President Obama and the Spirit of Global Development Partnership

In his rousing speech at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative yesterday, President Obama tied together his administration’s recurrent themes of international collaboration, public-private cooperation, and service. By planting these themes in the context of our highly globalized world—the ways in which it presents real opportunities and grave threats, Obama struck chords resonant with his campaign’s global development and democracy policy statement to “strengthen our common security by investing in our common humanity.”

The key feature of his speech was a call for a new spirit of global partnership, emphasizing that real progress in lifting millions out of poverty and countering transnational threats cannot be made by governments alone. The president declared his desire for this spirit to guide his administration and he referred to it as “a defining feature of our foreign policy.”

It is heartening to hear the president say “we’re renewing development as a key element of American foreign policy,” and he is right to place significant importance on the role of public-private partnerships and service. Of course the devil is in the details.

In a piece we wrote this summer, Brookings colleagues Homi Kharas, Johannes Linn and I recommended elevating global development on the administration’s agenda and we commented on key elements of reforming U.S. global development policies and operations: leadership, strategy and legislation.

On the issue of partnerships, there are a number of straightforward steps the U.S. government could take to advance global development efforts. These are presented in Strengthening America’s Global Development Partnerships: A Policy Blueprint for Better Collaboration Between the U.S. Government, Business and Civil Society, a paper I wrote with Jane Nelson, another Brookings colleague who is also the director of the Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative at Harvard and a Director of the International Business Leaders Forum. Here’s the brief summary:

In the face of compounding global crises threatening development, the outdated U.S. foreign assistance system must catch up to a changed landscape of influential actors including corporations, mega-foundations, faith-based organizations and other non-governmental groups. Within the context of broader foreign assistance reform, the Obama administration and Congress have an opportunity to retool official U.S. efforts to more effectively and efficiently support global development by adapting to this new ecosystem. This paper offers recommendations on how the U.S. government can better position itself by:

  • Strengthening its capabilities to make innovative and strategic investments;
  • Encouraging cross-sector partnerships aligned with core competencies;
  • Promoting international service, professional exchanges and citizen engagement;
  • Supporting development of global norms and guidelines; and
  • Leveraging the bully pulpit to mobilize stakeholders.

To understand the tie-ins to Obama’s service agenda, it is also worth checking out analysis by Brookings’ Initiative on International Volunteering and Service. In his CGI speech, Obama linked domestic and international service. This approach presents real potential for global development efforts. As Jane and I note in our paper, new models at home may also apply overseas. The lessons that will be learned as the White House

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation fine-tunes its programs—including an innovation and replication fund to invest in proven approaches to poverty alleviation—could also accelerate progress through similar efforts on the global development front.

The effort to fundamentally upgrade U.S. global development policies and operations is still gearing up. With policy reviews underway at the White House and the State Department, and with legislation percolating in both the House and the Senate, momentum is apparent. The degree to which these different efforts move in the same direction—toward more effective development policies and implementation—will determine whether the U.S. can restore its leadership on these issues. The effectiveness of programs in the field are directly linked to Washington efforts to make development more coherent, better resourced, and suitably oriented toward partnerships with other key actors—including multilateral organizations, other government donors, international business and civil society, and, most notably, the recipients.