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Once upon a time there was an election where all the presidential candidates promised to promote global development. Candidate Obama became president with a development platform on strengthening our common security by investing in our common humanity. He then appointed a secretary of state with knowledge and passion for development.

A year went by. A USAID administrator was finally named. The White House launched a development review. State and USAID launched one too. And no one in the development community knew quite what to do.

So they watched and they waited. They gossiped; they debated. What would all this lead to? And then, manna from heaven:  a leaked copy of the presidential review. So what if it wasn’t final? The blogs were atwitter with what the review might deliver. And the views were varied, from sad to quite merry.

My thoughts are somewhere in between.

The draft has some good things…

  • A call for a national strategy on global development;
  • USAID participation on the National Security Council (something my colleague Sheila Herrling called for and I understand is already taking place);
  • A focus on broad-based economic growth and increased selectivity (regions and sectors);
  • Stronger U.S. leadership in the multilateral development institutions; and
  • A renewed partnership with Congress.

But…

  • There is a lot of room for interpretation, including what a national strategy for global development will actually say and when; what elevating development means in practice; and how the U.S. will make hard choices between different types of development interventions.

And meanwhile…

  • USAID Administrator Raj Shah is launching promising efforts to revitalize USAID, as discussed in two major speeches last week, highlighting the need to create a culture of entrepreneurship and learning; announcing the creation of a policy, planning and learning bureau within the agency; and working to enhance budget capacity as well.
  • The administration has already launched two major development initiatives for food security and global health. Both are focused on important issues but have complicated joint management and sector-specific coordination mechanisms that “stir the spaghetti” by adding to the already fragmented and ad hoc approach of our development efforts.
  • Congress too is starting to introduce and move development legislation that must come up with unsatisfying compromises to work in our current circus of development agencies, leadership and jurisdiction.

How will the story end? If I could choose my own adventure, I’d pick the version where the White House provides clear direction on U.S. development policy and a process for leveraging development expertise across all the relevant U.S. government agencies. The secretary of state would remain the strong voice for civilian engagement around the world, but would give USAID its own policy and budget authority. USAID in turn would get its management team in place quickly (including all twelve of its yet to be named Senate-confirmable positions) so it can be an informed and capable development voice in U.S. foreign policy. And the full executive branch development team would work with Congress on the future direction of development policy and necessary reforms, including rewriting the outdated foreign assistance act of 1961.

The window of opportunity to make real, lasting changes in U.S. development policy is closing. I hope some development wishes are granted soon, before this becomes another chapter in the fifty-year development story…without the happy ending.

For more on the current state of U.S. global development policy, see a recent op-ed by Nancy Birdsall and Sarah Jane Staats.