Is Obama serious about development?

Is Obama serious about development?

The U.N. secretary-general is hosting a high-level meeting this week in New York calling on governments to remain committed to meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by 2015. It is clear that in the midst of a world economic crisis, the United Nations is hoping to use the MDGs to garner billions of dollars in additional financial commitments.

The United States is not a formal signatory to the MDGs (established in September 2000), but broadly agrees with the eight targets and uses them as "indicators, but not a strategy" (as Laura Hall and Elizabeth Cutler point out over at the Stimson Center blog; see also Laura’s take on the importance of implementation here).

Both the United States and Britain have in large part continued to lead the developed world in fighting poverty and bringing positive change to the developing world. Programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Malaria Initiative, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, access to education, and Debt Relief for Africa all charted new paths for partnering with the developing world to provide opportunities for millions. The Obama administration has largely remained committed to the paths set forth by President Bush.

Yesterday during his speech to the U.S. General Assembly, President Obama said that foreign assistance should be focused on development, not dependence. Obama went on to say that, "Secretary of State Clinton is leading a review to strengthen and better coordinate our diplomacy and our development efforts." He further said that his administration is rebuilding the United States Agency for International Development (USIAD).

This rebuilding of USAID has been mired with challenges and problems. Phil Levy highlights below that it took more than a year for an USAID administrator to be appointed. Today, USAID still has vacancies in the majority of its top political posts. Even if the White House were to nominate appointees now, these individuals will have little affect on USAID policies and programs in the short term.

To add to the confusion, the administration is still undergoing an internal review of development assistance grappling with who actually controls the budget mechanisms to implement foreign aid. The development community continues to express its frustration that there is no clear strategy.

While governments, foundations, businesses and civil society groups continue to rally around the MDGs’ call to action to slash poverty, hunger and disease by 2015, the Obama administration needs to demonstrate it is serious about foreign assistance and its overall development policy.

The infighting between the White House and the State Department should stop, and the administration must provide clear inter-agency guidelines through the White House’s Presidential Study Directive on Global Development (PSD-7) or the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR).

We will fail to make the grade on the world stage if we can’t get our own house in order.