Global development: Barack Obama’s agenda

Simon Maxwell
20 January 2009

The inspiring and moving oratory of Barack Obama has become a prominent part of the soundtrack of political life in the world as well as the United States during his long march to the presidency. Now, after his inauguration, the real business starts.

The agenda in many policy areas areas is huge and daunting. This is certainly true of the global development challenge, where a host of issues will demand attention and leadership from the Obama administration. Among them are global governance and cooperation in key international institutions, including the United Nations amid an emerging new balance of global power; agreement on a Doha-round trade deal; a new framework for carbon-reduction on the scale needed to limit global warming; and an increase and improvement in aid flows to address the problems of poverty and inequality.

Even a determined and focused US administration cannot ensure progress on any or all of these issues on its own; it will require international cooperation, and that is a challenge of its own. But the real risk may be that the United States, like some other donors preoccupied with the global financial crisis, becomes focused entirely on domestic problems and turns away from the development "project".

Simon Maxwell is director of the Overseas Development Institute

Also by Simon Maxwell in openDemocracy:

"Inside the palace of glass" (27 June 2001)

"Chemical warfare in the bathroom" (15 August 2001)

"The global development agenda in 2007" (21 December 2006)

"Rome's food summit: a torch passed" (6 June 2008)

"Development in a downturn" (4 July 2008)

"A new global order: Bretton Woods II...and San Francisco II" (11 November 2008) - with Dirk Messner

"Financing development: from Monterrey to Doha" (26 November 2008)   - with Alison Evans

After all, what price free trade or free movement of labour when General Motors is at risk and jobs are being lost across the country? The Barack Obama administration will be struggling, like everyone else, with the problem of doing "development in a downturn". The US was in 2008 ranked seventeenth out of twenty-two rich states in the Center for Global Development's "commitment to development" index (CDI), which measures how far these countries help their poorer counterparts in building prosperity, good government, and security. There is big scope for improvement, but amid recession and large-scale unemployment there will also be big temptations (including protectionist temptations) to lapse.

It will be even more important, therefore, to make the argument that poverty-reduction is not only a moral imperative, but also in the long-term interests - including security interests - of the US itself.

In the real world

The point that development is mutually beneficial was central to the analysis of the Brandt commission in the 1980s. This contained the vivid image that rich and poor countries were on the same vessel: if the end containing developing countries were to sink, then inevitably the end containing developed countries would follow. More recently, the idea has been central to the foreign and development policy of the US itself. Andrew Natsios, former administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid), expressed the point forcefully when he said that ‘‘(‘pure') development, that is development abstracted from foreign policy concerns  . . . is not likely to be sustainable over the long term" (see "Five Debates on International Development - The US Perspective" [Development Policy Review, 2006]).

The incoming Obama administration has, in intellectual as well as quantitative terms, some achievements to build on here. The US's record - with aid still at less than 0.2% of GNP, according to the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD - is not impressive by international standards; but its overseas-development assistance (ODA) has approximately doubled in real terms during the eight years of the George W Bush presidency.

This is reflected in increases in traditional programmes, as well as new initiatives such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar). There is much still to do if the pledges made at the G8 summit in Gleneagles in 2005 and elsewhere are to be met. But - as the DATA Report for 2008 suggests - development, and particularly the commitment to Africa, can be seen as that rare thing: a Bush administration success-story.

What kind of change?

In this light, my guess is that the immediate "change" under Obama will - in this area at least - be in tone rather than a major shift in strategic positioning. But this change will itself be significant, for it will involve the new president  working hard with the country's partners to build international consensus. This in time should also entail a rethinking of the relationship between military and developmental intervention - especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with repercussions too for countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe. Indeed, there are signs that this is already underway, under the auspices of the new head of the US military's Central Command, General David Petraeus.

The US development community has its own list of specific reforms, and leading think-tanks are engaged in advancing their case vis-a-vis the incoming administration. There has been an extended debate over the need for a single agency to run overseas aid, along the lines of Britain's department for international development (DfID), and how to reduce the extent of  control of aid spending (including congressional "earmarking" of funds for specific activities). Usaid itself is reportedly subject to something like 300 separate earmarks, effectively removing all room for manoeuvre on something like 98.5% of the budget.

The need for administrative reform in the field of the US's development policy seems clear. European development professionals are often taken aback by the number of different agencies involved in US development cooperation, and by the number of different funds and programmes. Over budget-support too, the US has made less progress than Europe in directing aid to where it is really needed and can make a difference. The US's problems with regard to "tied aid", especially food aid, need to be addressed.

Both sides now

A comprehensive agenda produced by the CGD contains recommendations for reform of the complex and over-managed machinery of development cooperation (see Nancy Birdsall, ed., The White House and the World: A Development Agenda for the Next US President [Center for Global Development, 2008]). The agenda's wide remit - including chapters on trade, health, corruption, climate change, and failed states - underlines the importance of continued US engagement and leadership in international development.

The size and weight of the United States in the global economy and politics mean that, even under the very difficult conditions that Barack Obama inherits, the country will remain central to progress in global development. The promise of the new president to re-engage with the world is also an opportunity for development professionals too to build and sustain strong links with colleagues in the US (as for example we in the Overseas Development Institute[ODI] are doing through the German Marshall Fund's transatlantic task-force on development).

Governance and reform, a trade deal, a climate deal, more (and more effective) aid, understanding how development, foreign policy and security are interlinked - all these will be on Barack Obama's and the world's agenda for 2009. Welcome to a new era - but there is no time to lose.

Among openDemocracy’s articles on global development policy:

▪ Jonathon Porritt, "'As if the world matters': reconciling sustainable development and capitalism" (30 November 2005)

▪ Leni Wild, "China, Africa and the G8: the missing link" (11 July 2006)

▪ Ehsan Masood, "The aid business: phantoms and realities" (18 July 2006)

▪ Ehsan Masood, "A German vision: greening globalisation" (27 March 2007)

▪ Michael Hopkins, "Sustainable development: from word to policy" (11 April 2007)

▪ John Elkington, "Brundtland and sustainability: history's balance-sheet" (11 April 2007)

▪ Michael Edwards, "A world made new through love and reason: what future for 'development'?" (25 April 2007)

▪ Stephen Browne, "G8 aid: beyond the target trap" (6 June 2007)

▪ Paul Collier, "The aid evasion: raising the ‘bottom billion'" (11 June 2007)

▪ John Elkington & John Lotherington, "Can democracy save the planet?" (21 April 2008)

▪ Kweku Ampiah, "Japan and Africa: a distant partnership" (6 June 2008)

▪ Andrew Shepherd, "The anti-poverty relay: a progress report" (24 September 2008)

▪ Anita Sharma, "The core crisis: standing with the poor" (30 October 2008)

▪ Andre Wilkens, "The global financial crisis: opportunities for change" (10 November 2008)




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