What to make of the leaked US development strategy?

May 17, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

First the plug: I’m in the US at the moment (for quite a long time, if the ash cloud has anything to do it) and will be speaking at Oxfam America in Washington DC on Tuesday at 12 noon (1100 15th St NW, 6th floor). Subject: the UK elections and development policy. Co-speaker Jim Kolbe from the German Marshall Fund. [Update: Sorry, got the address wrong – the event on Tuesday is now taking place at the Ronald Reagan Building, wherever that is.]

Back to business. The reader survey suggested themed series of posts, so this is aid week on the blog – I’ll be posting a series of articles on various aid debates and new papers.

First up, what’s going in with the US aid reform process? (see previous posts for background). I’ve just been reading the leaked draft of obama africathe Obama administration’s Presidential Study Directive on the purpose of US foreign aid, which the President set in motion last August. It’s very top level, and quite hard to pin down but here are some initial impressions. First of all, the very big picture: it calls for a US global development strategy – that’s actually the bit the development community in the US are most excited about. Basically, this strategy is a chance for Obama to say US foreign aid should be about poverty, and should be pursued through country ownership. It would be great if he could release some kind of National Strategy for Global Development by the MDG Summit in September.

What’s hot?
Big emphasis on the security aspects of development: ‘[We will] elevate development as a central pillar of our national security strategy, equal to diplomacy and defense’. That means USAID joining relevant National Security Council (NSC) meetings and a new ‘development impact assessment’ as part of the procedures for reviewing trade, intellectual property, immigration policies etc.

Growth, growth growth: ‘Foster the next generation of emerging markets by enhancing our focus on broad-based growth and democratic governance’ (and that ‘broad based’ is the only reference I can find, however oblique, to inequality).

and fingers crossed...

and fingers crossed...

USAID will be beefed up through ‘a commitment to rebuilding USAID as our lead development agency’.

What’s not?

Climate Change strikingly absent, probably due to the congressional rancour over the cap and trade legislation.

The document is big on governments and markets, but there’s very little mention of citizens or their organizations (beyond supporting their right to the occasional election).

So development is ‘equal to diplomacy and defense’. What happens when the three conflict? No suggestion of how such tensions will be resolved. Speaking at Harvard last Friday, the President’s development adviser and person in charge of the PSD, Gayle Smith, said the ‘big test’ of the new strategy would be the extent to which development informs the other two Ds. Good luck with that. The danger is, of course, that the traffic will all be in the other direction, as development policy is placed at the service of defence and diplomacy – coherence is a double-edged sword.

Some other pluses:
Big technology push to ‘increase our investments and engagement in development-focused innovation’ including more public money for research and an intriguing promise to ‘remove impediments to innovation and adaptation by the private sector.’ – Could the US government come out in favour of overhauling intellectual property rules to release more technologies for poor countries?

A welcome recognition that systems matter as well as stuff. ‘the US will invest in systemic solutions that go beyond the provision of inputs, such as building sustainable health systems and productive agricultural sectors. This focus on sustainability will also be central to how we approach humanitarian assistance and our engagement in pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals.’ That sounds promising in terms of reforming food aid, where the US has historically dragged its feet compared to other aid donors, insisting on using it as a means to dump US farm surplus, even at the risk of undercutting local production.

And a possible minus:
An apparent wish to increase policy conditionality (where the aid donor mistakenly tries to micromanage the development process by specifying the policies and reforms governments should pursue): the US ‘will be giving greater attention to pursuing policy reforms essential for development as a matter of our diplomatic engagement’.

Any other good (preferably not too fawning/self-serving) analyses or reactions?

May 17, 2010
Duncan Green