The White House & the World: A Global Development Agenda for the Next U.S. President: Q&A with Nancy Birdsall

January 15, 2010

CGD senior president Nancy BirdsallFor the next U.S. president, effective development policy is not only the right thing to do, it will be crucial to the future well-being of the American people. A new CGD volume, The White House and the World, offers practical suggestions for a coherent U.S. strategy. CGD president Nancy Birdsall, who edited the volume and wrote the lead essay, “Why Development Matters for Americans and What the Next President Should Do about It,” discussed the book’s themes on the eve of the Democratic and Republican conventions.

Q: With the U.S. economy facing shaky times, rising food and energy costs, the sub-prime mortgage meltdown and war in Afghanistan and Iraq, why should the Americans – and the next president – spend any time at all thinking about development?

A: Let me answer with a couple of examples. Almost all of U.S. economic growth this year is due to exports, and more than one third of those exports go to developing countries. Developing countries’ growth matters for us as much as ours does for them. In the same way, their prosperity, their greenhouse gas emissions, and their internal security all matter for us.

A second example goes straight the security issue. U.S. policy towards Pakistan over the last decade has been a flop – for Pakistanis and Americans. We spent billions to buy allegiance from the Pakistani military and support Pervez Musharraf, and are now accused by middle-class Pakistanis of supporting anti-democrats. Aggressive and focused support for development – such as education and other investments in stable, democratic institutions-- might have worked better.

Q: OK, so let’s agree that development matters. What should Americans and the next president do?

A: We should play to our strengths. Americans lead the world in creating new ideas and moving innovations to market. The president should announce major initiatives to harness American technological prowess and business acumen in support of increased prosperity around the world – including in the poorest countries and for the poorest people.


For example, the U.S. should lead in public policy and financing to rapidly improve and scale-up solar and other renewable energy technologies in which low-income countries could be competitive. The same is true for technologies to help poor people cope with the frightening risks of climate change, such as drought in the African Sahel and sea level rise in Bangladesh.

We should commit in advance to buy millions of doses of a future malaria vaccine, to encourage private research and development (R&D) in an area where American pharmaceutical firms are sure to excel.

We should ramp up public and private R&D on tropical and rain-fed agriculture that would help poor farmers in Africa and elsewhere to increase their yields and their income. And we should lead an international effort to bring private and public money together to invest in a Pan-African Highway and a major hydroelectric power project in southern Africa.

Of course all of these initiatives would be good for America, too. They would spark the creation of so-called green jobs and help to re-energize our venture capital and financial sectors. These aren’t pie-in-the sky notions but practical ideas with fairly modest costs. We offer details in The White House and the World.

Q: Some Americans worry that globalization has gone too far, that trade and migration pose threats to Americans’ well being. How can the next president address the development dimensions of these issues in the face of such fears?

A: I hope the next president, whether Sen. McCain or Sen. Obama, will be a globalizer at heart. The first job of the next president will be to work with Congress to provide all Americans with health insurance and access to the training and education that makes job mobility not just possible but attractive. Trade has been good for most Americans – export-related jobs are good jobs, and imports have kept prices for consumer goods low for years. But trade is under political siege now because many Americans feel they have no cushion to help them adapt to rapid globalization. Trade has become a scapegoat for our failures in health insurance and education.

While working on these issues, the next president should ask Congress to offer the world’s poorest countries – including Haiti, Bangladesh and many in sub-Saharan Africa -- permanent preferential access to the vast U.S. market—that is, without tariffs or quotas. Framed as a development issue rather than a trade concession this could win support across the political spectrum if the president explains that U.S. market access for these countries would be a huge boon to the very poor people who live there, at almost zero cost in American jobs.

Q: What about migration?

A: It’s time to be frank about the advantages of temporary migration – for the U.S. and for development in the low-income countries that send us some of their most motivated and ambitious workers. With easier travel and communications, many of our legal immigrants with permanent rights turn out to be temporary anyway – they return to their country of origin to work, marry, or retire. In The White House and the World we propose increasing the number of visas for unskilled temporary migrants from the current 100,000 to 500,000 – so that it is closer to the number of people who actually come (mostly illegally). We propose increasing the number for skilled workers also to at least 500,000 -- so the visas the world’s most talented people line up for will last longer than the five hours it now takes each year before they are gone!

Q: You haven’t even mentioned foreign assistance.

A: It’s important but only one way that U.S. policies affect development. And the U.S has to get smarter about foreign assistance. If we agree that prosperity and stability in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Somalia are a security as well as a moral imperative for our country, then let’s get on with modernizing our approach to development aid. Why and how to do so have been laid out by at least three major bipartisan commissions in recent years. The larger issue is ensuring development assistance enhances the other policies that matter for global prosperity. I have become convinced that the next president should ask Congress to support the creation of a new Cabinet-level department for global development, so that the development dimensions are at least part of the discussion when important U.S. policy decisions are made on issues such as trade, migration, climate change, health, security and other issues.

Q: Are you suggesting that the U.S. tackle these issues alone? What about our allies and international organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank?

A: Things may be looking up. Already both candidates have disavowed the unilateral elements of the Bush Administration foreign policy – which in any event have been moderated in the last couple of years. In the development area that means more visible support for the work of the United Nations and the multilateral development banks. In the case of the World Bank, the key development institution at the global level, the next administration should push for greater voice and representation of developing countries in the governance structure. That will happen eventually, regardless of the U.S. position. But by taking the lead, the U.S. can avoid be swept along with the tide. By working within the multilateral framework, and providing leadership in the reform of these institutions, the next president can greatly leverage U.S. contributions to development.