Opinion: Don’t go it alone — how Biden can engage development partnerships

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, and others greet the crowd at the Capitol during his 2021 inauguration in Washington. Photo by: DoD / U.S. Army Private 1st Class Laura Hardin / GPA Photo Archive

There is significant potential for strong bilateral partnerships to advance United States development objectives in areas of strategic and national security interests. President Joe Biden’s administration should prioritize partnerships with bilaterals that have forged substantial technical leadership on core areas of development as a counterweight to spreading autocracy and debt traps. New U.S. leadership should start in “listening mode” and follow the lead and progress of partners in support of shared strategic interests.

The country’s 2017 National Security Strategy articulated “great power competition” and called on the U.S. to work with friends and allies but offered little attention to how or who. Partnerships were not a priority. The 2018 Foreign Assistance Realignment principles called for working with friends but were almost immediately contradicted by budget cuts and blustery rhetoric. It is not surprising how few bilateral partnerships resulted.

The Biden administration has already indicated that restoration of multilateral relationships will be a priority. Development cooperation offers a quick win for relationships with allies, and it should be considered alongside larger political objectives.

When action is oriented behind shared technical topics, bilateral relationships can serve as powerful counterweights to competing interests in the developing world. Incoming policymakers should seek out sector-specific partnerships that aggregate into support for a shared vision of development as a counterweight to predatory models.

Engaging with key partners in areas of shared interest can pay dividends on reaching the SDGs and supporting multilateral systems.

Bilateral partnerships on core development topics should build on established technical coordination mechanisms, as opposed to reconvening bilateral partnerships of narrow self-interest.

The Sustainable Development Goals, for example, offer a map for bilateral coordination that many partners have used during the U.S. absence, including SDG 17 on building partnerships. Our competitors have been clear about their support for the SDG framework through diverse partnerships across private and public actors. Measured, technically specific partnerships in the digital, democracy, and economic growth space, as well as in infrastructure, also offer coalition-building opportunities to shape international standards and frameworks.

One clear opportunity for technical partnerships is in digital development. The U.S. should look to work with Estonia, Sweden, and Finland, which understand the development implications of 5G cellular network technology and artificial intelligence, including for human rights and democratic norms.

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Digital Strategy must be adapted to coronavirus-exacerbated inequalities in health and education systems. Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia offer opportunities for private partnerships. Nordic partners have also been actively pushing back on Chinese interests, including the bifurcation of the internet across the developing world, and have been raising the alarm in important international standard-setting bodies such as the International Telecommunication Union.

The Biden administration's focus on advancing democracy presents another clear opportunity to engage partners, including the United Kingdom. The impact of COVID-19 on closing democratic space in low-income countries warrants the attention a democracy summit could bring.

But it also requires building on progress by the U.K. in existing forums such as the Community of Democracies and the Development Assistance Committee’s Network on Governance. The United Kingdom’s own organizational transformation will likely expand its progress on protecting democracy against authoritarianism.

There are areas for economic partnerships as well, including debt forgiveness for countries that have sunk under the weight of high-interest loans. As incoming chair of the G-20 group of leading economies, Italy has signaled interest in debt relief in Africa as a priority. The U.S. might consider supporting Italy, specifically with the new tools within the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation.

The U.S. might also consider looking for G-20 partners to refashion the nascent Blue Dot Network. The prior presidential administration attempted to make the network into a globally agreed set of quality standards for global infrastructure projects but lacked the political will among partners to do so. A more robust effort for standard setting and infrastructure accountability should directly engage European partners early in the planning process.

The Japan-United States Strategic Energy Partnership and Japan-U.S. Strategic Digital Economy Partnership were perhaps the only bright spots in partnerships over the last four years. The agreements aligned U.S. and Japanese interests on energy, infrastructure and digital with implications for rule of law and transparency, free and open media, and secure grid and power systems.

Yet these agreements overlooked clean energy infrastructure — and the opportunity to push back on climate-related outcomes of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Partnerships with Japan might be expanded to promote shared thinking on green infrastructure and energy priorities.

New bilateral relationships in core development sectors, such as digital, democractic governance, economic growth, and green infrastructure, offer both a shared platform for advancing development values and the opportunity to renew our bilateral relationships. Engaging with key partners in areas of shared interest can pay dividends on reaching the SDGs and supporting multilateral systems.

They also offer the opportunity for the U.S. to ground our approach in greater humility at a time when U.S. leadership on development issues is at a low point. For that reason, such relationships should be a priority of policymakers — seen not as transactional but instead as potentially transformational.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Kristen Cordell

    Kristen Cordell is a fellow in the Council on Foreign Relations' International Affairs Fellowship with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Her views are not representative of her home institution.