Making the Most of the White House Global Development Summit

July 12, 2016

White House summits, which in recent years have addressed everything from African American LGBTQ Youth to Working Families, serve two main purposes: to make progress on a set of policy issues and to signal that the issues are a priority for the president. In this way, it’s encouraging to see the newly announced White House Summit on Global Development. More than a late term victory lap for President Obama’s global development policies and programs, I’m hopeful that this summit promotes approaches to development that will carry over into the next administration.

In fact, given that much of the president’s development legacy relates more to the “how” than the “what” of development, this summit could play a particularly useful role in cementing a set of principles and approaches first put forward by the administration six years ago.  It’s those principles, outlined in the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, that truly comprise President Obama’s development legacy. It’s an important contribution to be sure, but also one that is particularly vulnerable during a turnover in administrations. While former President George W. Bush’s legacy was cemented by creation of a new institution—the Millennium Challenge Corporation—and of a new program backed by strong authorizing legislation and generous funding—the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—the sustainability of President Obama’s approach to development may feel less secure by comparison.

Certainly there are recent legislative victories to celebrate at this summit: the Global Food Security Act, the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act, and the Electrify Africa Act.

But more importantly, the summit will be the administration’s valedictory effort to put forward an approach to global development that has broadened the lens considerably from earlier times when the enterprise was known simply as foreign aid. Thus the mark President Obama leaves on US development policy will depend on locking in a set of practices and reforms that promote sustainable development outcomes, invest in innovations, emphasize partnerships, foster accountability in our efforts and those of our partners, and encourage local ownership.

These principles, among others espoused in President Obama’s 2010 policy directive on development, have been a tall order for a foreign assistance bureaucracy that is slow to change, even if the direction is encouraging. We’ve seen their influence in the design of programs such as Feed the Future, the structure of USAID, delivery on commitments to greater country ownership, and even procurement policies. The multi-faceted approach reflected in last year’s global Financing for Development conference, very much shaped in this administration’s image, created a blueprint for the world’s largest donor country that seeks to reflect all of the ambition and complexity inherent in today’s development challenges. 

Taken together, these efforts very much reflect principles President Obama has aspired to throughout his administration: measured in tone, driven by evidence, and focused on results. The case for this approach might seem obvious to many of us, but its chances of success in the next administration will surely be improved if a wider audience can hear the case directly from President Obama and his team.  They will help their cause considerably with a frank accounting at the summit of where the core principles are being put into practice, where they are not, and the barriers to progress.

Count me among those who believe this administration does deserve to take a bit of a victory lap next week. But let’s hope this White House, with just months left in its tenure, will use the summit to project an agenda forward and not just look backward.


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.