialogue that assumes positive intent, and reminding colleagues that while they may view issues differently, they align in the ways they contribute to the health of the organization.

“Engaging really effectively and productively across difference allows people to better work together,” he says.

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