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Development Shows Up at U.S. Presidential Conventions and in the Party Platforms

September 8, 2008

National Political ConventionCGD and other organizations working to make the U.S. role in reducing global poverty part of the national debate in the 2008 presidential elections can claim some interim victories: the Democratic and Republican platforms both address the development implications not only of foreign assistance but also of trade and climate change; high-level discussions on the U.S. role in global development took place at both national party conventions; and the issues even took center stage, albeit briefly, during the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. These interim victories signal significant progress, but CGD president Nancy Birdsall says there is a long way to go before the issues are fully integrated into the U.S. presidential politics that Americans see on the nightly news.

Nancy spoke at high-level side events at both conventions. At the Democratic National Convention in Denver, she participated in the Rocky Mountain Roundtable session on global poverty, part of a week-long series for international leaders coordinated by the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Nancy and nine other panelists, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Millennium Challenge Corporation CEO John Danilovich, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and actor and advocate Ben Affleck offered an audience of 2,000 people their suggestions on how the next administration can help tackle global poverty and improve the U.S. role in the world.

CGD President Nancy Birdsall with Ben Affleck and Tom Daschle at the National Democratic Institute's (NDI) 2008 Rocky Mountain Roundtable (photo courtesy of NDI)“The world isn’t Vegas -- what happens there matters here” was the resounding theme of the Denver panels, in which several participants said that Americans’ well-being is linked to the lives of others around the world as never before. Former ambassador Richard Holbrook said that, unlike Vegas, “what happens in the rest of the world doesn’t stay there anymore.” Based on this premise, Nancy and others urged the next U.S. president to do more to tackle global poverty, inequality, conflict, disease, and climate change to create prosperity and security globally and at home. (See the The World Isn't Vegas: What Happens There, Matters Here Say Global Poverty Experts at Democratic National Convention for a full account)

At the Republican convention, Nancy spoke at the ONE Campaign’s panel on “Growth, Opportunity and Stability in the Developing World.” During the panel, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist asked Nancy to share key recommendations from the Center’s new book The White House and the World: A Global Development Agenda for the Next President.

Nancy said the next president should focus on providing unrestricted trade access to U.S. markets for the poorest countries and tap into U.S. business and technological prowess to help create opportunity and prosperity through things like a regional highway system in sub-Saharan Africa and a “green revolution” for agriculture in Africa. She also spoke of the need to streamline and better coordinate U.S. foreign assistance programs and for the U.S. to be more multilateral and use its leadership to help reform the multilateral institutions like the United Nations and World Bank. (See Global Development (Briefly) on Center Stage at the GOP Convention for details.)

While the development event in Denver had a much larger American and international audience and attracted brief media attention (thanks in part to Ben Affleck’s participation), it was at the Republican convention in St. Paul where the issues made it to center stage. Senator Frist spoke about development issues in a speech to the assembled delegates, and an introductory video for Cindy McCain showed her sporting a ONE Campaign t-shirt and hat during a recent trip to Rwanda.

Nancy Birdsall, Michael Fairbanks, Dina Habib PowellIn his speech, Senator Frist called global health programs and international assistance “currency for peace” and “core components of our strategy for national security.” He praised the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Account for providing hope and “a powerful antidote to terrorism” in the poorest countries. He argued that this generation could make extreme poverty history and “lead with compassion and urgency to save lives, to show America's greatness, and to spread peace through health, one child at a time, for a better, safer world for us all.” (watch the video and read the speech)

Perhaps more importantly, both the Democratic and Republican party platforms released during the conventions pay significant attention to the development implications of U.S. foreign assistance, trade, climate change, and other global development policies.

“I was delighted to join the many organizations in Denver and Minneapolis working to insert global development into the party conventions,” Nancy Birdsall said on her return to Washington. “But the content in the platforms is better than the state of discourse on the convention floor – which amounts to virtual absence of thinking about how the U.S. is affected by and affects the developing world, and why that matters. We are pleased with the interest of key policymakers like former Senator Frist and those involved in writing the platforms, but we have a long way to go before the issues are seen as fundamental to U.S. presidential politics and are covered in mainstream media.”

The Democratic platform commits to modernizing U.S. foreign assistance “policies, tools, and operations in an elevated, empowered, consolidated, and streamlined U.S. development agency. Development and diplomacy will be reinforced as key pillars of U.S. foreign policy, and our civilian agencies will be staffed, resourced, and equipped to address effectively new global challenges.” It also says Democrats will invest in improving global health and lead to combat climate change. The Democratic platform cites access to education, secure food and water supplies, health care, trade, capital, and investment among the tools the U.S. should use to fight terrorism.

The Republican platform commits to “target foreign assistance to high-impact goals” related to democratic governance, literacy and learning, global health, clean water, agricultural improvement, and microcredit for small enterprises as “foundations for economic development.” It further commits to develop a strategy for foreign assistance that includes reviewing the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to align foreign assistance policies, operations, budgets and statutory authorities; to strengthen non-military tools to promote national security; to pay greater attention to core development programs—education, child survival and agricultural development; and to ensure greater accountability by recipient countries to prevent “malfeasance” and “corruption” and to make sure “continued assistance is conditioned on performance.”

“This year saw an unprecedented level of attention to global development at and around the presidential conventions,” said CGD deputy director of outreach and policy Sarah Jane Staats, who accompanied Nancy Birdsall in Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

“The inclusion of specific policy recommendation in not one but both party platforms was a signal that these issues are gaining greater recognition in the parties’ policy circles,” she said. Staats attributed the increased attention to the changing nature of the world and to the ongoing efforts of a broad coalition of groups including the ONE Campaign, the Center for U.S. Global Engagement and to the members of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.

CGD has contributed as a high-impact think tank through its rigorous research and practical ideas, including those that are part of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Initiative. We at the Center have also had a bit of fun packaging some of these ideas for an audience beyond the beltway through a YouTube video, Bring Foreign Assistance into the 21st Century

, which has been viewed by more than 13,000 people (learn more about the video here).

With fewer than sixty days to the presidential election, the growing number of Americans who care about U.S. leadership on global challenges will be tuning in to the presidential and vice-presidential debates hoping to see global development issues, and the principles outlined in the party platforms, discussed and reported on the national level during the debates on September 26 and October 2, 7, and 15.

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Photo of Nancy Birdsall
Senior Fellow, President Emeritus