Politics of Poverty

Signals from Rex Tillerson on the future of US poverty fighting efforts?

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Rex Tillerson at his Senate confirmation hearing in Washington, DC on January 11, 2017. (Photo: AP Images | Getty Images)

His views on poverty, development and human rights are important indicators for whether he’s right for Secretary of State.

These past weeks, I’ve questioned whether Rex Tillerson, if he becomes our nation’s highest diplomat, is fully prepared to fight for human rights and against poverty around the world.   Running an oil company famous for secrecy and deals with shady governments is not the right life school for strengthening civic life, public institutions, and transparent governance around the world.   A life of serving shareholders is a worrying world away from having US citizens as your boss and serving the poor and marginalized as a measure of your success.

So of course, I listened to Mr. Tillerson’s nomination hearings last week with interest.  I wanted him to go on record committing to evolve from oilman to statesman and to show that he deeply understands injustice and poverty.

But on day one, he failed that test, when he told Senator Shaheen (D-NH) he might support a Muslim registry for immigrants rather than clearly stating that religious discrimination is both unconstitutional and a violation of the very human rights a Secretary of State must protect. I was somewhat relieved, when in response to a question from Senator Booker (D-NJ), he acknowledged that the relationship between Christians, Jews and Muslims must be built “on mutual respect for each other and not a judgment about one’s faith.”

My ears perked when later in the hearing, he turned to development issues, and said some things to which we must hold him accountable should he be confirmed:

Importantly, he told Senator Flake (R-AZ) that he wants to “reduce corruption, improve the strength of governments and their own institutional capacity to manage their affairs.”   He then described to Senator Kaine (D-VA) the “opportunities” he saw for USAID to do just that.

That all sounded promising until he told Senator Booker (D-NJ) he will lead a “complete and comprehensive review” of USAID.  While he committed to look for “ranges of opportunities out there that might argue for greater funding” I’m not mollified:  If additional funding and USAID’s focus goes to tackle short term security interests, as this worrying New York Times report hints it might, people in poverty all over the world will suffer and the very institutions Mr. Tillerson says he wants to strengthen will pay the price.

Tillerson’s response to Senator Isaakson (R-GA) may shed more light: “One of the most successful programs I’ve seen is the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) because it has ownership on the part of the country….” after which he reflected on how to “make USAID development programs more like Millennium Challenge.”

What he means by making USAID more like MCC still remains to be seen, but here are my hopes:

  1. Think long-term and measure success in terms of decades not annual budget cycles;
  2. Foster a world class culture of transparency, outcomes measurement accountability;
  3. Work with Congress to get rid of earmarks and directives, and put some flexibility into budgets;
  4. Develop strategic partnerships with countries, poor communities and civic institutions which prioritize outcomes for the poor, not shorter-term narrow political or security interests; and
  5. Protect USAID’s independence from other diplomatic and defense concerns, so that development is a voice at the foreign policy table able to balance other national interests.

If he does those five things (and a few other important things besides) Mr. Tillerson may yet prove that an oilman can become a poverty fighter. I still have my doubts.  We shall see — and do all we can to move him in that direction, should he be confirmed.

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