Obama: ‘End hollow promises that are not kept’

Development Policy23 Sep 2010Frans Bieckmann

Whatever we think about the US or about the MDGs, a speech by an American president is always worth analyzing. Development, in the end, is about power and power relations. And the US is still the greatest power in the world.

On Wednesday, the final day of the MDG summit, Barack Obama spoke to the assembled world leaders in the big hall of the United Nations. His speech was certainly not one of the worst. On the contrary; it contained some interesting phrases. Obama said he hereby announced the ‘new US global development policy – the first of its kind by an American administration’, and that this would change the course of US foreign policy (see also this earlier blog post).

Here are some of the interesting remarks Obama made:

  1. development becomes central in the American foreign policy: ‘My national security strategy recognizes development not only as a moral imperative, but a strategic and economic imperative.’
  2. development was redefined by Obama as ‘ transformational change’, and as much more than just aid: ‘For too long, we’ve measured our efforts by the dollars we spent and the food and medicines that we delivered. But aid alone is not development. Development is helping nations to actually develop – moving from poverty to prosperity. And we need more than just aid to unleash that change. We need to harness all the tools at our disposal – from our diplomacy to our trade policies to our investment policies.’
  3. Obama stressed the need for more national ownership of development processes, hence more policy space for countries to determine their own development path: ‘We … recognize … that the old ways will not suffice. That’s why in Ghana last year, I called for a new approach to development that … allows more people to take control of their own destiny. After all, no country wants to be dependent on another.’ And later on, he said to the leaders of developing countries in the hall, receiving applause for it: ‘… the days when your development was dictated by foreign capitals must come to an end.’
  4. Obama wants to surpass the short-term view, focussing on poverty and assistance, and take a more structural, long-term and more comprehensive look at development: ‘Our focus on assistance has saved lives in the short term, but it hasn’t always improved those societies over the long term. Consider the millions of people who have relied on food assistance for decades. That’s not development, that’s dependence, and it’s a cycle we need to break. Instead of just managing poverty, we have to offer nations and peoples a path out of poverty …. the purpose of development – what’s needed most right now – is creating the conditions where assistance is no longer needed.‘
  5. Obama was quite vague when it came to the content of such a new strategy. He mentioned the term ‘broad-based economic growth’. But what is ‘broad-based’? Although stressing that ‘every nation will pursue its own path to prosperity’, he continued: ‘But decades of experience tell us there are certain ingredients upon which sustainable growth and lasting development depends.’

Some of the ingredients he mentioned were: entrepreneurship, investing in infrastructure, expansion of trade and being attractive to foreign investment. These may be true, but what if nations choose to protect themselves a bit against certain forms of foreign investment, to be able to allow its own industries to grow and be able to compete internationally?

Okay, Obama said that something needs to be done in developed countries, too: ‘We’ll work to break down barriers to regional trade and urge nations to open their markets to developing countries.’ But no concrete references at all to American trade policies. What about the US cotton subsidies, for example? (See also Bill Easterly’s remarks last Sunday.)

vi) Obama did become concrete about the US’ own responsibilities on another issue – corruption: ‘We are leading a global effort to combat corruption, which in many places is the single greatest barrier to prosperity, and which is a profound violation of human rights. That’s why we now require oil, gas and mining companies that raise capital in the United States to disclose all payments they make to foreign governments.‘

vii) Finally, Obama stressed the need for mutual accountability: ‘We will insist on more responsibility – from ourselves and from others.’ And he urged his ‘fellow donor nations: Let’s honour our respective commitments … Let’s resolve to put an end to hollow promises that are not kept. Let’s commit to the same transparency that we expect from others’.

Well. Let us see what comes true from this promise to become more transparent and committed.

For further reading see the editor’s blog, where Frans reflects on the thought processes behind production of The Broker and highlights interesting, useful and unusual information that he comes across day to day.