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Obama's New Plan to Fight Poverty Gets the Purpose Right

Posted: 09/28/10 02:59 PM ET

President Obama used the gathering of world leaders in New York last week to announce the first-ever US Policy on Global Development, promising that, in the fight against global poverty, "the United States is changing the way we do business." The speech was a welcome down-payment on Obama's commitment to bring new clarity and focus to US efforts to help poor people and their governments escape the injustice of poverty.

Some global poverty activists may think the President's speech stuck out because it delivered no new financial commitments, no new flagship initiatives and focused on fewer countries. And in declaring this new policy, the President seemed to concede a lot: fighting poverty is hard, no amount of aid can fix another country, and the US can't be everywhere, doing everything.

So why was the speech worth applauding?

Because, if you care about fighting global poverty, you should be suspicious when too many policymakers want to throw all our development dollars at the political and security crises of the day. And I'm not just talking about Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq and Somalia. With USAID now governed by the State Department, US diplomats are tempted to use our development dollars to keep allies onside and our enemies in check all around the world--after all, that is their job. And the Department of Defense has long wished to employ development aid as a counter terrorism and insurgency tool, and is ramping up its global capacity to blend development and defense efforts.

The risk with elevating development on a par with diplomacy and defense as a national security tool is that its true purpose--helping people lift themselves out of poverty--will get lost.

On Wednesday, President Obama confronted that challenge. In the struggle between immediate US political and security interests and the longer term US interest in supporting countries and people around the world to become more secure, prosperous and just, President Obama clearly took the latter. If he follows through, his words should have profound and specific consequences for US policies in the coming years:

By "changing how we view the ultimate goal of development", he signaled that future USAID budgets will focus more on places like those he mentioned--Tanzania, Ghana, Rwanda, Bangladesh--and less on places where funds are being spent now--Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

In redefining development as more than "aid" and promising a coherent development policy for his government, Obama committed himself to tackle the confusion in US policy. Delivering on this commitment means going after US farm subsidies that flood developing country markets with food, destroying their agricultural economies. It also means dismantling unfair trade rules which charge some countries more in tariffs than we give them in aid to help their economies grow.

By targeting broad based economic growth, he recommitted to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a Bush legacy institution that has delivered some real results for poor people in countries that are not political or security hotspots.

Rejecting the politics of fear and narrow self-interest last week, President Obama gave US development policy the right purpose for the first time ever. Now let's see if he will support Congress to make that purpose clear in law, and put our money where his mouth is in his next budget.