The Status Report: Obama’s Commitment to Global Development

One year ago, Brookings experts wrote a series of 12 memos to the incoming president on the most pressing policy issues facing the country. Now they assess the administration’s progress on those issues in The Status Report, a daily series of commentary with video to be featured in POLITICO’s Arena. Noam Unger gives President Obama a B- for redefining America’s global development cooperation.

Leadership in Global Development: B- 

Last year, Colin Bradford and I provided recommendations on global development cooperation to help our incoming president change America’s image abroad 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.

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.

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.

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 highly regarded and excitement is warranted, but major issues still hang in the balance: Will Shah preside over an agency without agency?

Several reviews are ongoing, including the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review and the Presidential Study Directive on U.S. global development policies and implementation. The latter, undertaken by the White House, is especially significant given its looming deadline and because development cooperation does not exclusively pivot around aid. It will result in Presidential guidance informed by a more comprehensive approach that considers the interrelationships and implications of our trade and international finance instruments alongside our aid. Critical presidential decisions are expected early in 2010, but the crawling pace of reforms may now conflict with the Congressional calendar, delaying essential legislative changes needed for fundamental reform.

On the specifics of reforming development policies and operations, the administration was detrimentally sluggish in 2009, but it demonstrated high-level commitment to development issues on the international stage, and the building blocks for real reform are 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.

A longer version of this post is available here »

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