How President Biden can reinvigorate global development and diplomacy

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks to reporters about efforts to confront the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic after meeting with members of his "Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board" in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 9, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

American diplomacy and development are poised for reinvigoration. Coming to town in January are the 46th President and the 117th Congress, so at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will be policymakers with a history of deep commitment to the central role of diplomacy and development in advancing U.S. interests in the world.

On day one, President Biden and the Congress will confront a range of difficult transnational challenges. A few, like ongoing wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya, are security issues that must first be addressed by the Department of Defense. But the wider range of issues—COVID-19, global economic contraction, climate change, retrenchment in democracy, historic levels of refugees and migration, humanitarian crises, social and economic inequities, terrorism—can be addressed only by the two D’s of diplomacy and development—with a heavy responsibility on the latter. I presented many of these ideas in a recent paper.


The question is what should the American people expect from the new president on development in addressing these challenges—and opportunities? We can be fairly certain from his track record and stated commitments that President Biden will seek to renew trust in American international engagement and leadership through a series of initial actions. They include:

  • Support for robust funding for the International Affairs Budget.
  • A commitment to working as a collaborative partner and supporter of international organizations and alliances such as rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization (WHO), supporting the consensus candidate for Secretary-General and appointment of judges to the dispute panel of the World Trade Organization (WTO), engaging in multilateral/multiparty efforts to address regional and global problems, and seeking consensus with our allies.
  • Nominate a Secretary of State and leaders for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), U.S. Development Finance Corporation (DFC), and Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) who bring relevant experience, expertise, and commitment to the strategic and effective use of U.S. development, cooperation, and respect for the dedicated and talented career staff responsible for advancing U.S. development and diplomatic interests in the world.
  • A concern for social and economic equity, with an immediate reversal of the Mexico City policy, the recent suspension of trainings on equity and diversity, and the regressive draft USAID policy on gender.
  • Design and implementation of strategic initiatives, including:
    • An interagency plan led by USAID for addressing the global health pandemic that encompasses U.S. and multilateral approaches to stemming the tide of COVID-19, including through participation in the ACT-Accelerator to accelerated development and delivery of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics, and prepares developing countries to contain the next pandemic.
    • Incorporation of climate change actions into U.S. development cooperation policies and programs.
    • Alignment of U.S. development policy objectives and assessment of impact with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
    • A multinational/multiparty digital initiative (akin to Power Africa)—made even more urgent by COVID-19 demonstrating the centrality of digital technology to health, education, and employment—that leapfrogs the benefits of the digital world to developing countries, including digital literacy and efficient/cost-effective infrastructure and 5G, while providing protection against nefarious use of information technology.
  • Listen to the views and recommendations of senior political and career appointments, and other stakeholders and allies, treating them with respect and providing clear, consistent policies; and replacing at international/multilateral organizations U.S. appointees who are not reflective of the values of international partnering and equity.
  • Establish a collaborative, locally-driven approach to dealing with fragility and building resilience through effective implementation of the Global Development Act.
  • Fully staff USAID to its funded level.


So, if these are some of the starting points that are “givens,” what are “incremental” steps the Biden presidency could take quickly to elevate development with the stature and authority needed to fully address global development issues? They are:

  • Assign the Administrator of USAID cabinet rank (as some presidents have done for the U.N. Ambassador and the trade representative).
  • Make USAID a permanent member of the National Security Council (NSC) so the development perspective has a voice in the range of issues that touch on development—for example, development isn’t usually a prime consideration when authorizing military action, but it should be as it is development practitioners and diplomats who bear responsibility for the aftermath.
  • Assign USAID full authority for the budgets it manages—made real by gaining congressional consent for the merger of policy and budget into the proposed new Bureau of Policy, Resources and Performance with a Senate-confirmed leader—and reign in the mission creep of F (the State Department Office of Foreign Assistance) for its unproductive interference in USAID program implementation.
  • Direct an assessment of the level of staffing that USAID should reach to be able to appropriately manage its budgets and policy responsibilities (including in interagency councils) and (like the military) maintain a 10 percent float for professional career development.
  • Issue a global development policy to bring coherence across the interagency to policies and programs of development cooperation, foreign assistance, and international economic policy, constructed through interagency deliberations led by USAID and the NSC in consultation with the Congress and the broader development and foreign policy communities.
  • Engage with international initiatives to address the burgeoning debt crisis of developing countries, including through providing greater liquidity through emergency issuance of SDRs.
  • Empower the leadership of the DFC to fully implement the development mandate of the BUILD Act, including: placing priority on supporting investments in low-income and fragile environments and on assessing and reporting on the development impact of projects; reducing the budget impact of equity finance by bringing it under the purview of credit reform; and, catalyzing collaboration among the DFC, USAID, and other agencies.


Beyond the “given” and the “incremental,” what about the “visionary and ambitious”? What if averting future pandemics, the existential threat of climate change, the growing social and economic equities within and between countries, rising authoritarianism, the destabilizing effect of Chinese challenge to U.S. global leadership and established international norms are understood by the new President, his key advisers, and congressional leaders as creating a moment in time that demands more than just incremental improvement? What if this is viewed as another 9/11 moment, or a post-World War II opportunity, and development is acknowledged as central to re-envisioning U.S. global engagement?

The first step would be to bring together the key actors—the President’s national security team with leaders from the two foreign affairs authorizing and appropriations committees—to determine if there is sufficient consensus that the urgency of global challenges to U.S. interests demands more than business as usual, that elevating development is central to answering the challenges, and that they are prepared to collaborate on redesigning and upgrading U.S. tools of development. Among the options that should be on the table are:

  • Strategy. Modeled on the Defense Department quadrennial security strategy, undertake separate diplomacy and development strategic reviews that, along with the defense review, would roll up into a U.S. Global Strategy, which Congress should mandate be undertaken every four years.
  • Department of Global Development. As President Kennedy did with the creation of USAID in 1961, bring coherence to U.S. development cooperation policies and programs through consolidation of development activities (bilateral and multilateral) in a cabinet-level department, in a manner that (1) incorporates into our development endeavors the diplomatic and regional knowledge of the Department of State, the technical expertise of domestic agencies, and the broad community of private stakeholders and (2) maintains the brands and principal operating modalities of certain agencies and programs, such as the MCC and DFC.
  • Global Development Act. Replace the 60-year-old Foreign Assistance Act of 1961—with its hundreds of pages of amendments and overlapping/ inconsistent/constraining barnacles—with a less cumbersome, updated statute that provides strategic coherence, nimbleness of action, and clear accountability.
  • Personnel. Design a personnel system for development that fits agency needs and the personnel dynamics of the 21st century.
  • Multilateralism fit for the 21st century. Use the U.S. position in multilateral/regional development institutions and vertical funds to address 21st century challenges—climate change, health and education, mass migration, growing debt problem, and state and community fragility and resilience.
  • Marshall Plan on Sustainable Development. Initiate an international Marshall Plan that joins American domestic and international efforts in a multiparty global endeavor to advance sustainable development that ramps up investment along its interconnected elements—green infrastructure, health, education, conservation of land and water, and justice and equity.

President Biden and his team face the options of incremental improvement or ambitious innovation—each approach has its own benefits and deficiencies—but, the more ambitious better fits with U.S. history of responding to moments of international crisis and will better  serve U.S. global leadership for decades rather than several years.