MFAN Member Op-Blog: Did Hillary just offer us the “Red Pill?”

Paul O'BrienOxfamMFAN member and Vice President of Policy & Advocacy at Oxfam America Paul O’Brien weighs in on Secretary Clinton’s visionary development speech last week, reminding us that “development is full of complexity, pain and gritty truths.”  This is a useful message for foreign assistance reform advocates, as we look to build on 2009 progress in a challenging landscape.  Tell us what you think of O’Brien’s piece in the comments section below.

Did Hillary just offer us the Red Pill?

In many decent movies, there is a moment which tells the larger story.  For good movies, the moment becomes short-hand in pop culture for larger truths.  In my favorite movie, the Matrix, it happened when Morpheus offered Neo a choice between the blue and red pill.  Take the blue pill and he got the quiet comforts of living in a fantasy world.  Try the red one, and he would start to see reality with all its pain, and gritty truth.

Did Hillary Clinton try to pull the development community out of the Matrix yesterday?  Perhaps, and forgive the tortured metaphor, but we live in our own Matrix:  On one axis are the different sectors in which we want to work–health care, education, food security and so on.  On the other axis are the different types of countries in which we have to do development…from fragile states to fully functioning democracies.

For years now, reform efforts have gotten stuck in that Matrix.  The F Bureau tried to solve the problem by drawing out the matrix and sticking everything we already did into one box or another.  Perhaps because  they were forced to manage their way out of a leadership problem, the matrix didn’t work—no one wanted to see all the existing accounts rearranged in a new table—they wanted a real vision for development.

And so now, we find ourselves with some people looking for reform through sector based initiatives—the Global Food Security Initiative, the Global Health Initiative and so on; while others want to divide the world up along different types of countries and give good performers to the MCC, bad performers to an empowered OFDA, and everything in between to USAID.

I’d like to think that what Hillary said yesterday is STOP!  We have to do BOTH, and they may not always be in conflict.  We need to listen to what different types of countries want, and understand that a truly democratic government is a better mirror of its people’s needs than the priorities of foreign donors.  But at the end of the day, we also need to be able to fill short-term gaps in countries where governments are unwilling or unable to provide for their own.  In the world of gritty reality, different countries require different approaches.  And we have to be able to meet countries where they are, in order to help them get where they would like to be.

In other words, I think she was offering us a red pill.  The legacy of this speech may not be her big lists of priorities, but her reminder to all of us that development is full of complexity, pain and gritty truths.  Countries are poor for a reason and the solutions aren’t trite or easy.  The question now is whether policy makers and their development partners are ready to grapple with reality.  Taking Neo’s leap may mean that in countries that are doing right by their people, we have to surrender some control of our aid dollars in exchange for results that last.  And in others, we support citizens to hold their governments to account, and help meet basic needs in the meantime.  If Administrator Shah and Secretary Clinton can help us escape the old Matrix of employing either blank checks or crippling control,  they will  honor a good movie and they can truly call themselves “Neo”-reformists.

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