Smart power and 20th-century attitudes: Impressions from Charlotte on foreign aid

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his speech during the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by: PBS NewsHour / CC BY-NC

The Democratic National Convention closed Thursday, Sept. 6, in Charlotte, North Carolina, by re-nominating Barack Obama for president. Devex asked Pat MacEnulty, a Charlotte resident, book author and associate professor of writing at Johnson & Wales University who has only a limited knowledge of development cooperation, to share her impressions on two panel discussions that day.

What is the primary motivation for international aid and development? This question was addressed in a National Democratic Institute panel that took place Thursday, Sept. 6, here in Charlotte.

The panel, entitled “Global Responses to Poverty and Human Development,” was organized with the ONE campaign and centered on discussions related to innovations in ending worldwide poverty and disease.

Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said development initiatives from the West should be based on the mutual interests of equals.

“People are responsible to choose the governance that looks out for their bests interests,” he said, touting the fact that democracy is becoming a stronger force in Africa than ever before. But, he added, those people and their government need to be able to control their own resources and not lose them to outsiders.

Panelist Tom Daschle, the former U.S. Senate majority leader, observed that Americans and the U.S. government are less cognizant of what those mutual interests might be than private organizations and public-private partnerships. He said that because of the weak economy and the U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, public interest in international development has waned. He pointed out that this lack of interest in international aid and development not only misses opportunities for mutual advantages, it cedes those advantages to China, which is a growing influence in the region.

Actor and humanitarian Ashley Judd brought a different perspective to the session.

“What comes out of the head goes over the head,” she told the audience. “What comes from the heart goes to the heart.”

Judd eloquently expressed her view that empathy is a crucial factor in providing aid and bringing development to underdeveloped regions. She said having empathy allows people to transcend local interests and helps them become more responsive to the needs of others. Judd serves on the board of directors of Population Services International and is involved in a number of initiatives focusing on health services for those in dire need.

David Miliband, member of Parliament and former British foreign secretary, cautioned that the West must live up to the promises of the Millennium Development Goals.

“We are not on track to the meet the MDGs by 2015, and if the West doesn’t do what it said it would do, then it loses credibility.”

Mutual interests, empathy and maintaining credibility — according to the panelists, any or all of these serve to motivate the West to invest in aid and development.

Smart power

Earlier in the day, at an NDI session sponsored by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, the buzzword was “smart power.”

Smart power means carefully considering where we invest, said Diane Feinstein, chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“I’m not sure we should put a billion dollars into Egypt,” she said, warning that an Islamic government could put that money to undesirable use.

Madeleine Albright (wearing her glittery Uncle Sam pin) warned that we currently face an institutional crisis. She said people do not have much faith in institutions, especially those that seem to be mired in 20th-century attitudes.

“The system is set up to deal with nation-states,” she said. But in the 21st century, many more stakeholders must be considered: NGOs, multinational companies, even terrorists. “We’re dealing with big issues that cross lines and involve non-state actors.”

The panelists addressed a range of other topics including Syria, women in Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation and the problem of Iran. Jack Lew, White House chief of staff, listed a range of accomplishments achieved by the United States in international health initiatives, food security, human rights and economic development.

As someone who is interested although not particularly well-versed in these subjects, I found it fascinating.

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