President Barack Obama — and key members of his foreign policy team — enjoyed what many called a development “victory lap” this week in Washington, D.C.
Officials billed Wednesday’s White House Summit on Global Development as one part “celebration” and one part “recommitment.” In the twilight of an administration that launched multiple development initiatives and built on others it inherited, the resounding message to development professionals — “just a lot of do-gooders in one room,” as Obama dubbed them — was keep doing what you’re doing.
In place of big announcements — other than his signing the Global Food Security Act of 2016 into law — or new directions, the president opted for a message of continuity. He reminded attendees that the goals they strive to achieve take time.
Throughout the day — and in the president’s extended closing remarks — U.S. development leaders and partners showcased initiatives and policies the administration has put in place over the last eight years. They spoke about 9 million smallholder farmers, food producers, and rural families aided by Feed the Future, the legacy food security initiative; 4.6 million children and 200,000 mothers alive because of efforts to end maternal and child death; and 29,000 megawatts of energy expected to flow from Power Africa-motivated investments.
They mostly described these efforts not as examples of U.S. generosity and goodwill, but in terms of their direct relevance as strategies to respond to and prevent the most pressing challenges facing the country and the world.
“I may only have six months left in office, but I’m here to say that whoever the next president is, development has to remain a fundamental pillar of American foreign policy and a key part of our work to lift up lives not just overseas, but here in the United States,” Obama said.
“If you care about human dignity, if you care about reducing violence and terrorism, if you care about fighting climate change, if you care about addressing inequality and creating trade and prosperity that works for all and not just some, then you’re going to have to pay attention to development. You’re going to have to make an investment,” the president added.
Obama was preceded by a national security-heavy lineup of moderators, reinforcing a development outlook that increasingly blurs the line between national security and global development priorities.
“There’s a reason why Susan Rice, my national security adviser, is with us here today,” Obama said. Rice repeatedly referred to the session she moderated as “global health and global health security,” and she referenced the administration’s Global Health Security Agenda as a key legacy item. Some health advocates worry that while a shift from “health” to “health security” might be good messaging, it is not the same thing as supporting an individual right to good health care.
“There’s a reason why our [U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Gayle Smith” — whom Obama referred to as “she of the spectacular hair” — “sits alongside generals in the Situation Room when we're talking about critical national security issues,” the president said.
“We know there's a correlation between no education, no jobs, no hope, the violation of basic human dignity, and conflict and instability. So development isn't charity. It's one of the smartest investments we can make in our shared future — in our security and our prosperity,” he added.
It was not always clear to whom the president and his advisers were appealing in their calls for sustained development investments. Fellow donors, grantees, and implementing partners largely filled out the panel discussions; and with the summit occurring at a point of peak animosity in the most divisive American election in recent memory — bipartisan support for the U.S. development agenda provided a highly touted, but largely invisible backdrop to the gathering.
The U.S. is the largest donor of humanitarian aid in the world, “and it will remain so as long as I'm president,” Obama said to nervous laughter and applause, before adding, “and it will remain so, I'm confident, in the next administration.”
In recent months the administration, development advocates and sympathetic lawmakers on Capitol Hill have found sudden success moving long-sought aid legislation through Congress and onto the president’s desk. The Global Food Security Act, the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act, and the Electrify Africa Act will help enshrine some of the administration’s biggest development initiatives into law, giving them a better chance of enduring as funded priorities.
But the president’s speech was also an admission that development is not something accomplished in the course of a presidency. He implored modesty and patience.
“We're here on this Earth just a blink of an eye, each of us. We take the world that's been given to us and we try to make it just a little bit better, and then somebody else picks it up and they do their part,” he said. “And over time, things just get a little bit better and it adds up.”
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Michael Igoe is a senior correspondent for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers U.S. foreign aid and emerging trends in international development and humanitarian policy. Michael draws on his experience as both a journalist and international development practitioner in Central Asia to develop stories from an insider's perspective.
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