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Bipartisanship made a reappearance in a most unlikely place last Wednesday – at the podium of the United Nations.  In his address to the United National Millennium Development Goals Summit, President Obama unveiled his “new” approach to development, emphasizing a focus on results, investing in countries committed to their own development through sound governance and democracy, tapping the forces of the economic growth through entrepreneurship and trade, and the need for mutual accountability between developed and developing countries.  In doing so, he followed precisely in the footsteps of President George W. Bush.

In his speech, President Obama acknowledged “the good efforts of my predecessor” when he talked about the leadership role the United States has taken in the fight against AIDS.  Yet President Bush’s influence on the current Administration’s development policy extends much farther.  In his call to redefine development in terms of outcomes instead of inputs – “For too long, we’ve measured our efforts by the dollars we spent and the food and medicines we delivered,” President Obama echoed President Bush’s 2002 speech at the UN Financing for Development Conference in Monterrey, where he said: “For decades, the success of development aid was measured only in the resources spent, not the results achieved.”  Moreover, President Bush put those words into action, insisting that every development initiative include a concrete measure of success, such as the requirement that his malaria initiative reduce malaria mortality by 50% in its focus countries in five years.

When President Obama declared we will “focus our development efforts on countries…that promote good governance and democracy; the rule of law and equal administration of justice; transparent institutions, with strong civil societies; and respect for human rights,” he was describing, almost to a word, the policy of the Millennium Challenge Account, President Bush’s flagship development initiative that channeled aid only to countries with sound governance and policies.  His third pillar of his strategy, “broad-based economic growth,” was foreshadowed by the 2002 National Security Strategy, which set the ambitious goal of doubling the world’s poorest economies within a decade.  Several, including many of the Millennium Challenge Account countries like Mozambique and Peru, are on track to do just that, despite the recent global economic crisis.  Finally, the emphasis on mutual accountability – “we’ll insist on more responsibility—from ourselves and others” - is the heart of the Monterrey Consensus negotiated by President Bush at the Financing for Development Conference, where he declared: “Our new approach for development places responsibility on developing nations and on all nations.”

We should all be gratified President Obama rededicated our country to development policies that have been working.  The developing world grew at twice the rate in the past decade as it did in the previous two, and Africa, which recorded near zero growth in the 1980s and 1990s, grew at an annual rate of nearly 5% for the last ten years.  Despite recent setbacks, democracy and more accountable governance has become more established in the developing world, and progress is being recorded against deadly diseases such as AIDS and malaria.  Growth in the developing world has not only managed to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty but also has helped the developed world weather the global financial crisis.

Unfortunately, the bipartisan consensus between this administration and the last on development may run into bipartisan opposition at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.  Already, President Obama has had difficulty passing his foreign assistance budget, which the Democratic controlled Senate Budget Committee cut by $4 billion.  The November elections will likely bring in new members of Congress even less sympathetic to development spending in light of our growing debt.

Controlling our debt is important. Much of this past decade’s development success is the result of more fiscal responsibility in the developing world (one of the sound policy criteria of the Millennium Challenge Account).  But indiscriminately cutting foreign assistance will cost us more in the long-run.  The price of failed development policies  - in terms of humanitarian interventions, peacekeeping, disease prevalence – is far higher than the cost of continuing our successful development approaches.

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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.