The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Obama takes a bow

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President Barack Obama speaks at the White House Global Development Summit on July 20, 2016. Source: Author.

President Barack Obama will leave a legacy on global development, but it was a long slog.

Yesterday, the White House hosted a Global Development Summit.  It was a great event and I was honored to be invited.  The highlight was a keynote speech by President Obama, taking a well-deserved victory lap for the contributions to global development during his administration.

Although there is a solid record of accomplishment, President Obama has not featured international aid and development very much in the public messaging of his Presidency. It was hard to find in his major speeches, like the State of the Union.  But that choice seemed strategic and political.  For his supporters, a commitment to international aid & development was assumed. And political support from the sliver of the electorate for whom aid and international development is priority was assured.

By contrast, UK Prime Minister David Cameron featured a commitment to allocating 0.7% of national income to international aid as a key part of his platform in advance of the UK’s 2015 general election.  And, for comparison, President Bush was public in his support for international aid and created major new initiatives during his Administration (PEPFAR, MCC).  For Cameron and Bush, support for international aid was a signal about character – a way to soften their conservative profile for moderate voters and a way to disarm potentially hostile constituencies.  In the case of George W. Bush, international aid was also a demonstration of his “compassionate conservatism” and a bond with evangelical Christian voters.

But for President Obama, highlighting his support for international aid and development might have been counterproductive and was a possible target for his political opponents.  In a way, he was doing us a favor by not talking about it.

But President Obama’s contributions to global development have been substantial and will likely be lasting.  He launched his efforts early in his Administration, in contrast to President Clinton who came to an interest in Africa late in his Administration when he was effectively a lame-duck and had little to lose politically.

President Obama’s leadership on international aid and development has been moral as much as financial.  He has overseen an important reframing and modernization of the US aid strategy.  The framing of aid had already moved away from Cold War-era support of client states; but President Obama moved international aid beyond a charity frame.

As he said in his speech yesterday:

So development isn’t charity.  It’s one of the smartest investments we can make in our shared future — in our security and our prosperity…. And in the fight against poverty, we’re treating governments as partners, not charity cases.  Instead of top-down approaches, we’re building local capacity, because local partners have to be in the lead.

Importantly, he also spoke of “our shared commitment to the dignity of every human being.  This is something I was nursed on.”  This focus on human dignity embraces a universality reflected in the modern development discourse, and in the rights-based approach to development.

The White House Summit on Global Development was a victory lap not only for the Administration’s long-standing accomplishments, but also because there have been several noteworthy breakthroughs recently.  In just the last few weeks, Congress passed and President Obama signed two significant international aid bills: the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act and the Global Food Security Act. These bills join the ranks of a couple other recent policies of international import: the Electrify Africa Act, which passed in February and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s final rule requiring transparency oil and mining operations overseas, which also passed this month.  This is a solid body of accomplishment and locks into place important policies and initiatives that could’ve otherwise unraveled as soon as President Obama leaves office.

The fact that these breakthroughs are coming now – at the very end of President Obama’s term in office raises interesting questions.  Why? And why now?

Some journalists have covered these events as if they were accidents or secrets: “When no one was watching, Congress passed a pretty important bill to improve foreign aid.”

But I can assure you, these weren’t accidents and yes, someone was watching.  In fact, there were quite a few people working very, very hard to make these happen – Oxfam, among others.

Each of these accomplishments was the result of years – many years – of hard work.  Research, writing, lobbying, mobilizing activists, working with policy makers, etc., etc., etc.  Each of these policies has a different story behind it.  And yet, taken together, there are likely useful common lessons that can be drawn from them. These breakthroughs came in a rush, but there was no guarantee they would.  In some cases, I wondered if they would ever happen.  Some of them took 7 years to finish. What were the critical factors that lead up to their success?  What ultimately pushed them over the line?  As advocates, we should take some time to examine them, individually and together and draw out some lessons – especially since a new Administration will be taking hold of the reigns in January.

As President Obama said yesterday, “…I have a plaque on my desk that says ‘hard things are hard’…But sometimes we get disappointed in this age of instant gratification when we don’t feel as if everything is solved… Well, we’re here on this Earth just a blink of an eye, each of us.  We take the world that’s been given to us and we try to make it just a little bit better, and then somebody else picks it up and they do their part….And over time, things just get a little bit better and it adds up.”

This is all true.  And yet, we have a chance to learn too, so that in the future, hard things are a little less hard, and things can get a lot better.

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