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Wal-Mart and the AFL-CIO Agree: The U.S. Can (and Must) Do a Better Job Fighting Poverty, Disease, and Lack of Opportunity in the Developing World

Posted: 03/17/09 01:10 PM ET

In the face of big global challenges, President Obama has rightly called for a new, smarter U.S. foreign policy that focuses on bolstering our long-term security, building our alliances, and expanding global prosperity. A central element of his new approach is elevating U.S. support for global development and balancing it with defense and diplomacy, which in practice means strengthening U.S. foreign assistance and other programs that fight poverty, disease, and lack of opportunity in developing nations.

Today, a diverse group of nearly 150 individuals and organizations -- including Wal-Mart, the AFL-CIO, former Joint Chiefs Chairman John Shalikashvili, three former USAID Administrators, Bread for the World, the Center for Global Development, the Center for American Progress, and World Wildlife Fund US -- sent a letter to President Obama and Congress pledging full support for their efforts to elevate global development. The signatories also call for U.S. foreign assistance programs to be enhanced and modernized in order to make sure that, in today's economic climate and for years to come, our development dollars are used effectively and reach the people who need help most.

This letter was not created in a vacuum. Over the last year, some of our country's top leaders, including President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, Defense Secretary Gates, General Colin Powell, Bill Gates, and World Bank President Robert Zoellick have advocated for elements of this new "smart power" approach to foreign policy that strategically employs our defense, diplomacy, and development capabilities to address the threats we face. Their calls were recently buoyed when, in delivering the Obama Administration's first threat assessment to Congress, Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair called the destabilizing implications of the global economic crisis the "primary near-term security concern" of the U.S.

In Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and even unexpected areas of Eastern Europe and Latin America, societies weakened by hunger, disease, and lack of opportunity have become more vulnerable to political instability and exploitation by extremist and militant groups. The World Bank estimates that 100 million people around the world have already been pushed back into poverty since the economic crisis began, and more than 53 million people are at risk of falling back this year alone. The International Labor Organization forecasts worldwide job losses from the financial recession could reach 50 million by the end of 2009. These trends will no doubt be accompanied by increased malnutrition, higher maternal and infant mortality rates, spreading disease, and other destabilizing effects that fragile communities can ill afford.

With Adm. Blair's warnings in mind, it is clear that helping struggling people in the developing world is in our national security interest. But the reasons for elevating developing go beyond security. Most U.S. businesses are deeply engaged in the global economy. Whether they sell goods in developing markets or source products and services from these markets, U.S. companies have a vital interest in the long-term prosperity, health, and growth of these emerging markets. U.S. foreign assistance programs that save lives and bolster families, communities, and labor pools are essential to long-term, sustainable growth and investment. Finally, the U.S. must regain its reputation as a force for global good, because American leadership -- and the energy and ingenuity of the American people -- are indispensable at this challenging moment in history. Our constructive efforts to alleviate poverty, fight disease, and create economic opportunity in the developing world will go a long way towards restoring our standing and leadership.

As compelling as the case is for changing U.S. foreign policy, doing so without fundamentally modernizing the U.S. foreign assistance system will not lead to the kind of high-impact results we need to successfully address global challenges. Our foreign assistance system was established and developed during the early days of the Cold War, and has not been effectively updated to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Today, too many government agencies oversee competing and overlapping programs, largely because the legislation governing foreign assistance was enacted in 1961 and has not been updated in more than 20 years. Underlying all of this, we lack a global development strategy to frame and steer our efforts. This must change -- for our security, our economic prosperity, and our global leadership.

We support President Obama's efforts to elevate development because the prosperity, health, and security of Americans are, now more than ever, inextricably linked to prosperity, health, and security of people in the developing world. We are urging foreign assistance reform because the economic and geopolitical realities of today, and the challenges of the future, demand that we use every dollar as effectively as possible to fight poverty and disease, increase prosperity, strengthen weak states, and further other U.S. strategic interests abroad. We hope that people all across the country and the world will join us by visiting the MFAN website and signing the letter themselves.


David Beckmann is President of Bread for the World. Steve Radelet is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development. Together, they serve as Co-Chairs of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN).