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Op-Ed

President Obama’s Agenda Needs Greater Focus on Global Development

Homi Kharas, Johannes F. Linn, and Noam Unger

Even as he deals with the extraordinary challenges of domestic and global economic recovery, President Obama has announced an ambitious agenda including health care, energy and climate change among his early priorities. He and his national security team have also pursued a wide array of foreign policy initiatives, with special attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Middle East, and nuclear non-proliferation, while engaging intensively with foreign leaders through international visits and multilateral summits.

Given these challenges, it seems unfair to expect the Obama administration to add another priority to the agenda, but one item is critical: the international development agenda. A fractious Europe and an indecisive U.S. have left global development issues adrift. Progress on a range of topics like the Doha trade round and even climate change depends on restoring trust between developed and developing countries, but global leadership must come from the United States. Yet, there remain questions about whether the new administration is willing to attack bureaucratic and political obstacles to improved engagement with the developing world.

Some progress has admittedly been made. President Obama has announced new commitments for global public health, and at the G8 Summit, he led efforts to secure commitments for food security just before traveling to Ghana where he emphasized the critical role good governance can play in development. He has also put forward a budget in line with his intent to double foreign assistance by 2015. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has committed to building on a Bush-era program of staff expansion at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and echoes the president’s desire to spend greater amounts of aid in recipient countries rather than on U.S.-based contractors. Secretary Clinton also announced a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review for the State Department. While such a department-led review cannot direct the full range of development assistance instruments within the U.S. government, much less the broader array of U.S. policies beyond assistance that impact development, it will cover USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

These are important steps forward, but may not be enough considering the fundamental problems that have plagued U.S. global development efforts in the past—lack of high-level political commitment, bureaucratic fragmentation, incoherence, weak capacity, muted policy voice and constrained resources. There are some worrisome signs that international development is low on the president’s agenda: among the 22 priorities listed on the White House Web site, “foreign assistance” and “global development” are nowhere to be found, not even under a section titled “Additional Issues” (yet the section covers the sports of hunting and angling).

One problem is that development lacks an influential full-time champion. President Obama did not immediately appoint an experienced development professional authorized to coordinate assistance programs currently fractured across many departments and agencies. No candidate has yet been nominated to head USAID, and once appointed, he or she may in effect be reporting to the new deputy secretary of state for management and resources rather than the secretary of state and the president.

In a world where new official donors, such as China, and private donors, such as the Gates Foundation, not to mention many smaller multilateral, bilateral and private aid initiatives, are growing in prominence each year, the U.S. needs to step forward as a more effective supporter of development through bilateral and multilateral assistance implementation, broader strategic partnerships, and overall policy leadership. Yet, because of its fragmented aid apparatus the U.S. does not presently play a preeminent role in international forums, such as the OECD Development Assistance Committee, aiming to improve the effectiveness of international aid, even as it continues to be the single largest donor in absolute terms.

In the next few months, leadership by the president, key cabinet members (including the secretary of state, the treasury secretary, the trade representative and others) and Congress will be urgently needed if U.S. development policies and operations are to be imbued with new life, new priorities and new impact. Development policy, in general, must find a much more visible place among President Obama’s priorities. Key elements of such an approach should include:

  • appointment of an empowered USAID Administrator with the authority and agency support to directly represent development considerations at all relevant policy tables, including the National Security Council and the National Economic Council;
  • high-level White House leadership on a comprehensive development strategy that drives policy coherence across the broad array of U.S. policies that impact development (including aid, trade, agriculture, debt, monetary policy and other areas) by stipulating objectives, authorities and responsibilities and by informing budgetary planning;
  • enactment of a strong new Foreign Assistance Act, building on legislation being drafted in the House under the chairmanship of Representative Howard Berman and in the Senate under the leadership of Senators Kerry, Lugar, Menendez and Corker that clarifies objectives, rationalizes the bureaucracy, and allows for efficient, effective and adaptive assistance in partnership with other development actors—most notably the recipients.

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