Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Obama at UN summit: foreign aid is 'core pillar of American power'

At the UN Wednesday, President Obama unveiled a plan to revitalize US foreign aid programs, which have been marginalized since the end of the cold war.

By Staff writer / September 22, 2010



United Nations, N.Y.

President Obama on Wednesday unveiled a policy directive that defines the pursuit of global development as a “core pillar of American power.” Under the directive, development and foreign assistance are for the first time elevated to the level of key factors in US national security and economic policy.

Skip to next paragraph

The long-awaited policy pronouncement seeks to give order and coherence to the country’s multibillion-dollar foreign assistance programs. Foreign-aid experts say these programs have lost effectiveness and been marginalized since the end of the cold war.

The White House directive, which Mr. Obama announced in New York at a UN antipoverty summit, calls for focusing US development dollars on proven partners and regions in greatest need. It foresees a tighter linkage of foreign aid to national security interests.

Obama told representatives of more than 145 countries attending the Millennium Development Goals Summit that the new policy would promote global development for the 21st century. It will be focused more on economic growth and the “democratic governance” that fosters human potential, he said, than on old assistance models that too often simply managed misery.

He offered food aid as an example of the change. The new approach would seek to empower communities to meet their own food needs, rather than continuing with old models that simply provided food for decades. “That’s not development,” he said, “that’s dependence.”

Envisioning the “hard choices” to be made among countries and regions, the policy statement says “the US must focus its efforts in order to maximize long-term impact.” “The United States cannot do all things, do them well, and do them everywhere,” the directive states.

USAID's renaissance?

One objective of the new policy is to reinforce a nascent revitalization of the US Agency for International Development, or USAID. The one-time lead development agency floundered during the post-cold-war years as development duties splintered among a dozen federal departments and as successive administrations sidelined it.

Responding to the policy’s unveiling, USAID Director Rajiv Shah said that his agency is “transforming our capabilities to support the president’s new development policy.” He added: “USAID is poised and ready to reclaim our place as the world’s premier development agency."

Reaction to the new policy in the development and foreign-aid community was largely positive.

“This is a huge step towards delivering truly effective and accountable foreign assistance and making development an integral and strategic part of our foreign and national security policy,” says George Ingram, co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) in Washington.

He highlights the new policy's emphasis on rebuilding USAID, USAID’s inclusion in the national-security structure, and an emphasis on consulting Congress in deciding development strategies and priorities.

The document talks about USAID taking a leadership role setting development priorities and “sector strategies” such as food security or local-market creation. “We didn’t think the administration was there,” Mr. Ingram says.

A 'new architecture' for development

Some of the policy’s key aspects draw from initiatives of the Bush administration – such as the AIDS/HIV program – and Obama acknowledged as much in his UN speech.

What is new is the administration’s focus on creating the space for development to take on an elevated role within the government, other say.

“What stands out to me is the new architecture that is designed to bring up development from the background to the forefront,” says Mark Quarterman, director of the Center for Strategic and International Policy’s post-conflict reconstruction project. “The process is what is new here.”

That “new architecture” means the potential for new interdepartmental turf wars. The National Security Council is to play a lead role in coordinating the policy across the government.

Mr. Quarterman says he’ll be watching how departments adapt: “It’s very much what’s needed, but we also know that bureaucracies don’t change easily."

Permissions