The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

The end of poverty: Is America in it to win it?

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The debate at key Congressional Hearings this week will tell us how committed our government is to lasting solutions to global poverty and injustice

Hillary Clinton is no stranger to thoughtful stagecraft. But this week, she will have to give the performance of a lifetime if she wishes to protect America’s efforts to fight poverty around the globe.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Secretary makes the ritual annual trip to Capitol Hill, to testify before key Congressional Committees about next year’s foreign affairs budget request. The Secretary has long been a champion of robust, effective global development programs. But with the economy still weak, and the deficit still big, the Secretary is going to need to make her strongest possible case if she is going to be able to avoid cuts to US diplomatic and development efforts.

The Obama administration has been forcefully arguing why our investment in fighting global poverty is so important to the United States’ core interests. The President’s FY13 budget request explicitly links foreign affairs funding to efforts to advance “the security of the American people, the prosperity and trade that creates American jobs, and support for universal values around the world.” And Congress seems to be agreeing; last year, Congress eventually voted to maintain US spending to fight global poverty.

I say “eventually” because, at the beginning of last year, some Members of Congress wanted to eliminate all international affairs spending. Some called for cuts to prove their commitment to cutting the deficit—despite the fact that, at only one percent of the budget, cutting all foreign aid wouldn’t even dent the deficit. Others wanted to cut foreign aid because they don’t think the problems of other countries are actually important to US interests. Meanwhile, those cuts would put America at risk, and pull the rug out from under the very people who are trying to fix problems like poverty, hunger, and human rights abuses that cause problems for us here at home.

It’s worth listening to the critics of development assistance in these upcoming hearings. A few key questions to Secretary Clinton, and how she answers, can help shed light on which direction the US will take over the next few years. In particular, watch for questions on:

• Long term focus: Development investment can take a long time to pay off. But Congress is eager for quick results. Will Members of Congress play “gotcha” on individual projects that didn’t pan out? Or will they try to get the Secretary to outline longer-term outcomes that they can hold the Administration accountable for?

• Passing new laws: the Obama Administration has put sweeping reforms in place over the last few years to make our development assistance work better. But few of these have been passed into law, meaning they could be easily changed before they have time to pay off. Will Secretary Clinton embrace a role for Congress in reform? Or will she try to tell Congress that legislation isn’t needed (despite ample evidence to the contrary)?

• Corruption in oil, gas & mining: corruption is always a staple argument for aid critics. Congress has passed rules to require US-based oil, gas & mining companies to disclose payments to governments, so citizens can actually follow the money their government spends. Yet companies are pushing for loopholes and exemptions to water down its impact. Will Members of Congress speak up for these rules intended to help citizens blow the whistle on corruption?

• The response to the Arab Spring: in light of the halting progress towards democracy in Egypt, some Members of Congress want to cut off all aid to Egypt. The President has proposed a different approach; rather than cutting of our nose to spite our face in Egypt, why not direct more resources towards those countries making more progress towards democracy? In other words, why not stop talking about punishing bad behavior and start trying to support—and incentivize—democratic behavior? To see how Congress feels about this, watch to see if they support or criticize the President’s proposed $770m “Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund,” and how well the Secretary is able to defend it.

The debate that happens this week around these key questions will help map out the strategic course the United States will take in the next few years—and tell us how committed our government is to investing in lasting solutions to poverty and injustice around the world.

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