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US Development Policy

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As President Obama joked earlier this week, the White House Summit on Global Development assembled “a lot of do-gooders in one room.” It was a daylong celebration of the Administration’s achievements across food security, global health, energy access, open government and more.  There was much to applaud, including President Obama’s announcement that he had just signed into law the Global Food Security Act. Here are my three takeaways:

  • A lot of new initiatives have been successfully launched and implemented, but the bigger win is the elevation of development as a key pillar of foreign policy. The speakers highlighted a litany of U.S. policy and program achievements in the past seven-and-a-half years: 18 million children with better nutrition, progress toward bringing 30,000 megawatts of power to Africans, and 70-plus countries participating in the Open Government Partnership. These are important in and of themselves, but do not add up to policy influence when it matters most. When the national security team is debating issues – like where to put emphasis and resources in fighting violent extremism, preventing and responding to conflict, and combating climate change – development needs a seat at the table. It may not always be the prevailing voice, but it matters that the USAID Administrator “sits alongside generals in the Situation Room.” (It should be noted that despite vigorous advocacy, the USAID Administrator is not a permanent member of the National Security Council.) This Administration has advanced the view of development as a smart investment – indeed, as much more than just doing good. Development policymakers need to continue strengthening their case, bringing rigorous evidence and data to inform decisions that require tough trade-offs.
     
  • Development investments require strategic patience, and people are worried that is in short supply. Several panelists talked about the need to exercise strategic patience so our investments have a real chance of achieving systemic change and impact. Alix Zwane, CEO of the Global Innovation Fund, talked about the hard work of translating lab innovations into program results and then into fundamental changes in government service delivery systems. Too many countries, organizations and people give up somewhere in between. The President acknowledged this challenge of an age of instant gratification, quoting a plaque on his desk, “Hard things are hard.” The next Administration will need to decide the extent to which it builds on existing initiatives versus launching new ones. While it’s impossible to eliminate initiative fatigue altogether, there should be careful consideration of how to strike a balance that fosters new ideas and sustainable results.
     
  • Principles matter, a lot. As my colleague Scott Morris observed before the Summit, much of the President’s legacy relates more to the “how” than “what” of development. The Summit discussions reflected the principles set forth in his policy directive on development, including focusing on results, innovation, and partnership. On the latter, an impressive range of speakers – from a South African urban planner to a Ukrainian member of parliament to the CEO of an energy company – emphasized the critical role of the US in convening partners to take on major global challenges. There is still progress to be made to ensure partnerships are strategic and effective, but it is clear that building them is now part of the development DNA. It takes relentless focus on a handful of key principles to change culture, and the next Administration will hopefully continue and deepen this approach.

This was a well-earned victory lap for the Obama Administration. I hope there is another lower-key summit later this year to discuss mistakes made and lessons learned. That would be an appropriate complement to this week’s celebration that also reflects the Administration’s focus on results, evaluation, and learning.

Disclaimer

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