Much can be said about President George W. Bush’s first Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, who sadly died a few days ago—including his fearlessness and dedication to the facts during his short tenure. But too little will be said about his discovery of and his quiet support for global development, including for debt relief to Africa, during his time in Bush’s cabinet. Yes, he traveled to Africa with Bono (CGD Board Member and former Bush Administration official Tony Fratto shared this candid photo on Twitter). But there was much more to it than just a photo opp.
At the time of Paul’s visit to the continent in 2002, following the recent global adoption of the UN Millennium Development Goals, the Treasury Department was weighing in on the creation of what became the Millennium Challenge Corporation. And John Taylor, O’Neill’s Undersecretary for International Affairs, was pushing for debt relief and grants instead of loans from the World Bank IDA window to the poorest countries in the world. The Bush Administration’s track record of fighting global poverty and disease, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, got its start in large part thanks to O’Neill’s work and passion.
O’Neill also leaves an indelible mark on CGD, for which I will always be grateful. I remember him sitting in the front row during the first major event held by the very new Center for Global Development (then not yet even one, but “just begun,” as in AA Milne’s children’s poem), with the Institute for International Economics (now the Peterson Institute for International Economics). My CGD co-founder Fred Bergsten somehow worked his magic ensuring Secretary O’Neill would be there, sitting right next to CGD’s first Board Chair and co-founder, Ed Scott.
O’Neill soon after agreed to join CGD’s Board and was an active and generous contributor throughout the 2000s.
The loss of Paul O’Neill is a reminder to me of a time when, after 9/11 but before the Iraq War, reducing poverty and improving livelihoods held attention in a Republican administration, not only at USAID but at the Treasury Department, too. It’s also a painful reminder of the costly absence—to America and to the world’s poor—of what was then strong, bipartisan support for global development.