Transcript of Interview of USAID Assistant Administrator Erin McKee with VOA
VOA: Madam McKee, thank you very much for this opportunity. First of all, what is the purpose of your visit to Albania?
Assistant Administrator McKee: Well, first of all, thank you for having me today. I’m here to reinforce and celebrate the very strong partnership between the United States of America, my agency, USAID, in particular, and the people and the government of Albania. We’ve celebrated just last year, 30 years of partnership that I am witnessing the progress and product of during my trip here.
VOA: You visited Vau i Dejës yesterday. What was the purpose of this visit?
Assistant Administrator McKee: I am so glad you asked. I traveled to Vau i Dejës to look at the partnership that we have with KESH, that we’ve had for some time, to help Albania’s energy security be strengthened. As we know, energy independence is vital for a thriving democracy. USAID and my team from both Washington and here in Tirana have been working very hard to ensure that Albania’s tremendous renewable resources, are harnessed smartly on a market basis and diversified, not just for Albania’s energy independence, but for Albania’s contributions to the rest of the Western Balkans and frankly, with an outsized role and potential for all of Europe. I was thrilled to be able to see that partnership in action.
VOA: And what other projects is USAID implementing in Albania?
Assistant Administrator McKee: I’m so glad you asked. We are working alongside the Albanian people, our partners in the Albanian government, and all sectors of society to strengthen Albania’s democratic future. We know that a future with the EU is vital for Albania to unlock its full potential, to realize the democratic goals that it set for itself, to look at market diversification and opportunity.
Our programs and projects for the last 30 years have supported that effort. I’ll give you an example. This morning, I was privileged to open – together with the Minister of Health, civil society, our partner UNDP, as well as many civil society organizations – a Center of Resilience. And what that means is providing integrated services to the most vulnerable members of Albania, the populations that need special attention so that they can be part of Albania’s future in the EU and have their voice heard as well and be full participants in the democracy and economy that Albania has to offer, not only its own citizens, but the rest of Europe.
VOA: The United States is a great supporter of Albania’s accession into the European Union. How exactly is the USAID supporting Albania in this path?
Assistant Administrator McKee: In addition to the resiliency piece that I mentioned, that is making sure that no Albanian is left behind, we have been working on competitiveness to make sure that Albania’s economy, as it joins the EU and competes in the EU market, is strong and diverse. And from what I’ve seen, it has a lot to offer. We’ve also been working, of course, on the rule of law and ensuring that we break the cycle of corruption that plagued democracies across Europe, frankly, in every country, because nothing will erode a democratic future more than the erosion of trust that a people have in their government and in their society.
Focusing on rule of law, democracy, economic competitiveness, energy and critical infrastructure security are all requirements both for EU accession, but for a strong, stable, democratic future, and so, our programs and our projects have been focused on those efforts.
VOA: You mentioned corruption. What are the current projects and plans to help address corruption and promote transparency in government and other institutions?
Assistant Administrator McKee: I’m so glad you asked because you mentioned government and other institutions, which is one part of fighting corruption, but it also takes citizens to be able to push back on corruption, to be able to shine a light on corrupt practices. It takes independent journalism and making sure that those stories of corruption are aired and heard. There is a saying we have that, “there is no better disinfectant than sunlight.” To be able to shine that light from the citizens, from the judiciary, from prosecutors to anti-corruption institutions, to a commitment to create a community of accountability – that makes a strong democracy.
So, our work has been in that space to be able to help the people find their voice and root out corruption as well. It can’t just be the government stamping out corruption. Citizens have to continue to demand that corrupt practices cease.
VOA: Cybersecurity is a major issue for Albania given Iran’s cyberattack last year. The United States has provided major assistance, $50 million. Is USAID part of that support for Albania’s cybersecurity?
Assistant Administrator McKee: I am very proud to say that yes, we are. Much like in the humanitarian environment when we – USAID – has a track record of responding to humanitarian crises, this attack, we were the first responders to be able to help, alongside our Department of Justice colleagues, to identify both the source, as well as build Albania’s capacity and capability to strengthen its critical national infrastructure, including cybersecurity, to be able to withstand any future attacks, as well as invest in the next generation to ensure that the capacity and capability for IT specialists, cyber hygiene, cybersecurity takes place, not from the outside, from the United States. Of course, we will continue to partner, but Albania can take care of its own critical national infrastructure itself. I’d like to give you an example. When Putin first invaded Ukraine in 2014, we worked very hard on strengthening e-governance, transparency and accountability, and putting a lot of digital economy and digital work into this space.
The citizens demanded it. It’s a 21st century requirement, but at the same time, you have to protect that information. And so, when Putin re-invaded Ukraine and had asymmetric attacks on their cybersecurity and critical infrastructure, our partnership helped build that resilience so that they [Ukraine] could survive those attacks and not be taken down. We look forward to doing the same here in Albania.
VOA: You mentioned before the long cooperation between USAID and Albania over 30 years. How do you characterize the historical relationship between your agency and Albania?
Assistant Administrator McKee: I would characterize it as – first and foremost – as a partnership. USAID’s approach is not to give a handout, but a hand up.
And while we’ve invested over $500 million, it’s not about the money. It’s about the long-standing partnerships and models of excellence that Albanians have taught the United States and the United States has shared back with Albanians.
And so the partnership that we forged in economic diversification, in energy security, in local government, national government, rule of law, fighting corruption, doing all we can to help Albania achieve and realize its full potential is something that I’m proud of, not as a donor, not as an outsider, but as a partner with Albania, as we look toward the future.
VOA: And one more question, Madam McKee. As you look at the region and globally, including Russia’s war against Ukraine and now Israel-Gaza, how do you see USAID’s role in the Western Balkans?
Assistant Administrator McKee: In the Western Balkans and at large, I would actually ask Albania to help us. You are laser-focused and hopefully accelerating your journey towards EU accession and EU membership.
I would love to point to our partnership in the very near future as a model that the other Balkan nations can follow. We have worked on, as I said, economic competitiveness, rule of law, making sure that the people of the Western Balkan countries, the people of Albania in this instance, have a stake in that future.
And with Albania’s success, you can demonstrate to your neighbors, to the other Western Balkan nations, where we also have programs, that not only is it possible, but here’s how to do it. And here’s what we learned and here’s what we can do together to achieve that future.
VOA: Madam McKee, thank you very much.
Assistant Administrator McKee: Of course. Thank you very much for meeting with me today.