Was there an Obama development doctrine?

U.S. President Barack Obama before delivering his State of the Nation address in 2015. Photo by: Pete Souza / The White House

For the last eight years, U.S. development professionals have looked to President Barack Obama to steer the country’s aid efforts. As he now leaves office, the development community is left to examine the legacy of the 44th president’s decisions — and the logic that underpinned them. Was Obama’s approach to development guided by a doctrine of its own? If so, what was it?

U.S. presidents are often well removed from implementing global development programs. Yet in practice, some presidents have made development central to their time in office. As recognition has grown that fragile states threaten global stability, weak health systems risk transnational pandemics, and stagnant economies undermine global prosperity, leaders from both political parties have come to emphasize the role development investments can play in mitigating those challenges.

Obama made his own views about development’s value for U.S. foreign policy clear in presidential policy directive six — PPD 6, issued in September 2010. The directive elevated development alongside defense and diplomacy as pillars of U.S. global engagement. Development is “indispensable in the forward defense of interests” in a complex world, it says.

Those who see Obama as a development champion point to this moment as evidence of the president’s belief in the power of foreign assistance to seize opportunities and build coalitions for U.S. “smart power.” They argue that his administration had a rare long-term view of complex challenges and took key steps to empower developing partners.

Skeptics see a foreign aid budget that flatlined during Obama’s tenure, initiatives that failed to match his Republican predecessor’s ambition, and a tendency to chase crises, instead of preventing them — and question whether there was an Obama development doctrine at work at all.

Those who see a doctrine point to the president’s direct connection with the developing world as a source for understanding its nuance.

Brian Atwood, a former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, pointed to Obama’s partial upbringing in Indonesia and professional roots as a community organizer as the basis of “a natural understanding of the importance of partnership.”

“Forty percent of USAID people are former Peace Corps volunteers. [Obama] lived in a foreign culture at a formative time in his life, and he was a community organizer, which basically meant that this Harvard educated lawyer was living in another culture,” Atwood said. “I think it was not difficult at all to explain to him how one succeeds in a foreign setting, in a developing country.”

In his remarks at the White House Summit on Global Development in July, Obama hinted at that familiarity with the development profession. After listing development advances during his administration, the president looked up at the assembly of U.S. aid workers and said, “so that’s what all of you have been doing,” drawing a laugh from the crowd.

Partnerships for change

In Atwood’s view, Obama’s personal background helped him to reach a few realizations, which together might amount to a sort of “doctrine” for his administration’s approach to development.

First, that succeeding in underserved communities is best done through partnership, not patronage — by tapping people’s own desire and energy to bring about change, instead of plying them with goods and services.

“What [people in developing countries] are looking for is the ability to be able to access information, to be able to access technology, to be able to develop their economies,” said Lee Zak, who served as the director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. “And so this isn't just about aid, this is about the ability for them to be able to control their destiny, but to do it in partnership.”

But credit for stronger partnerships shouldn’t necessarily be with the president, FHI 360 CEO Patrick Fine told Devex by email. The “Obama development doctrine” should more accurately be called the “Raj Shah development doctrine,” he wrote, referencing the former USAID administrator who served for five years and implemented a series of major reforms.

Among those was “Local Solutions,” an effort to direct more funding at partner governments, at local organizations in developing countries, and away from U.S.-based NGOs and contractors. While Obama spoke broadly about partnership, it was Shah who ushered the policy and structural reforms through USAID that were necessary to achieve that partial reorientation.

Fine also credited Shah with introducing a programmatic focus on agriculture, which “had been underinvested for years,” and energy, which “had simply become a clear and present constraint on modernization and economic growth.”

The development professional

One of Obama’s most significant contributions to U.S. aid may have been to elevate development’s place at the National Security Council, appointing Gayle Smith — USAID’s administrator until Friday at noon — to the role of senior director for development and democracy. The administration also gave USAID a key role in major policy initiatives such as Power Africa, Feed the Future, and in the Ebola crisis response, instead of positioning them in the State Department or carving out separate development institutions.

Consolidating U.S. development programs within USAID — though still a work in progress — helped ensure development assistance programs were guided by development leaders. The U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, in contrast, were often managed by diplomats and military personnel, who may not have appreciated that development proceeds according to a longer timeline than diplomacy and through close cooperation with local organizations.

Atwood sees this as Obama’s second doctrinal pillar: the “acceptance of the fact that there is a professional known as the development professional,” that this is an entirely different profession from that of the diplomat, with a different orientation, a different operating timeline, and the unique characteristic that it can only succeed when its partners do.

Obama also saw how other actors fit into the development picture — namely, business. Elizabeth Littlefield, who led the Overseas Private Investment Corp., said the president led by opening the “aperture” of U.S. development programs and “acknowledging that business does have a role in development and … can be used as a force for good in the world.”

Power Africa, for example, sought to augment the relatively limited reach of official development assistance budgets with private resources, leveraging diverse support in order to expand access to electricity.

Diminished ambitions?

Yet to some, these changes are tweaks around the margins largely unsupported in the one area that can be definitive: funding.

“President Obama had many hopes, and many lofty ideas, but they were disconnected from the budget,” Jeff Sachs, development economist and the director of Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development, wrote to Devex in an email.

“I did not detect much energy or initiative in global development during the Obama administration. Sadly, the public health agenda stagnated, and no other real development accomplishments are notable ... The George W. Bush administration, paradoxically, was far more ambitious and successful in development assistance, notably in public health,” Sachs said.

The two presidents faced very different budget realities. While Bush was able to secure support for large, publicly funded programs such as the multibillion dollar President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, Obama’s more limited initiatives are set against a backdrop of perennially failing budget negotiations with an opposition Congress. The idea that Obama would ever successfully launch another PEPFAR is probably not a reasonable expectation. His successes — such as leadership toward the Paris climate agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals — tended to rely on relatively meager appropriations.

Sachs pointed to Ebola crisis, where he said he would give the administration “higher marks,” with a caveat. “Crises like the Ebola epidemic should be prevented ... not merely responded to, later and insufficiently,” Sachs wrote. He criticized the administration’s failure to seize on the aftermath of the crisis, describing, “little follow up to the Ebola epidemic in terms of long-term innovation.”

The long view

Where some see insufficient progress, colleagues within the administration are quick to point out that Obama took a long view of complex challenges. Littlefield said that the president hoped to avoid the “intractable challenge” of “short-termism” in policymaking.

Power Africa, a bipartisan Obama-era initiative to double electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa, best exemplified the president’s optimism about long-term progress. The decision to tackle power generation had to be taken knowing that the effort would “span an administration” and beyond, Littlefield said.

“You don't build the regulatory framework to support private investment in power overnight. It was a demonstration of great leadership for him to establish Power Africa as a priority because it demonstrated exactly the type of long-term thinking that development challenges require,” she said.

In that light Obama’s pledge to add 30,000 megawatts of new power can either be seen as naive or humble — naive if the president thought his administration would be able to reach that goal; humble if the president understood himself to be one part of a much-longer process. His remarks at the White House summit last year made it clear Obama had embraced the latter conclusion by the end of his second term.

“Sometimes we get disappointed in this age of instant gratification when we don't feel as if everything is solved. Well, 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,” the president said.

Adva Saldinger contributed reporting.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    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.