Obama's New Development Policy: A Challenge in Implementation

U.S. President Barack Obama. Photo by: Pete Souza / White House Photo

President Barack Obama’s unveiling of a global development policy at the closing plenary of the U.N. summit on the Millennium Development Goals is a “major victory” for the foreign assistance reform movement in the U.S., but several questions remain unanswered, the co-chairs of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network say.

“With his speech laying out a new U.S. approach to development at the UN Millennium Development Goals Summit, President Obama has outlined a future where development endures as a core pillar of U.S. foreign policy, delivering greater results for people in poverty around the world and U.S. taxpayers,” David Beckmann and George Ingram say in a statement. “The Obama Administration deserves enormous credit for creating America’s first development policy, which at long last provides a road map for more strategic, effective, accountable U.S. foreign assistance.”

>> Obama Unveils Development Policy at UN MDG Meet

But Beckman and Ingram add that the “devil will be in the details of implementation.” Several unanswered questions remain, the two say in MFAN’s official statement.

Beckman and Ingram say they will make sure policymakers will be held accountable to uphold the commitment outlined by Obama.

MFAN, they say, will focus particularly on key questions that the policy left hanging, including how the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development will coordinate to implement the policy and how the administration plans to ensure that development programs focus on long-term sustainable outcomes instead short-term political goals. Beckman and Ingram note that the policy gives U.S. ambassadors oversight responsibility for foreign aid programs in the field.

MFAN also asks: “Will the Administration work proactively with Congress to overhaul the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to make sure the new development policy endures as one of President Obama’s key legacies?”

Spurring U.S. Economic Growth

In outlining the new global development policy, Obama also touched on the link between providing foreign aid and spurring the U.S. economy, Business Week notes.

“In our global economy, progress in even the poorest countries can advance the prosperity and security of people far beyond their borders, including my fellow Americans,” the news agency quotes the President.

“Michael Froman, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for international economics, told reporters in a conference call that future U.S. aid will focus on countries that have shown progress in meeting goals. He said encouraging stable markets abroad for U.S. exports is a ‘core part of our national security.’,” according to Business Week.

Easier Said Than Done

While Obama’s new development strategy points to the right direction toward aid reform, the Foreign Policy’s John Norris deemed there are certain challenges that will make the strategy “highly difficult to realize.”

Norris underscored the importance of translating rhetoric into reality, stressing that the U.S. Agency for International Development remains understaffed.

“The true test of the limits of rhetoric will come when the administration faces the decision whether to help a country that’s friendly but not reform-minded. The evidence so far doesn’t bode well: Ethiopia and Rwanda, two important U.S. allies, are featured prominently in the administration’s new Global Health Initiative – despite a crescendo of complaints about human-rights violations in both countries,” Norris writes in a blog post.

Coordinating development programs of various donors, another key component of the strategy, will also be “extraordinarily difficult,” according to Norris.

He argued: “Very little is said in the review about how this division of labor will take place and how donors will collectively reduce or unify the paperwork burden they place on aid-receiving countries. This isn’t just about getting everyone to agree; some of the key multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank, are both quite slow in instituting programs and reluctant to impose standards related to good governance or human rights.”

The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief will also be a litmus test of the implementation of the new development strategy, Norris noted.

“The compromise will likely entail using greater percentages of PEPFAR funds to focus on reforming local health ministries rather than simply relying on external aid to serve as a substitute,” he wrote.

The strategy, meantime, has “surprisingly little to say” about U.S. aid efforts in conflict-torn nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and disaster-ravaged nations Haiti and Pakistan, according to Norris.

“In terms of dollars and importance, these programs have been the most visible and the most visibly problematic over the last decade. Administrations rarely get to choose their crises, and they have to deal with the fact that development is extraordinarily difficult without stability and a government committed to reform. Still, simply shoveling money out the door, as has often taken place in Iraq and Afghanistan, won’t do much good,” he wrote.

Economic woes may also hamper the implementation of the strategy, according to Norris. Case in point: U.S. domestic agricultural subsidies.

He argued: “Given that Washington has been unwilling to take on hard issues like the U.S. domestic agricultural subsidies that prove an anti-competitive drag on many African countries, cooperation could become even more difficult. It will be hard to convince a developing country of the joys of the free market if the U.S. still doesn’t have the political courage to reduce handouts to our own farmers.”

Meantime, the Foreign Policy’s Michael Magan said the Obama administration still has to prove it is “serious” about its overall development policy.

Rebuilding USAID has been mired with problems and challenges, he said, citing the slow pace of appointments to fill in key posts at the agency.

“Even if the White House were to nominate appointees now, these individuals will have little affect on USAID policies and programs in the short term,” Magan writes in a blog post.

He also called for a cease in the “infighting between the White House and the State Department …, and the administration must provide clear inter-agency guidelines through the White House’s Presidential Study Directive on Global Development (PSD-7) or the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR).”

Nonprofits Celebrate

Aid workers from organizations Oxfam and ONE, meanwhile, lauded Obama’s new development policy.

“President Obama knocked it out of the park in his address to the UN MDG Summit this afternoon. We asked for a ‘barn burner of a speech,’ and boy did we get one,” writes Oxfam’s Porter McConnell.

ONE’s Larry Nowels writes: “All in all, we heard good words today from the President and he will be soundly applauded, as he should be.”

Both urged Obama - who is described by the economist William Easterly as the “world’s latest aid skeptic” - to deliver on the commitments outlined in the strategy.

Liz Schrayer, executive director of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) also welcomed Obama’s new global development strategy.

Rizza Leonzon contributed to this report.

About the author

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    Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.