He Made a PowerPoint on Mothers Starving in Gaza. Then He Lost His Government Job.

Alexander Smith’s PowerPoint presentation doesn’t appear designed to court controversy. The slides, focused on declining maternal health in Gaza, cite public health data from the United Nations and World Health Organization. His employer, the U.S. Agency for International Development, had selected him to share it at the government agency’s Global Gender Equality Conference.

But just before the conference, an issue of contention emerged.

A single slide mentioned international humanitarian law in context of the health crisis in Gaza. USAID staff cited the slide and discussion of international law as potential fodder for leaks, documents and emails Smith shared with The Intercept show. Despite Smith’s willingness to make revisions, his presentation was eventually canceled. On the last day of the conference, he found himself out of a job.

“I thought it is really obscene that misinformation can go out freely out into the world [about Gaza], but I can’t talk about the reality of starving pregnant women,” said Smith, who worked as a contracted senior adviser at USAID on gender and material health. “We can’t even whisper about that in a conference on that topic.”

In a statement to The Intercept, the agency declined to comment on personnel matters but said Smith was not forced out over the presentation. “As an Agency, we value and intentionally seek out a diversity of viewpoints,” said a USAID spokesperson.

Smith, who is both a lawyer and public health expert, had worked for USAID for four years. In February, he submitted an abstract for his presentation — titled “An Intersectional Gender Lens in Gaza: Ethnicity, Religion, Geography, Legal Status, and Maternal/Child Health Outcomes” — which was accepted for the small USAID conference. He was scheduled to present on May 22 in Washington, D.C.

On May 10, two weeks before the conference, the State Department issued a report — dubbed the “NSM-20” report — about Israel’s compliance with international law. As The Intercept reported, USAID officials had urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to find Israel’s commitments to international law were not credible based on its conduct in Gaza since October.

Blinken’s report hedged considerably, expressing “deep concerns” about “action and inaction” by the Israeli government that resulted in “insufficient” aid delivery to Gaza, while concluding Israel was not “prohibiting or otherwise restricting the transport or delivery of U.S. humanitarian assistance.”

At the conference, Smith wanted to touch on international humanitarian law. His slides on the topic did not mention Israel specifically, the presentation shows.

“I wasn’t planning to stand up and yell ‘Israel is committing genocide,’” Smith said. “I was stating the laws.”

He Made a PowerPoint on Mothers Starving in Gaza. Then He Lost His Government Job. 1
A slide from Alexander Smith’s PowerPoint presentation addressing international humanitarian law.
Courtesy Alexander Smith
He Made a PowerPoint on Mothers Starving in Gaza. Then He Lost His Government Job. 2
A comment left on the slide by a USAID employee.
Courtesy of Alexander Smith

The rest of Smith’s presentation drew on data from the U.N., WHO, and other sources about the decline of maternal health in Gaza, including reports about Israel’s devastating attacks on Gaza’s health infrastructure.

When officials in USAID’s Middle East bureau reviewed Smith’s presentation days before the event, they flagged the slide on international humanitarian law, in particular.

“REMOVE – This framing is unnecessary for the subsequent slides,” wrote Erika Yepsen, a public affairs official for the bureau, in a comment. “This is an inappropriate venue to be commenting on Israel’s compliance with IHL.”

The U.S. government’s “assessment of Israel’s compliance with IHL is a major point of contention across the Hill,” Yepsen wrote in the comment. She recommended that the Middle East bureau “not clear any version of this presentation with this topic included” due to “problematic language.”

In an email with other USAID advisers, Yepsen, who did not respond to The Intercept’s inquiries, noted that “the NSM-20 report has made national news and Israel’s compliance remains an unresolved issue.”

He Made a PowerPoint on Mothers Starving in Gaza. Then He Lost His Government Job. 3
Another slide from the presentation addressing the lack of medical facilities in Gaza.
Courtesy of Alexander Smith
He Made a PowerPoint on Mothers Starving in Gaza. Then He Lost His Government Job. 4
Part of the presentation addressing declining maternal health in Gaza.
Courtesy of Alexander Smith

Smith agreed to cut the slide, the email thread shows. In line with administration guidelines, he also agreed to cut references to “Palestine,” including from the title of a chart produced by the United Nations Population Fund Palestine. He also agreed to other changes to comply with agency talking points and messaging, and offered to present without any slides, Smith told The Intercept.

Ultimately, USAID officials nixed the entire presentation. “Please remove this from the conference agenda,” wrote Allison Salyer, a senior adviser in the bureau, in an email. Salyer did not respond to The Intercept.

In a statement, a USAID official declined to discuss “specific personnel matters” but said Smith’s “work responsibilities did not include supporting USAID’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza or the devastating impacts of the conflict on women and children.”

USAID officials did not raise concerns over Smith’s expertise in any of the documents reviewed by The Intercept, focusing instead on his language choices.

“No one ever asked me before the conference if Gaza was outside my scope or used that as a reason not to talk about it,” Smith said. “Certainly the 35 people who reviewed and approved my abstract thought it was appropriate for me to speak on Gaza.”

Smith chose to attend the conference nonetheless. On the final day, he tried to ask the head of USAID, Samantha Power, why his presentation was canceled, but he was not called on, Smith said.

Late last week, Smith said he got a call from the company that contracted his position with USAID. He was told he could either resign or be terminated over “personality differences.”

“What happened to me sends a very clear signal to staff: We don’t talk about Gaza.”

The company would not tell him if the presentation contributed to USAID’s dissatisfaction with his performance, Smith said.

On Monday, Smith joined the growing ranks of Biden administration officials who have resigned over Gaza.

“Actively silencing discussion of Palestinian lives and the ongoing global health disaster is dehumanizing,” Smith wrote in a resignation letter to Power, “not only to the people of Gaza, but to the people of the United States who deserve to know the extent to which we are paying for and supporting crimes against Palestinians.”

“What happened to me sends a very clear signal to staff: We don’t talk about Gaza,” Smith told The Intercept.

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