US Global Development Council takes a swing at 'business as usual'

Mohamed El-Erian, chairman of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Global Development Council. Photo by: Cliff Owen/IMF Photo / CC BY-NC-ND

After a number of false starts, postponements and personnel changes, U.S. President Barack Obama’s Global Development Council held a long-awaited public meeting on Monday to solicit feedback on the group’s “initial thoughts” about the direction U.S. development policy should be heading.

Most of the council’s recommendations — presented in a seven-page document titled “Beyond Business as Usual” as well as in a two-page memo to Obama — either reinforce current administration priorities or suggest actions that have been raised in the past, yet failed to gain political traction.

That is, in part, because the council sought to base its “exploration of how best to strengthen U.S. development efforts” on current administration initiatives and “signature objectives.”

Read: Can you hear me now? Obama’s global development council

The council identified four areas that “cut across all development sectors,” although reiterated throughout the meeting that its mandate was not to address everything important, but to find some material initiatives that could be enacted immediately. The four current focus areas are:

1. Harnessing the private sector.

2. Innovation, transparency and evidence-based policy.

3. Climate-smart food security.

4. Global leadership.

The case for a US development finance bank

The council’s most concrete recommendations include creating a U.S. development finance bank that combines existing development finance authorities spread across U.S. government agencies, and hosting a Presidential Conference on Global Development, which would attempt to drive more public recognition of the historic successes achieved through development and contribute to negotiations around the post-2015 agenda.

The idea of a development finance bank has been raised in the United States before, and is currently receiving similar attention in the United Kingdom, but many observers suggest the creation of that kind of new institution would be a political nonstarter in the current U.S. Congress.

“I think it won’t come as a surprise to you that people are going to say, ‘nice idea, we’re not going to get anywhere with it with the Congress,’” said George Ingram, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who was in attendance.

Ingram suggested the members of the panel should be “individually and collectively committed to using your connections, your influence, your credibility, working with those elements on the Hill that are interested in this — it could mobilize the whole community.”

Short of creating a development finance bank, the council voiced its support for building out the authorities and internal capacity of the Overseas Private Investment Corp. to allow that agency to invest the returns it generates from investments back into its own operations.

The global development council will continue to receive input and consult with various NGOs, the private sector and government stakeholders to explore new areas. It is not altogether clear though what will be the outcome of these consultations and deliberations beyond memos to Obama, who is already on board with, or even out in front of, many of the council’s recommendations.

Many of these relate to initiatives Obama and others have already launched — like USAID’s Global Development Lab — and simply encourage the administration to take them further and grant them greater authorities. The council offered little insight into what budget items should be downsized in order to do so.

Taking a step back… or not

The idea of a global development council emerged from the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development issued in September 2010, which elevated development to the status of diplomacy and defense within the realm of U.S. foreign affairs.

“We thought it would be a good idea to put together a team of really smart people and ask them to take a step back and think about this thing called development … and give us their thoughts on what we might do more of, what we might do differently,” noted Gayle Smith, special assistant to Obama and senior director at the National Security Council.

But not all attendees agreed that “taking a step back” was the necessary step forward for a conversation whose broad outlines — leveraging the private sector, integrating initiatives, embracing innovation and transparency, and re-establishing U.S. development leadership — have already been rehashed in a variety of venues and dialogues.

“While this [meeting] is useful, we can’t really get into the weeds in a way that would be most useful for all of you,” said Andrea Koppel, vice president of global engagement and policy at Mercy Corps.

The council will continue to solicit public feedback as it explores more opportunities to expand and intensify U.S. development impact. Want to provide your feedback? Comments can be sent by email at gdc@usaid.gov or through the council’s online portal at www.whitehouse.gov.

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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.