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As President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama perhaps enjoyed their in-flight Bollywood entertainment and tandoori chicken en route to Mumbai, the world around them was a buzz about whom the President and First Lady will meet, what they will wear, and what this trip will lead to.   In the United States, the news is focused on President Obama’s trip to India and other Asian “markets” as a way of creating jobs back home or on the more ridiculous and incorrect speculation about the cost of his trip.  In India, people are both agog and proud that the President and First Lady of the United States of America chose to visit the largest democracy in the world.  While trade and security (see here, here, and here) were on the top of the agenda, two other important messages about global development emerged.

Country Ownership for Sustained Development

President Obama’s address to India’s parliament is a stirring message to India that it is a global power, “India isn’t simply emerging, India has emerged”—economically, strategically, and as the largest democracy.  Obama was careful to attribute India’s development success to India—

“An ancient civilization of science and innovation.  A fundamental faith in human progress.  This is the sturdy foundation upon which you have built ever since that stroke of midnight when the tricolor was raised over a free and independent India.  And despite the skeptics who said that this country was simply too poor, too vast, too diverse to succeed, you surmounted overwhelming odds and became a model to the world.”

Skip to 6:30.

In delivering these words to the Indian Parliament and her citizens, President Obama sends a powerful message about global development: country ownership.

President Obama’s new global development policy directive underscores country ownership and responsibility as a way for countries to lift themselves out of poverty and assume their role on the global stage.  By highlighting India’s trajectory from independence to the 21st century, Obama is signaling the importance of transparency, good governance, and accountability for sustained economic growth. This is a clear message to other countries but it is also cleverly upping the ante for India. To assume its role as a global player, India has to work harder and act more responsibly to lift its poorest people out of poverty and hunger (40% of Indians still live below the poverty line), and share these lessons with other countries. High economic growth rates alone won’t do the trick.

From Aid to Trade & Beyond

In his speech to Parliament, President Obama barely referenced the past five decades of U.S.-India cooperation because he rightfully chose to emphasize India’s ownership in creating a modern India. But a quick look at the past is important to understand how a partnership can evolve from one of donor-recipient to partners in trade, democratic governance, science, technology and innovation. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), in its official summary of 50 years of U.S.-India Cooperation explains how the aid “package” evolved as India’s development needs and U.S. foreign policy needs shifter over time:

“Since 1951, the U.S. has provided $15.4 billion (the equivalent $59 billion in today's dollars) in economic assistance to India.  U.S. assistance has always reflected the Indian Government's requests and priorities and, as the Indian economy has developed, the nature of this economic assistance has changed to meet new requirements. U.S. economic assistance peaked at $1.6 billion in 1960, when food aid accounted for 92% of the annual assistance budget.  As India became self-sufficient in food production and expanded its industrial capability and infrastructure, the focus of USAID programs shifted to science and technology transfer, economic liberalization, and global issues of population growth, HIV/AIDS, and the status of women.”

The message here is loud and clear: the U.S. will redefine its relationships with countries as they develop, in an increasingly interdependent world.

President Obama echoed the sentiment in his own words:

“Just as India has changed, so too has the relationship between our two nations.  In the decades after independence, India advanced its interests as a proud leader of the nonaligned movement.  Yet too often, the United States and India found ourselves on opposite sides of a North-South divide and estranged by a long Cold War.  Those days are over.  Here in India, two successive governments led by different parties have recognized that deeper partnership with America is both natural and necessary.  In the United States, both of my predecessors—one Democrat, one Republican—worked to bring us closer, leading to increased trade and a landmark civil nuclear agreement. Since then, people in both our countries have asked: what next?  How can we build on this progress and realize the full potential of our partnership?  That is what I want to address today—the future that the United States seeks in an interconnected world; why I believe that India is indispensable to this vision; and how we can forge a truly global partnership—not in just one or two areas, but across many; not just for our mutual benefit, but for the world’s. Of course, only Indians can determine India’s national interests and how to advance them on the world stage.  But I stand before you today because I am convinced that the interests of the United States—and the interests we share with India—are best advanced in partnership.”

This is a historic moment, not just for India but for global development.  The speaker of the Lok Sabha (India’s lower House of Parliament), Meira Kumar, delivered a moving Vote of Thanks to President Obama summing up the significance of his visit to India, “Some moments are recorded in history as points of reference. Mr. President, this is that moment.”

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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.