U.S. President Barack Obama waves to the crowd during his speech in Accra, Ghana in 2009. Obama is set to make a State of the Union address on February 12, 2013. Photo by: Pete Souza / White House

The annual State of the Union address is the biggest policy speech of the year for the U.S. president. It’s a chance to lay out priorities for the coming year, a particularly weighty matter at the start of a new term.

Washington is abuzz before a speech of this import and every interest group and federal agency is lobbying hard for their own priorities to become part of the president’s agenda with just a brief mention in this speech.

So, what might President Barack Obama say about global development?

On the one hand, the president has a very full plate with priorities that many would argue are more pressing than development policy. There are major negotiations over spending cuts and tax and entitlement reform before the federal government hits the debt ceiling and defaults on its obligations. There’s the desire to invest in badly-needed infrastructure and do something about climate change. And there’s desperately overdue immigration reform. Amid all of this, development appears likely to be sidelined.

Then again, second terms are about legacy.

The president has made clear his view that global development is a top national security priority. And let’s not forget his strong personal connection to development: His mother was a development consultant, working for the likes of the Asian Development Bank and the Ford Foundation. He’s the first president with a direct personal connection to a developing country. Obama knows development and cares about it.

It seems logical that he would want to make his mark in this area before he leaves the White House.

In his first term, Obama didn’t engage development issues directly. Sure, he released a historic policy directive on global development, which prompted reforms especially at USAID and focused attention on food security and global health. The United States also led relief efforts in Haiti and encouraged democratic movements in Burma and throughout the Middle East.

But there’s been no new initiative of the magnitude of PEPFAR or the Millennium Challenge Corp., both launched during the administration of President George W. Bush.

For many of us who work in the development field, the most pressing need is a modernized U.S. foreign aid system. Before he left Congress earlier this month, Howard Berman, the California Democrat, put forward legislation to rewrite the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, an antiquated bill (last reauthorized in 1985) that continues to govern U.S. development policy. But the White House has so far shown little interest in engaging in yet another legislative battle, and – especially considering what happened during the bruising fight over the fiscal cliff – who can blame them? The president appears poised to continue his first-term approach to foreign aid: make reforms where possible within the limits of existing law, but don’t spend a lot of time trying to move the pieces around the org chart or clean up the alphabet soup of aid agencies.

As frustrating as this may be for many in the development community who have long dreamed of a day when we’d have a centralized, cabinet-level aid agency, Obama’s approach may well be the most realistic. And even the reforms undertaken within existing law – namely those efforts under USAID Forward – have yet to be fully institutionalized. Just getting those changes to be adopted in process and culture at USAID is a tall order in itself.

All of this means that Obama will likely not announce a big foreign aid reform or a new foreign aid bureaucracy. Don’t expect another Feed the Future or Global Health Initiative or anything else which either costs money or entails bureaucratic changes. That leaves only one likely option – a presidential initiative.

What Obama may choose to do is use his bully pulpit and his global popularity to advocate for an issue rather than to fund something new. At the Clinton Global Initiative a few months ago, he did just that, focusing on human trafficking and famously saying that we should call it by its true name, “modern slavery.” In the State of the Union, he may expound further on that theme or choose another in that vein.

That could leave the development community disappointed, hoping for something more substantive than pure advocacy.

Another option, more focused on economic development and more tied to U.S. national security interests, would be a signature initiative on Africa. Something like what President John F. Kennedy did for Latin America with the Alliance for Progress (but learning from the mistakes Kennedy made in that early foreign aid foray).

Many within the United States and the Western world continue to see Africa as a basket case – an aid recipient, a victim. The Chinese, meanwhile, taking a more mercantilist view, see Africa as an investment opportunity, a land rich in natural resources they would like to tap. Obama may be uniquely positioned to change the view of Africa and set a global agenda for the continent that leverages growing private sector interest to make badly needed development progress.

An initiative of this kind would likely not entail new funds (although it may include support for investors from the Overseas Private Investment Corp.) and so could be presented in a time of budget austerity. And it would help set up a presidential visit to Africa – perhaps even to Kenya (a country no sitting president has ever visited) – which would garner unprecedented global media attention.

The substance of a presidential initiative on Africa may be thin. Critics might say it offers little in the way of new funding and is mostly rhetorical. But if anyone can change the global view of Africa in a way that increases private sector investment, tourism and trade, while setting up a clear contrast between U.S. and Chinese policy of engagement, it could be this president. Stay tuned.

About the author

  • Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community. He is the author of the book "The Business of Changing the World," a go-to primer on the ideas, people, and technology disrupting the aid industry.