The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 19, 2016

Three top priorities for the White House Summit on Global Development

At tomorrow’s White House Summit on Global Development, President Obama will convene stakeholders in international development to celebrate the administration’s successes and plan for its legacy. The Obama administration has reformed the development goals and how we implement development activities. Revisions to the goals include sector initiatives like Power Africa, Feed the Future, the President’s Global Climate Change Initiative, and Let Girls Learn—results-focused projects that have filled gaps in our development policies.

Changes to implementation include President Obama’s landmark 2010 Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, the USAID (US Agency for International Development) Forward reforms derived from that directive, and his recent signature on the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act of 2016. These initiatives are changing the way US development efforts are conducted, reimagining development with a focus on process and adaptability.

The White House has laid out two goals for the summit: institutionalize the administration’s reforms, and recommit to expanding dignity and opportunity for all. To go beyond a well-earned celebration of progress already made, the event’s agenda should include three things:

Finalize the complete revision of USAID’s operating policies to prioritize development programming that is flexible, adaptable, and cognizant of political economy factors. Revising USAID’s operating policies is key to institutionalizing the Obama administration’s approach to international development. The principles that underlie the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development need to make their way into the Automated Directive System, the set of policies that guide USAID staff in their day-to-day business, governing everything from procurement and human resources to country strategy and program design. The system already reflects the importance of country ownership, and revisions should a focus on programming that is iterative, adaptive, and sensitive to the political roots of many development challenges.

The revisions would institutionalize a modern perspective on effective international development and would better the odds that US foreign assistance will support sustainable improvements in partner countries.

One of the paradoxes of development is that achieving the goals—powering Africa, ending hunger, eliminating diseases—can undermine the same local systems that solve or prevent those challenges in the first place. USAID has increasingly recognized this risk. Thinking critically about how to strengthen host-country systems should be central to Automated Directive System directives for program development.  

Provide further incentives for good governance by securing adequate funding for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and encouraging commitment to its charter principles. The MCC was established under President Bush in 2004 and is the only US global development institution with an explicit mandate to allocate aid on the basis of good governance. Though overshadowed by USAID, the MCC directly rewards transparency, accountability, and participation. The MCC was originally structured to divorce MCC allocation decisions from immediate US foreign policy pressures. But the MCC has never received its full funding envelope, and while a recent leadership and strategy shake-up has refreshed the MCC’s image, it has not always stuck firmly to its principles in allocating resources.

Requiring the MCC to be strict in applying its model would reduce the risk of rewarding less-than-transparent governance in partner countries. Committing to fully funding the MCC would strengthen an existing US institution and reflect the core values of President Obama’s global development agenda.

Demonstrate global leadership in domestically implementing, monitoring, and reporting on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The third item on Wednesday’s agenda should be demonstrating global leadership in implementing, monitoring, and reporting on the SDGs.

Following the 2015 expiration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the 17 SDGs are global goals across various issues. While the MDGs were intended to spur development in low-income countries, the SDGs are universal goals, reflecting that poverty is often concentrated in low-income countries but is not confined to them.

The United States can lead the developed world in implementing and reporting on the SDGs. While 22 other countries, including China, Germany, and Norway, have already submitted national voluntary reviews of their domestic strengths and weaknesses relative to the SDGs, the United States has yet to do so.

This July, a coalition of civil society organizations, including Feeding America and Bread for the World, sent President Obama a letter urging action on domestic SDG implementation. In their letter, the coalition requests that the president meet with the “SDGs in the US working group.” The working group supports implementing the SDGs in combatting the poverty, hunger, inequality, employment, environmental inefficiency, and violence that remain crises in the United States. The working group rightfully commends Obama’s support of the SDGs, but the support could go further. A bona fide commitment to domestic SDG leadership requires that the president appoint people in the White House and each cabinet department responsible for reporting on the SDGs across the federal government.

By tackling these three agenda items, the Obama administration will ensure a legacy of effective development in terms of what we prioritize and how we implement our priorities. This is an opportunity to demonstrate global leadership in an increasingly isolationist moment, and we hope Wednesday’s agenda reflects that.

First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama announce a government-wide coordinated strategy to help millions of girls around the world attend and stay school called 'Let Girls Learn' in the East Room of the White House March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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