Strength through Development

See below for a guest post from MFAN Executive Committee Member and Accountability Working Group Co-Chair Diana Ohlbaum.

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In his graduation speech at West Point on Wednesday, President Obama laid out a national security doctrine based on partnership, multilateralism, international law, diplomacy and development.  Explaining how democracy, free markets, and respect for human rights abroad benefit us here at home, he asserted: “Foreign assistance is not an afterthought, something nice to do apart from our national defense, apart from our national security. It is part of what makes us strong.”

Development advocates and practitioners have often resisted justifying their work on national security grounds, fearing that development objectives would be sacrificed on the altar of security imperatives.  But now the tables have turned: for the first time, there is high-level understanding that effective development is imperative if we are to meet our security objectives.

The U.S. Global Development Council is perfectly positioned to take advantage of this opening to institutionalize development as a full partner, alongside diplomacy and defense, in our national security triad.  But the President didn’t mention the Council in his speech, and the Council doesn’t seem to have security on its radar screen.

Just over a month ago, the Council held its first official, public meeting, at which it released a document with 7 recommendations for strengthening U.S. development efforts.  Although it met with a few immediate, and largely complimentary, reviews – including those of Nancy Birdsall and Ben Leo at the Center for Global Development, John Glenn of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, George Ingram of Brookings, and Connie Veillette of The Lugar Center– overall, the response was fairly muted.  Given the years of effort that led to its creation, and the two years of work that went into developing the recommendations, this lack of fanfare is discouraging.  What are we to read into the silence?

1)      The recommendations themselves were neither new nor particularly controversial.  The idea of creating a Development Finance Bank was proposed in 2011 by Todd Moss and Ben Leo; the road to harnessing the private sector was paved by USAID through its Global Development Alliances, now expanded into the Global Development Lab; the calls for greater transparency and more rigorous evaluations of impact have been issued by MFAN since Gayle Smith was among its leaders.  The fact that some of these have failed to gain traction with Congress and the Administration ought to have given the Council some pause: what are the underlying obstacles that prevent these ideas from being realized, and how can we, as a Council, work to resolve them?

2)      The purpose and value of the Council as an institution remains unclear.  As John Norris and Noam Unger noted after the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development announced that the Council would be formed, there was little initial guidance about its aims.  Beyond a statement that the Council was to provide high-level input relevant to the work of United States Government agencies”, nothing was said about its objectives or authorities. The Executive Order creating the Council added more details: the Council was to “inform the policy and practice of U.S. global development policy and programs by providing advice to the President and other senior officials,” “support new and existing public-private partnerships,” and “increase awareness and action in support of development.”  All of these functions are currently being carried out by USAID (including through the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid) and the National Security Council, so what is the Global Development Council’s added value?

3)      The public outreach function is at odds with the private advice function.  If the Council’s sole task were to provide advice to the President and senior officials, then it could play an important role in promoting policy coherence and addressing the “hot button” political issues of tax, trade, and agricultural policy that have such important ramifications for global development.  But, understandably, the Administration is reluctant to give outsiders a peek into such sensitive policy decisions.  On the flip side, the fact that the Council makes its recommendations to the President renders it unwilling or unable to conduct its work transparently and with broad public participation, which would be necessary for the Council to serve as a bridge between the public and private sectors.  Sadly, its dual mission has in some ways forced the Council to adopt the worst of both worlds.

Whither the Council?

There is one function that is absolutely essential to the future of development as a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy, and which is not currently being carried out by any U.S. government or outside entity of which I am aware: an exploration of WHY development is important to U.S. national security.  Sure, we all have our slogans and talking points about the relationship between global development and U.S. jobs and exports, conflict and instability, health, migration, climate change, and so forth, but how much of it has actually been quantified through scientific research, or built into a compelling narrative that can be easily explained to the average American citizen?  As anyone who has ever tried to pitch foreign aid to the public surely knows, it’s an uphill battle.  It takes time and effort, and there’s ample evidence that people simply ignore facts that don’t fit within their existing belief system.  But if we’re ever to get beyond the third-class status accorded development and begin treating it as a national security and foreign policy imperative, we need to demonstrate exactly why that’s the case – including, but not exclusively, because it reflects our moral values.  This is a job that the Global Development Council, as a public-private initiative, is uniquely positioned to perform.

To fulfill this mission, the Council would need to take a multi-pronged approach: research, to discover what we know and don’t know about the relationship between development and national security; recommendations to the President about the “spill-over” effects of our non-aid policies (such as trade, energy, environment, agriculture, tax, and arms sales) on global development; outreach and collaboration with the private sector to get the messages out and the policies right; turning the West Point speech and the soon-to-be-released National Security Strategy into actionable steps for development; and bringing the message to the American public through the Presidential Conference on Global Development that the Council has recommended.

That would not only put the meat on the bones of the Obama Doctrine, it would breathe new life into a Council that has otherwise failed to excite.

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