Barack Obama on how to convince a nation that development is a bargain

Former U.S. President Barack Obama with Bill and Melinda Gates during the Goalkeepers event. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

NEW YORK — Even though the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest foundation in the world, the United States government’s budget is still bigger, former U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday at Goalkeepers, the event the Gates Foundation hosted at Global Goals Week.

“A lot bigger,” Melinda said, laughing alongside her husband.

While the point seems obvious, it is one the Gates Foundation has been making often and in different ways since the U.S. presidential election. And it reflected a point that leapt from the pages of the Goalkeepers report to the stage of the Goalkeepers event — that progress on the SDGs is possible but not inevitable. Specifically, it will require official development assistance in addition to other forms of finance.

“If you want to get done what you're talking about, you will have to combine effective philanthropy and technical know-how and smart policy engineering with getting your hands dirty trying to change public opinion and trying to ensure that the people who are in charge of the levers of power are responsive,” Obama said.

But he explained that most elected leaders are in fact followers and not leaders — and because they follow what their constituents demand, public opinion for development finance matters.

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“The general public responds with enormous generosity when they see a specific story of a child who’s hungry or somebody who’s been stricken by a flood, but when it comes to just a general knowledge or interest in development funding, not only do they not know much, but they oftentimes have a negative reaction,” he said. “Their view is ‘We’ve got a lot of needs here at home. Why are we sending money overseas?’”

This is one of the only areas Democrats and Republicans agree on in the U.S., he said, citing studies that Americans wildly overestimate how much money goes to foreign aid.

Obama called for public education that tells a good story and pointed out that aid is “actually a bargain” — and that it is intrinsically linked with security: “If you’ve got failed states, then generally some of that is going to spill over on us…” he said.

“Ironically if you’re concerned about immigration and mass migration, it’s really a good investment to make countries work so that people can eat,” he added. “It’s not like they’re dying to get on a dingy and float across an ocean if the place, the country, where they were born and they loved, was functioning.”

By laying out how to convince the public that foreign aid makes sense for America, he also seemed to suggest how to frame global development in a way that might resonate with the current administration, as he explained that philanthropy cannot fill the void that any retreat in U.S. funding might leave.

He got a round of applause and a lot of laughs when he said the world needs more of a spirit that says “to quote, I guess, myself: ‘Yes we can.’” Obama recalled sitting down with Bill Gates during the Paris climate talks, and the sense optimism he had when he said the world could address climate change, as long as it developed new technologies.

“That spirit rather than a spirit of despair is the motor by which we’ve been able to see real progress in reducing the pace of carbon emission increases here in the U.S.,” Obama said. “And even if at the current moment the federal government is not as engaged in these efforts as I would like, nevertheless, progress continues because of the efforts of people like Bill and a whole host of entrepreneurs and universities, cities and states, they are making change around energy policy in America separate and apart from what government is doing, and that gives me confidence that we can continue to make progress.”

Challenges ranging from growing economic inequality to mass migration to the rise of nationalism cannot discourage people when it comes to their potential to make a difference individually and collectively, Obama said. He asked the audience to pursue optimism, not blind optimism, but rather optimism rooted in the stories of progress and understanding that successes build on one another. 

“If we want to move forward the Sustainable Development Goals that we’re talking about, we’ve got to be able to tell a story not only to big donors or politicians but also to, for example, people here in the United States who may who feel like, ‘Look, I’ve got my own problems why should I be worried about someone on the other side of world.’”

He expanded on the kind of stories that will be needed to document the progress, saying that while conventional media may not spread the word, the internet has real potential to move beyond “reports with pie charts” to “stories and visual representations of progress” that have the ability to go viral among young people.

“One of the areas that I’m deeply interested in how do we build a digital platform whereby people can go to find out what’s happening that is moving the progress on issues then activate them?” he said, seemingly hinting at one of the areas he might pursue at the Obama Foundation.

Bill Gates spoke about how global institutions such as the World Bank, World Health Organization, and United Nations have been key partners in this work, and yet there is cynicism about “their bureaucracy, their efficiency, and their ability to change.”

He asked Obama whether these global institutions, or new ones for pandemics or climate change, can step up and play the role the world needs them to. Obama said there needs to be consensus on the aims if not the means, and that while U.S. involvement is critical, no one nation can confront the biggest problems we confront.

“You have to start with the premise and believe that multilateral institutions and efforts are important and you don’t have to cede all your sovereignty or it doesn’t make you less patriotic to believe that,” Obama said. “You just have to have some sense.”

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.