Friday, September 24, 2010

Two views of the Obama speech to the UN

When he gave his speech to the United Nations earlier this week, President Barack Obama laid out a new strategy for US Development Aid. The speech was lacking details on how this will be done, but those details will be released next month.

Obama says his administration will elevate development to be right alongside defense and diplomacy in foreign policy importance. The State Department will explain exactly how this will happen in its Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review due out in October.

Here are a couple of stories that cover the speech from Wednesday. First, a critical view of the Obama speech from the Inter Press Service. Writer Aprille Muscara talked to a few people who wished the speech presented more details.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs – who has argued that poor countries are almost always stuck in a "poverty trap" unless substantial amounts of foreign aid, coupled with a tailored and complex development approach, are provided – gave IPS a less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the president's speech, which he pointed out lacked specific details of the plan and contained no new funding commitments.

"It was a little bit of a letdown and there was puzzlement in the room," Sachs told IPS, "Most people in the hall were a little bit scratching their heads in the end asking what was new, because there was kind of a build-up beforehand."

However, Sachs, who is U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special advisor for the MDGs, acknowledged that the policy was still in its early stages.

"I think the intentions are good: to make sure that development has its proper place in U.S. foreign policy," Sachs told IPS. Still, "I didn't hear a lot of path-breaking innovation."

Although the long-called for Global Development Strategy has been largely praised – Save the Children called it a "winning formula" in a statement, while Oxfam America president Raymond Offenheiser called it a "real breakthrough" in a press conference – Sachs's bewilderment has also been widely echoed.

"We need Obama to explain how he will turn his words into action over numerous agencies and departments," Offenheiser said. "The tri-legged stool of defence, diplomacy and development – DDD – still has a bit of a wobble in it. Exactly how Obama plans to balance it… remains an open question," he added, predicting, "It will be a political battle."

Key to the policy is selectivity: targeting sectors that have been shown to produce favourable outcomes – Obama mentioned health, education and women's empowerment – as well as places that show promise. According the president's speech, these include countries that expand trade or promote democratic institutions, but also those that are transitioning from war to peace.

For more of a positive view of the possible changes in US development aid, we go to the Associated Press. In this piece hosted at Google News, writer Anita Snow talked to people who warmed to the speech.

"Traditionally, foreign aid wasn't very popular in the United States and no one thought it was important," said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, an advocacy group that urges lawmakers to end hunger at home and abroad.

"Helping developing countries is really important to the United States for security and moral reasons," Beckmann said Thursday. "(It) will provide a rational and more coherent policy that will work to reduce global poverty and ensure economic growth in poor countries."

The most important part of the administration's new focus is that it puts poor people in other countries in charge of their own development, said Gregory Adams, director of aid effectiveness for Oxfam America.

"There is misconception in America that people are poor because they don't have stuff and that if we give them enough stuff: food, schools, medicine, they won't be poor anymore," Adams said. "But if you don't get people involved in their own development they won't escape poverty."

To illustrate how the new U.S. policy would work, Oxfam's Adams gave the example of financing construction of a rural school in sub-Saharan Africa.

"You can measure what you have done by gathering all the receipts for the building materials and labor," he said. "But if you come back in three years, you might find that it is empty, unused, because the government couldn't afford teachers or textbooks. "

But the new U.S. development focus, which Adams said is similar to Oxfam's, would give the community a stake in the school by involving them in its construction, help train teachers and provide textbooks. Success would be measured not on what was spent, but how many girls graduated three years later.

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