A Look Back at Development in the SOTU and What it Means Today

President Biden is scheduled to deliver his second State of the Union address tonight. Historically, these speeches have focused on domestic policy and leading national security issues, yielding limited airtime for international development. But, on occasion, past presidents of both parties have spotlighted development and humanitarian policy in big and small ways. Here’s a trip down SOTU memory lane:

Global health

In 2003, President George W. Bush famously used his second State of the Union address to launch the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), an unprecedented US government investment to tackle the scourge of HIV/AIDS overseas, particularly in Africa. Recently marking its 20th anniversary, PEPFAR reflected on its origin story and the millions of lives saved in its two decades of operation. As President Bush underscored to Congress at the time, "seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many." PEPFAR is up for reauthorization this year, giving lawmakers a chance to renew this commitment and accelerate progress toward the global goal of ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

Debt relief

When President Bill Clinton addressed the chamber for his final State of the Union in 2000 (the longest on record), many low-income countries were spending more on debt service than domestic health and education. The president appealed to lawmakers to continue US support for the IMF and World Bank's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative to reduce the debts of the lowest income countries. Clinton would go on to champion action in multilateral fora such as the G7 and work with leaders on Capitol Hill from both sides of the aisle to resource debt relief efforts. To date, 36 countries have completed the HIPC process. But as government debt levels surged during the COVID-pandemic, the United States and the international community voiced concern about countries' growing debt burdens and the potential for another crisis on the horizon. What's more, today's circumstances—including a very different composition of creditors—could make identifying and agreeing to appropriate solutions all the more challenging.

Trade preferences

President Reagan pursued trade preferences as a development tool. He urged congressional action to provide duty-free treatment for goods from certain Caribbean countries as part of the administration's Caribbean Basin Initiative in his 1983 State of the Union. 

Similarly, in his penultimate State of the Union, President Clinton called on lawmakers to pass the "African Trade and Development Act," citing the need to support democracy and reform on the continent. The following year, Congress sent legislation to his desk that included a new trade preference program known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). While the duty-free access to goods from eligible sub-Saharan African countries afforded by AGOA hasn't quite delivered the economic development once hoped, Congress will have another bite at the apple soon since the program will expire in fall 2025.

Foreign aid reform

When addressing Congress in 1958 amid the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower pushed back against critics of US aid programs—military and economic. In several statements punctuated by exclamation points, he argued that allegations the program was a "give-away" were unfounded and urged lawmakers to "stick to the facts" rather than be swayed by a slogan. "The real fact is that no investment we make in our own security and peace can pay us greater dividends than necessary amounts of economic aid to friendly nations." Still, Eisenhower pledged to make economic aid more effective by emphasizing repayable development loans and continuing to work to increase private capital investment.

And, of course, we can't leave out President John F. Kennedy, who chose to address Congress shortly after this inauguration in 1961, previewing plans to request "authority to establish a new and more effective program for assisting the economic, educational and social development of other countries and continents." He offered more detail less than two months later in a special message that leveled critiques at the existing US foreign aid program, calling for a major reform effort. His vision included the creation of a unified agency, the promise of tailored country programs and long-term planning, an emphasis on loans and rewarding countries willing to undertake their own reforms. He also highlighted the importance of multilateralism, a talented aid workforce, and drawing a clear distinction between military and economic assistance. His ambitions helped inform passage of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 later that year, enabling President Kennedy to return to the podium in his second State of the Union address to laud the newly created US Agency for International Development (along with the Peace Corps, and an expanded US international food assistance program). In the more than 60 intervening years, despite charges that the Foreign Assistance Act may no longer be "fit for purpose," Congress has failed to advance a rewrite, instead relying heavily on annual appropriations measures to shape US foreign aid policy. Still, this seems a doubtful political climate for meaningful bipartisan reform, where many past attempts failed under far less partisan circumstances.


Even absent a big announcement during tonight's address, President Biden will have the opportunity to remind Congress of the importance of continued US engagement and response in the face of so many pressing global challenges—an opportunity seized by a number of his predecessors. Evolving and emerging crises threaten global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and compete for the administration's time and attention. Nevertheless, inspired by the work of our CGD colleagues, here are a few creative ideas—building on past efforts and current domestic initiatives—we'd be excited to hear the president get behind.

  • Spotlight global lead poisoning

The bipartisan infrastructure law signed in November 2021 has enabled investments in lead pipe removal and lead paint remediation in communities across the United States. Lead is a powerful neurotoxin with devastating effects on children—making this work vital. But lead remains a scourge across the world and receives little international attention. President Biden could help change that.

  • Promote innovation through pull financing

US federal investments in research and development have helped spur critical innovations in health and agriculture with global implications. But making greater use of pull mechanisms could incentivize solutions to advance disease diagnostics and treatment or tackle various challenges in the face of climate change, supporting future development progress.  

Recognizing that access to lawful migration channels can help reduce irregular migration, the administration has sought to expand access to temporary visa programs for nationals from the countries of the Northern Triangle. As a next step, the United States could explore a Global Skill Partnership that trains workers in needed skills—for both origin and domestic labor markets—prior to their migration, yielding benefits to both countries and migrants alike.

  • Elevate the care agenda

The United States has made commitments to promoting early childhood development and women's economic empowerment globally—but rarely have those agendas been formally connected. While the COVID-19 pandemic elevated the importance of care work in the domestic economy, drawing the clear connection between—and where advantageous even integrating—US investments in early learning in low- and middle-income countries and efforts to boost women's labor force participation could help ensure this agenda gets the attention it deserves.

  • Reaffirm support for the poorest

Considerable recent US attention has rightly focused on Ukraine and climate finance in emerging markets. But many low-income countries are increasingly concerned that they are being forgotten in our crisis age. Leaders in these countries point to the lack of urgency exhibited by the United States and its allies when it comes to their challenges, including failure to secure global solidarity in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout; insufficient leadership when it comes to addressing the massive debt overhang looming over many low-income countries, which may soon have to choose between servicing their debt and funding basic imports; and failure to provide the scale of financing needed to help them cope with the adaptation costs associated with climate change. While we don’t anticipate the rollout of a major new development policy initiative at the State of the Union, the pulpit does provide a unique opportunity to confirm that United States has the back of those around the world struggling the most.


Thanks to Clemence Landers for suggestions on an earlier draft.


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.

Image credit for social media/web: Adobe Stock