Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security advisor, with U.S. President Barack Obama on Air Force One. Photo by: Pete Souza / The White House

He’s been called — in one of the most talked-about profile stories of the year — “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from [President Obama] himself.” Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security advisor, is shaping United States foreign assistance too — and the development legacy this administration will leave behind.

Rhodes spoke with Devex Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar at the opening plenary of Devex World, an event in Washington, D.C., heralding the arrival of a “new era of global development” — an era defined as much by coders, astronauts and entrepreneurs, as by donors and nongovernmental organizations. Rhodes delved into the Obama administration’s approach to foreign assistance, and he offered a glimpse into the weight development carries in closed-door debates on U.S. foreign policy and national security.

Manage instability, but seek opportunity

At one point last year the U.S. Agency for International Development had five Disaster Assistance Response Teams deployed at the same time. Many of the most impoverished parts of the world are facing crisis and conflict. In that context, the president has sought to attend to the world’s trouble spots, while not allowing them to crowd out opportunities to amplify progress in places on a more positive trajectory, Rhodes said.

“What we’ve tried to do is manage areas of instability in ways that bring countries together to protect ... our core national interests, but also to look for where the opportunities are in the world,” he said.

The thaw in relations with Cuba and development cooperation there, for example, presents an opportunity to “reposition the United States in Latin America,” Rhodes said. As Southeast Asia’s economies continue to grow, development engagement with Myanmar’s nascent democratic institutions and Obama’s recent outreach to Vietnam — including through Peace Corps and USAID — grants the U.S. an opportunity to be “more present.”

Preventing fragile and conflict-affected states from getting worse, in other words, cannot be the sole marker of a successful development enterprise, according to the president’s close advisor.

“Ultimately, I think the way in which the president thinks about this in the long term, is that in addition to managing instability, we need to prove that effective models work in other places, because those become essentially the magnets for progress globally,” Rhodes said. “We have to be investing and consolidating successful development, successful governments, successful partnership, even as we’re obviously having to deal with the headline issues of the day.”

Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, speaks with Devex Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar at Devex World in Washington, D.C.

Is the future of development in fragile states?

Still, with crisis in the headlines and poverty concentrated around conflict, some aid donors have directed large amounts of resources to those states, with calls for others to do the same. The U.K. Department for International Development, for example, has committed to spending 50 percent of its foreign assistance in fragile states. Should development implementers prepare for the U.S. to follow suit?

“I think it has to be a balance,” Rhodes said. “We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on … development in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there just wasn’t an environment that allowed that to yield much results. Whereas a little bit of an investment in sub-Saharan Africa, or in a Southeast Asian country can yield a very large impact,” he said.

U.S. foreign assistance cannot be “completely pulled into the failed state environment,” Rhodes said, because “smaller investments” in better governed and more stable places can have outsized positive impacts.

That is not to say development shouldn’t be a key piece of the U.S. government’s engagement with failed and fragile states. In those environments the White House often relies on NGOs and philanthropic organizations to deliver in ways the U.S. government cannot.

“Sometimes, frankly, nongovernmental organizations that don’t bear the stigma of a certain foreign policy agenda are going to be more credible actors in failed states,” Rhodes said.

The challenge is to arrive at a useful division of labor, one that mitigates redundancy and takes advantage of different capabilities. “It won’t even necessarily be planned,” Rhodes said. “But I think we need to be mindful of where are governments effective, where are foundations effective, where is the private sector going to be effective.”

The ‘Obama doctrine’ for development

President Obama’s development legacy will be a much-discussed question in the closing months of his tenure. In Rhodes’ formulation, the past eight years of U.S. global development policy have reflected a focus on people and capacity.

“What we’ve tried to do is put people and capacity at the center of our development assistance. So, how can we invest in models that are building the capacity of other people to essentially take the baton from us, so that assistance is not just an engine of itself?” he said.

That may just be good policy, but it’s also a financial imperative in the current U.S. budget environment. With Congress unlikely to appropriate large sums of public money to tackle development challenges abroad, the administration has had to use limited resources in ways that bring other donors and investors to the table.

“There’s not likely to be another PEPFAR,” Rhodes said, in reference to the multibillion dollar AIDS initiative created by former President George W. Bush. “Even if we wanted it, we couldn’t get that type of resourcing from Congress. So we have to find ways to leverage the private sector, entrepreneurs, nongovernmental partners,” Rhodes said.

The president’s big development initiatives — Feed the Future, Power Africa, and even its mentoring programs for young developing country leaders — reflect this mission born of scarcity. Neither Feed the Future, which looks to build agricultural markets, nor Power Africa, which looks to build energy markets, assumes public donor assistance will have a transformational impact on its own, in the way that PEPFAR funding did. Obama’s investments in young developing country leaders — in Africa and Southeast Asia — similarly assume that someone other than the U.S. government will ultimately achieve development results.

“We’re trying to find people with the good ideas and drive resources in their direction,” Rhodes said. “The impact of those small investments in people with good ideas — one of the things we have to get good at is measuring that over time. But ultimately, I think we have to be much more searching for what’s working than just trying to impose a solution from Washington on behalf of the development agenda.”

A seat at the national security table?

Much was made of Obama’s presidential policy directive elevating the role of development alongside defense and diplomacy. But issuing a policy directive and actually integrating development tools into the most important U.S. foreign policy discussions are not the same thing. The second part may still be a work in progress.

“I’ll be honest, I think sometimes it’s easy for people to put development over here in its own category. We’re doing foreign policy, and here’s the development work over here,” Rhodes said.

In some cases, and in some countries, there is a good reason for keeping development in its own bucket though — holding foreign assistance apart from “core foreign policy interests … gives it more legitimacy in the places where we’re doing that work,” Rhodes said.

Still the White House has tried to “integrate” assistance plans “more methodically” into broader foreign policy approaches, according to Rhodes.

“It doesn’t make sense to just have a conversation about Syria in which there’s kind of an appendage that is humanitarian assistance. This has to be factored into everything that we’re doing politically, and diplomatically, and even in support to the opposition. Assistance has to be part of that conversation,” he said.

Similarly in Myanmar, U.S. efforts can’t start and stop with easing sanctions and engaging in government diplomacy. They have to include helping a new democratically elected government succeed, so they can “show a dividend on the fact that there was this transition to a democratically-elected government,” Rhodes said.

“That means getting in there and talking with them about how to better provide health care, or how to build up their education capacity, or to bring more capital into Myanmar through cultivating entrepreneurship,” he said.

In other places those windows of opportunity — to link development progress with national security goals — can be harder to find. They may not even exist yet. In much of the Middle East, Rhodes said, “You have very fundamental unresolved political questions. What is the role of Islam in politics? What is the capacity of different sects and tribes to coexist within political entities?”

“Development is not going to take hold in these places until those political questions are resolved within these countries,” he added.

But despite the proliferation of crises — and despite Rhodes’ responsibility to bounce from one to the next — the young advisor sees cause to be hopeful, both in the broader narrative and in specific examples.

“You see people doing very interesting and extraordinary things around the world. There’s a commonality to that,” Rhodes said. “Where there are environments that can provide for peaceful, stable progress and where people can be empowered instead of shutdown, you see that the world we live in today gives people the tools that allow things to happen very fast.”

Read more on how Devex World unfolded on our live blog coverage.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.