Development and the New Politics – Nancy Birdsall’s Final Podcast as CGD President

December 13, 2016

“We're going to have global markets still operating,” says Nancy Birdsall confidently, but “the big issue is, will we have a good global politics operating?”

And that is indeed the question, as turbulent 2016 draws to a close and 2017 rolls into view. It’s one that will continue to occupy Birdsall, who is stepping down at the end of December as CGD’s first and only president, but will stay on as a senior fellow.  No doubt she will join me on the CGD Podcast in the future, but the somewhat symbolic occasion of her last podcast as CGD president offers a chance to reflect on what’s changed, and what she hopes development folks will think about over the coming years.

CGD’s founding—just two months after the 9/11 attacks on the US—coincided, according to Birdsall, with a shift in thinking among US politicians, to embrace the idea that nurturing stable, prosperous societies overseas has direct benefits to the US. That logic continues to underpin much of CGD’s work. Now Birdsall, like many, are concerned that political thinking in some major economies is turning inward again.


A Greater Premium on Cooperation

For development advocates, Birdsall points out three factors to think about in the coming years. Firstly, “development is a long-haul game,” she says, as much a reminder as a strategy, “so I think we just have to think of a five, ten, 15, even 20-year horizon... and keep our eye on the ball.”

“It means I suppose there's a greater premium on thinking about cooperation among nations, particularly on issues like climate but also in general, that we're all in this together in the world.”

Birdsall further defends global cooperation: the rise of China, India and other emerging economies takes us deeper into the multipolar world where the US may still be the only superpower, but by a slightly diminished margin; the dawn of the age of the SDGs brings not only ambitions for all countries, but also a recognition of our interconnectedness—and that some of the biggest problems in the world require global solutions, such as climate change and fast-moving pandemics.

The Plight of Strugglers

Secondly, despite huge reductions in global poverty, there are still many who Birdsall calls “strugglers.”

“Their families have been lifted out of the worst form of abject poverty,” she tells me. “$1.90 is the international poverty line, but $1.91 is not that different. These are people that have gotten to $4 a day, $6 a day, $8 a day even, but in many countries they are extremely vulnerable to a fall back below their current income level." (Check out Birdsall’s co-authored paper on strugglers.)

"In that sense, we can compare them to the problem of the white working class that we are all more familiar with in the US—those are people whose expectations are not being realized and who are frustrated."

The plight of the strugglers is exacerbated, Birdsall says, by inequality and weak states—a combination of factors that the development community cannot ignore in the coming years.

“The reality is that most people, until they get into something I would say is the middle class with relative income security, they probably live in settings where life is not fair, where the state is not protecting them. It might actually be the oppressor.”

Get Out of the Way

Not only is effective government necessary at the national level, but—and this is the third flag Birdsall plants for the future of development—we must also think more about better macroeconomic policies that make the rules of global systems fairer. This, she points out, is something CGD has been doing since its inception 15 years ago, and something that it will continue to do under new president Masood Ahmed. It harks back to a simple mantra Birdsall and CGD have been repeating: get out of the way.

"Much of the future of developing countries, and the people in those countries, is in their own hands,” Birdsall says. “In a way, the task of us outside who want to see development happen, is as much not to get in the way. That's at the heart of the problem we all face: how to do good without doing harm.”

Nancy Birdsall steps down as CGD president at the end of December 2016, having led the organization for its first fifteen years. Below, some recent visitors to CGD pay tribute to her accomplishments. Masood Ahmed will join us in early 2017.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.