President Obama and U.S. Global Leadership on Development

Noam Unger
Noam Unger Former Brookings Expert

January 7, 2010

Last year, Colin Bradford and I provided recommendations on global development cooperation to help our incoming president refashion the American image to the world while also strengthening U.S. and international security. The Obama administration’s mixed track record on seizing global development leadership opportunities merits a mediocre grade for 2009. However, several late-breaking developments and ongoing efforts could help the administration improve this grade in 2010.

Undoubtedly, the Obama administration has had to manage an overabundance of domestic and international challenges while parrying profuse expectations. But without question, the effectiveness of our global development efforts must be fundamentally improved. Doing so will address American values and interests by reducing global poverty, supporting the emergence of more capable partners and mitigating transnational threats.

Notable highlights in 2009: President Obama secured the prominence of the G-20, ensuring a greater voice for rising economies; launched a global food security initiative backed by significant new U.S. commitments to agricultural development; bolstered emerging markets through increased, crisis-induced IMF funding; dedicated the government to broadening global health assistance efforts; and demonstrated leadership by pledging to mobilize a substantive (if amorphous) annual assistance commitment to address developing countries’ climate change needs.

The administration also put forth strong budget requests, building on a Bush-era program of staff expansion to address years of neglect at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). President Obama bolstered these efforts and U.S. commitment to global development through overseas visits and speeches—in Egypt, in Ghana, at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech—as has Secretary of State Clinton (see her recent speech). 

Such commitments and the new thrust of American leadership toward international cooperation have indeed been praiseworthy efforts. However, on the specifics of reforming development policies and operations, the administration was detrimentally sluggish in 2009.

The administration came in with the intent to “elevate, streamline and empower a 21st century development agency” that would consolidate the global AIDS program, Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and many others into a restructured USAID. The incoming team was well-versed on the urgent need for fundamental change given the bureaucratic fragmentation and incoherence rife within our aid apparatus. A year later, however, essential reforms are still floating ideas. 

Despite consensus that development is a key pillar of our foreign policy and national security, Obama took nearly a year to nominate a head to USAID, the principal agency responsible. Steeped in uncertainty, the agency was left to cope with a weakened hand in policy decisions as major issues came to the fore, ranging from the global economic setback to climate change and U.S. strategies for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Dr. Rajiv Shah was just confirmed in the waning days of 2009 and sworn-in as USAID Administrator yesterday. He is dynamic, with notable relevant management credentials, and is highly regarded by those who know him. His experiences at the Gates Foundation ensure keen familiarity with the innovative new ecosystem of global development actors that must be factored into reforms.

But, major issues still hang in the balance: Will Shah preside over an agency without agency? Will USAID once again have a strong role in determining and designing its budget? Will policy and strategic planning capacity be restored and improved, a move actively endorsed by pending bipartisan Senate legislation? These ideas on budget and policy planning were supported by Shah at his confirmation hearing, but the proof is in the pudding. 

Further, will Shah explicitly have a seat at the table for relevant National Security Council (NSC) and National Economic Council (NEC) deliberations? What is the relationship between USAID, the MCC, the global AIDS program and others? And what now happens to the Director of Foreign Assistance position established at State under the Bush Administration? 

Secretary Clinton launched the inaugural Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) this past summer, helpfully providing State, USAID and the MCC the opportunity to make a strong case for a more balanced approach to statecraft in the face of a dominant Department of Defense unsurprisingly oriented toward military solutions. It could also lead to reorganization.

But the most significant effort presently underway is the Presidential Study Directive on U.S. global development policies and implementation. This review, undertaken jointly by the heads of the NSC and the NEC, offers a distinct opportunity to craft a new strategic approach that shapes the QDDR and potential legislation. Development cooperation does not exclusively pivot around aid, and the resulting presidential guidance will be informed by a more comprehensive approach to development that considers the interrelationships and implications of our trade and international finance instruments alongside our aid. This review is expected to result in critical presidential decisions early in 2010.

The crawling pace of reforms may conflict with the congressional calendar. Legislation gearing up in both the House and the Senate has now been pushed into 2010, an election year that could impose greater hurdles to passage. The fundamental reforms required will need to be sealed in new laws, and the administration wants to be in a position to point Congress in the right direction. Let’s hope the window of opportunity for fundamental change remains open long enough. 

While the administration has taken some very positive steps in terms of rhetoric and international development cooperation commitments, it started off slower-than-expected on the essential internal structural and policy reforms needed to elevate development, rationalize bureaucracy and forge policy coherence. The building blocks are, however, now in place.

In 2010, we should learn whether the administration’s modernization of development policies and operations will result in a strong development agency, closely coordinated with State, but with the independence and clout to effectively champion development considerations in interagency policy deliberations. Such an agency could serve as a focal point, helping the U.S. provide global leadership on development issues, but that vision has not yet come into focus.