Opening Remarks at the Indo-Pacific Conference on Strengthening Transboundary River Governance

Ambassador Atul Keshap, Principal Deputy Assistant SecretaryBureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

Video Conference

Hosted by East-West Center Washington

Opening Remarks

Thank you, Satu and the East-West Center, and good evening or good morning to all who are joining us from around the world. Thank you as well to Representative Lieu, Ambassador Ngoc, Ambassador Chum, and Ambassador Manasvi for joining us here today.

It is good to see so many who joined us last October. I welcome you and the new participants here today for the launch of the conference report.

This report is excellent and summarizes our work examining the challenges facing the Mekong River basin and its ties to the economies, livelihoods, and culture of nearly 70 million people.

We remain concerned—just as we were in October during the conference—that record droughts and the upstream dams in China that exacerbate them are hurting the communities and ecosystems that have relied for countless generations on the Mekong River’s natural flood pulse. There are dramatic consequences for food security, economic development, and the environment.

It’s clear that upstream dams are withholding water with limited coordination or notification, unnecessarily exacerbating the water security challenges that Mekong communities are facing.

Just last week, the Mekong River Commission (MRC)  again issued calls for China to share timely and essential water data. This was in response to what the MRC called recent “worrying” drops in Mekong River water levels.

The MRC statement  cited Beijing’s agreement in 2020 to share year-round water level and rainfall data and to notify the MRC of any abnormal rise or fall in water levels. It’s clear that the PRC has not lived up to this commitment.

This is an urgent issue and this report helps focus our attention on the next steps.

The Conference Report

The conference report will serve as an important resource guiding our efforts to improve transparency and strengthening the communities and institutions responsible for protecting the Mekong River.

The nearly 70 million people that depend on the River have much to gain from transparent governance. Expanding economic growth and addressing climate change also require coordination and information sharing. The United States and our partners developed the Mekong Dam Monitor  to better provide information on water usage. Upstream dam operators need to be more transparent and consultative with downstream neighbors.

Stronger governance, institutions, and mechanisms are needed to support regional cooperation in the Mekong. The United States has supported the Mekong River Commission for decades and remains committed to sharing our expertise and working with you to preserve the autonomy of the Mekong region.

Perhaps most significantly, this report emphasizes the importance of including all stakeholders in river management. This requires moving beyond just government bodies and the MRC to include civil society in the decision-making process.

The Role of the United States

The United States is committed to following through on the ideas discussed at the conference and in this report. We support the people of the Mekong and the future of the Mekong River.

Since 2009, the United States has invested over $3.5 billion of assistance in the countries of the Mekong, including:

  • $1.2 billion for health programs;
  • $734 million for economic growth;
  • $616 million for peace and security;
  • $527 million for human rights and governance
  • $175 million for education and social services; and
  • $165 million for humanitarian assistance.

Last year, we launched the Mekong-U.S. Partnership  to broaden, deepen, and better resource our collaboration.

Through the Mekong-U.S. Partnership, the United States is partnering with Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam on solutions to emerging challenges, including transboundary resource management, regional economic connectivity and human resources development, and non-traditional security issues like health security, and narcotics, weapons, wildlife and human trafficking.

We are strengthening our long-standing support for the MRC, guided by principles of transparency, inclusivity, good governance, and respect for autonomy and international law.

We are continuing our work under the Mekong Water Data Initiative to improve water data sharing, including support for the Mekong Dam Monitor. I encourage you all to explore the Mekong Dam Monitor online; it’s an amazing resource.

We are empowering the skill and talent of the people of the Mekong through programs like the new Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Academy at Fulbright University Vietnam and our Young Scientists Program.

We are supporting regional organizations like ACMECS and the efforts of partners like Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and countries in the European Union to support sustainable development and share global best practices.

These efforts are collaborative and inclusive and follow the helpful efforts of countries like Vietnam to raise the profile of Mekong issues within ASEAN. We encourage ASEAN to regard the Mekong River basin as being as important to unity and prosperity as the issues in the maritime domain.

Finally, our work would be incomplete without the efforts of local media reporting on the value of the river and the effects of unsustainable practices. We applaud the tireless efforts of civil society advocates that strive for transparency, sustainability, and accountability.

Closing

The conference report reflects knowledge and expertise from around the globe. It provides recommendations to ensure the millions of people who depend on the Mekong River have a prosperous future.

There is much riding on our efforts, and a lot of hard work lies ahead of us. I encourage you all to stay in touch on our work. You can check out our website at mekonguspartnership.org and follow us on Twitter at @USAsiaPacific . I also encourage you to the follow and use the excellent Mekong Dam Monitor at @MekongMonitor  and at monitor.mekongwater.org.

Together, I am confident we can ensure the Mekong River basin remains healthy and vibrant, sustaining generations far into the future.

Thank you.

More from: Ambassador Atul Keshap, Principal Deputy Assistant SecretaryBureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

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    What GAO Found Like other U.S. territories and states, Puerto Rico implements major functions of its Medicaid program by procuring services from contractors, such as the delivery of managed care services to Medicaid beneficiaries. In 2018, procurement costs represented $2.4 billion of Puerto Rico's $2.5 billion in total Medicaid expenditures. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)—the federal agency that oversees Medicaid—requires states and territories to use the same process for Medicaid procurements as they do for their non-federal procurements. However, in February 2021, GAO found that CMS has not taken steps to ensure Puerto Rico has met this requirement. Instead, CMS has relied on Puerto Rico to oversee the territory’s procurement process and to attest to its compliance. CMS officials told GAO that states and territories are in the best position to ensure compliance with their respective procurement laws. A 2019 federal indictment alleging Puerto Rico officials unlawfully steered Medicaid contracts to certain individuals has also raised questions about Puerto Rico's Medicaid procurement process, including whether this process helps ensure appropriate competition. The Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020, directed Puerto Rico to publish a Medicaid procurement reform plan to combat fraud, waste, and abuse, which the territory provided to Congress in December 2020. In its procurement reform plan, Puerto Rico acknowledges the need to improve competition and outlines future initiatives and general timeframes to do so. For example, Puerto Rico notes that by August 2021, it will identify the circumstances under which the use of noncompetitive contracts is justified, as well as the factors it might consider in making this determination. By April 2021, Puerto Rico intends to identify procurement information it will make public as part of its competitive procurement process and will make such information public by the end of 2021. Such changes—if implemented as planned—could address some of the issues GAO identified in its review of eight selected Puerto Rico procurements. In its review, GAO found that Puerto Rico did not include important steps to promote competition and mitigate the risk for fraud, waste, and abuse, underscoring the need for federal oversight. GAO and others have found that competition is a cornerstone of procurement. Using competition can reduce costs, improve contractor performance, curb fraud, and promote accountability. As Puerto Rico continues to develop and carry out its planned reforms, implementing GAO’s recommendation for ongoing, risk-based oversight of Puerto Rico’s Medicaid procurement process could enable CMS to promote competition and efficiency while preventing fraud, waste, and abuse in the program. Why GAO Did This Study This testimony summarizes the information contained in GAO's February 2021 report, entitled Medicaid: CMS Needs to Implement Risk-Based Oversight of Puerto Rico’s Procurement Process (GAO-21-229). Specifically, the testimony discusses findings from the report as they relate to Puerto Rico’s Medicaid procurement reform plan.
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    In Crime News
    United Airlines Inc. (United), the world’s third largest airline, has agreed to pay over $49 million to resolve criminal charges and civil claims relating to fraud on postal service contracts for transportation of international mail.
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  • May 3, 2021, letter commenting on the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants’ January 2021 Exposure Draft, “Proposed Revisions to the Definitions of Listed Entity and Public Interest Entity in the Code”
    In U.S GAO News
    This letter provides GAO's response to the exposure draft, Proposed Revisions to the Definitions of Listed Entity and Public Interest Entity in the Code. GAO promulgates generally accepted government auditing standards (GAGAS) in the United States. GAGAS provides a framework for conducting high-quality audits of government awards with competence, integrity, objectivity, and independence. Our comments reflect the importance we place on reinforcing the values promoted in both the International Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants (Code) and GAGAS.
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  • Ready-Mix Concrete Company Admits to Fixing Prices and Rigging Bids in Violation of Antitrust Laws
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    Argos USA LLC, a producer and seller of ready-mix concrete headquartered in Alpharetta, Georgia, was charged with participating in a conspiracy to fix prices, rig bids, and allocate markets for sales of ready-mix concrete in the Southern District of Georgia and elsewhere, the Department of Justice announced today.  
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  • United States Antitrust Agencies Co-Host the 19th Annual International Competition Network Conference
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are co-hosting the International Competition Network’s (ICN) 19th annual conference, which opens today and runs through Thursday, September 17, 2020.  Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim and FTC Chairman Joseph J. Simons are leading the U.S. agencies’ participation in the ICN’s first virtual conference.  Assistant Attorney General Delrahim and Chairman Simons will deliver opening remarks and speak on the conference’s showcase program addressing the challenges of enforcement in the digital economy.
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    In Crime News
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  • General Aviation: Stakeholders Expressed Mixed Views of FAA Policies on Private Pilot Expense Sharing
    In U.S GAO News
    The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) primary rationale for its policies on private pilots' sharing expenses with passengers is based on passenger expectations of safety. FAA policies allow private pilots to share the cost of certain flight expenses with passengers but prohibit these pilots from engaging in “common carriage,” which is communicating to the public a willingness to fly in exchange for compensation. These policies generally prohibit pilots from using the internet to find passengers. FAA officials said these policies are in place because they are concerned the public might expect a similar level of safety on private expense-sharing flights as commercial flights. However, the safety record of commercial aviation is better than that of private flying (general aviation). For example, according to data from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), commercial carriers had a fatal accident rate around 30 times lower than general aviation in 2018. FAA officials said their goal for FAA's 2020 guidance on expense sharing was to restate and clarify existing policies. Example of an Aircraft Private Pilots Could Use for Expense-Sharing Flights Stakeholders described benefits of expense sharing but expressed mixed views on FAA's policies and guidance. For example, stakeholders cited potential economic benefits to the general aviation sector and a potential expansion of the pool of future professional pilots as benefits of expense sharing. Most (eight of 13) stakeholders said FAA's 2020 guidance on expense-sharing is clear and provides sufficient information. However, some stakeholders said the guidance could provide more definitive examples of allowed expense-sharing flights, and others disagreed with how FAA defined certain concepts such as how pilots can be compensated for flying passengers. Also, stakeholders split on whether FAA should allow pilots to use the internet to find expense-sharing passengers. Seven of 15 stakeholders, including four representatives from companies with expense-sharing applications, said FAA should allow pilots to use the internet to find these passengers by citing, for example, ongoing positive experiences in Europe. However, eight stakeholders, including six of seven professional organizations, said FAA should not. These stakeholders cited safety-related risks of expense sharing including what they characterized as FAA's limited capacity to enforce current regulations and flights using less experienced pilots. Private flying is expensive, and FAA allows private pilots to reduce their costs by carrying passengers and sharing certain flight expenses with them. However, private pilots cannot engage in common carriage. If pilots do engage in common carriage, they are subject to FAA's more stringent regulations covering commercial air carriers. Some private pilots have sought to use internet applications to find expense-sharing passengers. The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 directed FAA to issue advisory guidance clarifying how private pilots may share expenses. In February 2020, FAA released this guidance as an advisory circular. The Act also includes a provision for GAO to review FAA's policies on expense sharing. This report describes: (1) FAA's rationale for its policies on how private pilots may find expense-sharing passengers and (2) selected stakeholder perspectives on FAA's policies and the risks and benefits of arranging these expense-sharing flights online. GAO interviewed FAA officials on how FAA developed its policies and guidance related to expense sharing. GAO also reviewed FAA's data on enforcement actions related to expense sharing and safety data from NTSB. In addition, GAO interviewed a non-generalizable sample of 15 private-sector stakeholders, including professional organizations, such as trade groups representing general aviation pilots, companies that developed expense-sharing internet applications, and flying clubs. For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or krauseh@gao.gov.
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  • Climate Change: USAID Is Taking Steps to Increase Projects’ Resilience, but Could Improve Reporting of Adaptation Funding
    In U.S GAO News
    The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) provided at least $810 million to directly and indirectly support climate adaptation from fiscal years 2014 through 2018—the latest available data at the time of GAO's analysis. However, USAID ended new funding for programming activities that directly address climate adaptation (i.e., direct funding) in fiscal year 2017 in part due to a shift in administration priorities, according to agency officials. However, following a congressional directive in the fiscal year 2020 appropriations act, USAID restored direct funding for adaptation programming. GAO found that USAID did not consistently report all funding data for activities that indirectly addressed climate adaptation, which does not align with expectations in foreign assistance guidance and internal controls standards. USAID's direct adaptation assistance had the primary program goal of enhancing resilience and reducing vulnerability. For example, in the Philippines, a USAID activity assisted communities in preparing for extreme weather events by developing maps of potential hazards to aid in evacuation planning. USAID attributed funding that indirectly addresses climate adaptation assistance (i.e., indirect funding) from programs with other goals such as agriculture, where priorities include supporting food production and distribution. For example, in Guatemala, a USAID agricultural activity worked with farmers to transition to crops with greater economic benefits that are also drought tolerant. However, not all missions with indirect adaptation assistance reported these funding data and reporting has varied, in part, because the agency has not clearly communicated the expectation to do so. Without addressing this issue, USAID risks providing incomplete and inconsistent data to Congress and others. A Community Leader Shows the Hazard Map Prepared as Part of a U.S. Agency for International Development Project to Help Adapt to Climate Change in the Philippines Since October 2016, USAID has generally required projects and activities to conduct climate risk management, which is the process of assessing and managing the effects of climate change. USAID requires documentation of this process and GAO's review found 95 percent compliance for USAID's priority countries for adaption funding. USAID has experienced some challenges with its initial implementation of climate risk management and is assessing these challenges and identifying improvements. For example, mission officials said that some technical staff lack expertise to do climate risk management and that their environment offices had a small number of staff to provide assistance. To help staff conduct climate risk management, USAID is building staff capacity through trainings and is in the process of evaluating implementation of the policy and whether it requires any changes, among other efforts. USAID is the primary U.S. government agency helping countries adapt to the effects of climate change. USAID has provided this assistance through activities that directly address climate adaptation as well as indirectly through activities that received funding for other purposes, such as agriculture, but which also support climate adaptation goals. GAO was asked to review issues related to U.S. foreign assistance for climate adaptation. For USAID, this report examines (1) funding the agency provided for climate adaptation assistance in fiscal years 2014 through 2018, and (2) how climate risk management is implemented. GAO analyzed funding data and documentation of agency activities and climate risk management; interviewed agency and project officials; and conducted fieldwork in three countries receiving adaptation assistance—Guatemala, the Philippines, and Uganda. GAO selected these countries based on the amount of funding they received for climate adaptation activities, geographic diversity, and variety of observed and projected climate effects, among other factors. GAO recommends that USAID communicate to its missions and bureaus that they are expected to report all data on funding that indirectly addresses climate adaptation. USAID agreed with the recommendation and outlined a number of steps the agency plans to take to improve the reporting of these data. For more information, contact David Gootnick at (202) 512-3149 or gootnickd@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
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  • Federal Contracting: Actions Needed to Improve Department of Labor’s Enforcement of Service Worker Wage Protections
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Labor (DOL) completed over 5,000 Service Contract Act (SCA) cases, which for many resulted in the awarding of back wages to federally contracted security guards, janitors, and other service workers, in fiscal years 2014 through 2019, according to available data. DOL enforces the SCA, which was enacted to protect workers on certain types of federal service contracts. DOL found SCA violations—primarily of wage and benefit protections—in 68 percent of cases. Employers across a range of service industries agreed to pay around $224 million in back wages (see figure for examples). Sixty cases resulted in debarment—a decision to prevent an employer from being awarded new federal contracts for 3 years. DOL's strategic plan emphasizes optimizing resources for resolving cases using all available enforcement tools. However, DOL does not analyze its use of enforcement tools, such as debarment or employer compliance agreements. Therefore, DOL may lack a complete picture of how it uses resources on different strategies for resolving SCA cases, as well as the effectiveness of these enforcement strategies. Back Wages Paid for SCA Cases in Example Industries, Fiscal Years 2014-2019 Note: Mail haul refers to surface mail transportation by contract carriers. Values are adjusted for inflation and expressed in fiscal year 2019 dollars using the Gross Domestic Product Price Index from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis. DOL reported various challenges to enforcing the SCA, including difficulty communicating with contracting agencies. For example, DOL officials told GAO that poor communication with contracting agencies—particularly with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS)—can affect and delay cases, though USPS officials told GAO they were unaware of any communication gaps. Without addressing communication issues between USPS and DOL, USPS's implementation and DOL's enforcement of the SCA may be weakened. GAO found that contracting agencies may face SCA implementation challenges, including not having key information about SCA debarments and violations from DOL. When recording SCA debarments, DOL does not always include the unique identifier for an employer so that contracting agencies can accurately identify debarred firms. DOL also does not have a process that consistently or reliably informs contracting agencies about SCA violations by employers. Without improved information sharing by DOL, an agency may award a contract to an employer without being aware of or considering its past SCA violations. The SCA ensures that service workers on certain federal contracts receive pay and benefits that reflect current employment conditions in their locality. From fiscal years 2014 through 2019, the U.S. government obligated over $720 billion on service contracts covered under the SCA. GAO was asked to review SCA implementation and enforcement. This report examines (1) what available data reveal about past SCA cases, (2) what challenges DOL reports facing in enforcing the SCA, and (3) how contracting agencies implement the SCA. GAO analyzed DOL and federal procurement data for fiscal years 2014 through 2019, the most recent years available; reviewed a nongeneralizable sample of contract performance assessments; examined practices at three agencies selected to represent a range of contracting services and agency size; interviewed DOL officials; and reviewed relevant federal laws, policy, and guidance. GAO is making six recommendations, including that DOL analyze its use of enforcement tools; that DOL and USPS implement written protocols to improve communication with each other; and that DOL improve its information sharing with contracting agencies on SCA debarments and investigation outcomes. DOL and USPS generally concurred with the recommendations. For more information, contact Thomas M. Costa at (202) 512-7215 or costat@gao.gov.
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  • Indian Health Service: Actions Needed to Improve Oversight of Federal Facilities’ Decision-Making About the Use of Funds
    In U.S GAO News
    The Indian Health Service's (IHS) oversight of federally operated health care facilities' decision-making process about the use of funds has been limited and inconsistent. Funds include those from appropriations, as well as payments from federal programs, such as Medicaid and from private insurance, for care provided by IHS to American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN). While some oversight functions are performed at IHS headquarters, the agency has delegated primary responsibility for the oversight of health care facilities' decision-making about the use of funds to its area offices. Area office officials said the oversight they provide has generally included (1) reviewing facilities' scope of services, and (2) reviewing facilities' proposed expenditures. However, GAO's review found that this oversight was limited and inconsistent across IHS area offices, in part, due to a lack of consistent agency-wide processes. While IHS officials from all nine area offices GAO interviewed said they reviewed facilities' scope of services and coordinated with tribes when doing so, none reported systematically reviewing the extent to which their facilities' services were meeting local health needs, such as by incorporating the results of community health assessments. Such assessments can involve the collection and assessment of data, as well as the input of local community members and leaders to identify and prioritize community needs. These assessments can be used by facilities to assess their resources and identify priorities for facility investment. While IHS has identified such assessments as a priority, the agency does not require federally operated facilities to conduct such assessments or require the area offices to use them as they review facilities' scope of services. To ensure that facilities are effectively managing their resources, IHS has a process to guide its review of facilities' proposed construction projects that cost at least $25,000. However, IHS does not have a similar process to guide its oversight of other key proposed expenditures, such as those involving the purchase of major medical equipment, the hiring of providers, or the expansion of services. Specifically, GAO found limitations and inconsistencies with respect to requiring a documented justification for proposed expenditures; documenting the review and approval of decisions; and conducting an impact assessment on patient access, cost, and quality of care. The limitations and inconsistencies that GAO found in IHS's oversight are driven by the lack of consistent oversight processes across the area offices. Without establishing a systematic oversight process to compare federally operated facilities' current services to population needs, and to guide the review of facilities' proposed expenditures, IHS cannot ensure that its facilities are identifying and investing in projects to meet the greatest community needs, and therefore that federal resources are being maximized to best serve the AI/AN population. IHS, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, provides care to AI/AN populations through a system of federally operated and tribally operated health care facilities. AI/AN have experienced long standing problems accessing needed health care services. GAO has previously reported that IHS has not been able to pay for all eligible health care services; however, the resources available to federally operated facilities have recently grown. This report assesses IHS oversight of federal health care facilities' decision-making about the use of funds. GAO reviewed IHS policies and documents; and interviewed IHS officials from headquarters, nine area offices, and three federally operated facilities (two hospitals and one health clinic). GAO recommends that IHS develop processes to guide area offices in (1) systematically assessing how federally operated facilities will effectively meet the needs of their patient populations, and (2) reviewing federal facilities' spending proposals. HHS concurred with these recommendations. For more information, contact Jessica Farb at (202) 512-7114 or farbj@gao.gov.
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