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J. Brian Atwood Headshot

Troop Increases? What About the Other Side of the Foreign Policy Coin?

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More than eight months after President Obama took office, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) remains without an Administrator. While an announcement could happen imminently, the agency -- and indeed the entire US government -- has lacked a politically-empowered figure dedicated solely to U.S. global development policy during a time of unprecedented stock-taking on these issues in the US government.

In recent months, two studies have been launched that will determine how the US approaches global development challenges in the Obama years and beyond: a White House Presidential Study Directive (PSD) that focuses exclusively on development, and a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), undertaken by the State Department. These two reports will together shape the substance, means and organizational structure of the American foreign aid program, and determine how foreign aid aligns with other U.S. policies that affect development.

No one doubts the sincerity of the administration's commitment to development. Consider the recent focus on climate change, food security, and gender equality addressed at the G-20, the United Nations General Assembly, and the Clinton Global Initiative. While these are all worthy initiatives, they have been put forth in the absence of an overall development strategy.

As is the case with all new administrations, the learning curve is steep and the need to address ongoing crises preoccupies those working on longer-term strategies. Add turf battles and the desire for more resources to the mix and it becomes much less certain that the Administration will be able to create an innovative, comprehensive framework for our approach to development.

Despite years of development practice and a keen international understanding of what works in long-term development, the American political culture will challenge those seeking a cogent and broad definition of this mission. And four aspects of this very culture will create centrifugal forces as the White House and State Department study groups seek consensus.

First, and somewhat ironically, American humanitarianism. Our strong, collective sense of compassion is an obstacle given the urgent desire to bring instant relief to those suffering. We see a tidal wave ravage a village on the news and send food and emergency aid workers -- steps that could have been avoided if we had first helped that society build an infrastructure to support crises response.

Second, impatience. Americans are a very impatient people and we want to see the results of our investments immediately. It is much easier to treat AIDS patients than it is to build a health program that would reduce the HIV infection rate over time. Long-term, sustainable institutions can be built only after cooperation has created trust and spurred joint action.

Third, parochialism. Lawmakers -- either by personal history or passion -- often identify with a particular sector of development, overlooking a holistic approach to the subject. Congressional earmarks and Executive Branch initiatives have distorted our efforts to manage results and respond to the needs of our partners. These well-intentioned, highly-targeted efforts represent our excessive focus on "outputs" as determined on a top-down basis, as opposed to evidence of sustained impact on the ground. While individual passions, whether for a particular infectious disease, family planning, the environment, or gender equality, help build broad-based political support for foreign assistance, achieving true development outcomes means connecting the dots. As the late environmentalist John Muir said, "Everything is connected to everything else."

Fourth, and finally, bureaucracy. The relationship between development and diplomacy, subject to constant debate, has recently heightened in profile now that Secretary of State Clinton has so strongly embraced the development mission and expressed her commitment to a "smart power" approach. If she manages this relationship well, she will have created an enduring legacy. But the open question is whether the State Department will be willing to grant USAID the management autonomy, policy voice and budget authority it needs to achieve long-term development results and reclaim its status as a global leader on development theory, policy, and practice.

If the Obama administration can overcome these political challenges and reform foreign assistance, it will have created a strategy to guide US development policy into a new era and promote long-term, sustainable growth in accordance with our foreign policy objectives. More importantly, such a strategy will restore American leadership in development so the world may once again look to the US as an exemplary nation invested in the fight against poverty and disease.