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2013 SOTU’s Vision For Global Poverty & Progress: How Far Have We Come?

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington

For those of us who care about poverty and progress in developing countries, missing from President Obama’s State of the Union address last night was any serious discussion of development.  It therefore is useful to recall the strong vision on development he presented in the State of the Union address a year ago.  In a single, but powerful paragraph, he stated:

“We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all—not only because it creates new markets, more stable order in certain regions of the world, but also because it’s the right thing to do.  In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day.  So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades by connecting more people to the global economy; by empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve; and helping communities to feed, and power, and educate themselves; by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation, which is within our reach.” 

The italics are mine—to demonstrate that this short paragraph contains a commitment to 9 key components that together comprise an ambitious development agenda, headlined by the “eradication of extreme poverty,” but also noting the critical roles of empowering women, improving education and ending preventable child deaths.

Despite only a slight nod to development this year, the assumption is that this paragraph remains the Obama administration’s operative vision to which the administration can expect to be held accountable and against which global progress can be measured. A cursory assessment on each of those 9 key components would suggest encouraging progress:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty. The past decade has witnessed unexpected progress in reducing world poverty. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) call for cutting poverty in half by 2015, a target that has been met early. The portion of people living on less than $1.25/day fell from 47 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 2010. By several calculations and with a continuation of current trends, extreme poverty could decline to 3 percent by 2030.  The administration, specifically USAID, has been struggling to translate its commitment to eradicate extreme poverty into a coherent strategy—not such an easy task given the complex nature of development and conflicting U.S. interests—but the administration’s policies and initiatives do translate into tackling poverty through direct means and through promoting economic growth and prosperity in developing countries.  It is noteworthy that USAID today issued a refreshed mission statement that puts poverty alleviation in the center: We partner to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing our security and prosperity.”
  2. Connecting more people to the global economy. In December, the ill-fated Doha Round finally produced the Bali Package that brings results which, while modest, are valuable in expanding trade access for developing countries. The principal near-term development trade agenda rests in the hands of Congress: whether the Senate will overcome a myopic single-senator hold to secure renewal of the GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) that has already expired, and whether Congress will renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act before its expiration in 2015.
  3. Empowering women. The administration’s record on empowering women is considerable and simply needs to stay on a steady course, from USAID’s and the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) policies and programs that advance gender inclusiveness, and the State Department and USAID’s efforts to tackle trafficking and violence against women.
  4. Giving the young and bright to new opportunities to serve.  The FY2014 appropriations bill provides a modest increase in funding for the Peace Corps, and it is reported that the White House will soon significantly scale up the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) for both African and American youth.
  5. Feed. The U.S. bilaterally, and in collaboration with other countries, is making a significant investment in the ability of the world to feed its growing population. Food security is being advanced by Feed the Future, through which the U.S. made a $3.5 billion pledge as part of an $18.5 billion global commitment to address hunger, and the more recent New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a public/private global effort announced at the 2012 G8 Summit to lift 50 million people in Africa out of poverty by 2022.
  6. Power.  Power, which was mentioned last night, was tackled in 2013 with the new initiative Power Africa, a unique public/private program that links improvement in government policies and regulations with packaging the finance needed to “power” proposed energy investment projects.  The U.S. government has committed to providing $7 billion of finance that will generate $14 billion from financial partners.
  7. Educate. Despite several decades of considerable progress in bringing education to the world’s children, some 57 million children remain out of school.  USAID and other donors have moved from just focusing on getting kids through the school door to making sure there is a learning experience inside the classroom. Thanks to continued support for education in Congress, funding is bumped up slightly for FY2014.
  8. Preventable childhood deaths. The story is encouraging.  The global under-5 mortality rate has been cut nearly in half, from 90 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 48 in 2012, or from 12.6 million to 6.6 million children a year. Encouragingly, the rate in reduction has sped up from 1.2 percent during 1990-1995 to 3.9 percent for 2005-2012. This increased pace in reducing preventable child mortality suggests that concerted effort could produce even more progress.
  9. AIDS-free generation. Leaders are lining up behind the concept of an AIDS-free generation. The United States, through PEPFAR, has been leading the charge to stem this scourge.  As of September 30, 2013, 6.7 million individuals are receiving life-saving antiretroviral treatment, a fourfold increase from 1.7 million in 2008. In FY2013, 240,000 babies, who otherwise would have been infected, were born HIV/AIDS free. The world is rid of small pox; we are three countries short of defeating polio; the concept of an AIDS-free generation may sound fanciful today, but the trends and treatments are with us and the goal could be achieved with expanded political will and behavioral change.

At a time when we would wish we were closer to reaching the MDGs, and our optimism is burdened by continued poverty and the accompanying hunger, ill-health and strife, it is important to celebrate the progress that has been made and the good efforts that are being made by the U.S. government, private U.S. organizations and individuals, and their counterparts around the world.

It also is important to note that there remain other significant parts to the development agenda and commitments to be fulfilled—making our aid process more accountable through better evaluation, transparency, and learning; moving from good policy to actual implementation of local ownership, starting with listening to the needs and solutions of local institutions and individuals; effectively promoting open, democratic political institutions and civil society; and leveraging the talents and experiences outside of government, including the private sector, nongovernmental organizations and academia.

We must both commend the progress that has been made and push harder on the ambitious agenda that remains to reduce poverty and bring economic opportunities to those left out. 

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