An earthquake in Haiti. Violent conflict in the Congo. Mass hunger in Niger. An AIDS epidemic spreading across many of the world’s poorest nations. Building peace in the Middle East. Recovering from war in the Balkans.
What do all of these challenges have in common? They are all core to America’s national interests and values. And they are challenges that require a strong, coherent U.S. approach to global development — something that our government presently lacks.
Last December, many Mercy Corps supporters joined more than 40,000 other activists in sending a petition to the White House. We urged President Obama to make good on his campaign promise to elevate global development as a core goal of American foreign policy, and to update America’s 1960s-era foreign aid system. Last week, we saw two things that indicate real progress on this front — a (leaked) copy of a new White House strategy paper, and a landmark speech by Dr. Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Let’s start with the White House strategy paper. Last year, the President asked some of his top foreign policy advisors to review U.S. development policy. This was a crucial acknowledgment that our 20th-century aid structure is not measuring up to 21st century global challenges.
The President’s advisors have now come back to him with a proposal for a new approach. The paper is not perfect — it appears to perpetuate the fragmentation of aid functions across the U.S. government, rather than consolidating all of our tools into a single empowered agency. But nonetheless the proposed strategy would represent a huge step forward if adopted as official policy.
That paper alone would have made it a big week for anyone who supports U.S. action to combat poverty and other global challenges — but there was more to come! On Wednesday Dr. Shah, the head of USAID, gave a major speech outlining a clear and thoughtful vision of how he will update his agency for the 21st century.
Both Dr. Shah and the White House study paper point towards an emerging vision for the Obama Administration. This vision would elevate priorities like reducing global poverty, alleviating human suffering and supporting better governance of weak states, to the highest level of American foreign policy. And, just as importantly, it would modernize our country approaches development — improving how we provide aid but also recognizing that the aid America provides is just one aspect of helping countries overcome poverty.
Therefore, the emerging vision would use market tools such as trade policy, it would improve collaboration with other development actors to improve efficiency, and it would emphasize and invest in game-changing innovations in health and agriculture. Most crucially, it would seek to engage the people of developing countries to own and to lead their own development — with the U.S. Government acting is a partner, not a patron. Tying all of this together would be a heavy emphasis on measuring what works, through rigorous impact evaluation.
This is a compelling vision of how the U.S. could work to build a better world. There is just one thing lacking — a clear statement by the President that he will pursue the ambitious agenda that his advisors have marked out for him. He will have a perfect opportunity to do this in September, when he addresses the world at a summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).
If America is going to return to a leadership role in addressing global poverty and alleviating global suffering, the MDG summit will provide the perfect platform. Stay tuned.