SOTU 2014: The Developmentista Edition

January 27, 2014

This is a joint post with Erin Collinson.

President Obama delivered his 2014 State of the Union speech Tuesday, January 28. Before the speech, we polled CGD experts to find out what they hoped to hear from from the president's address. Check out their oratorical contributions below and read about the development-related decisions and policies they would like to emerge in support of the rhetoric.

You may not be surprised that development didn’t feature prominently in the president’s speech. However, we were pleased to hear references to inequality, the economic benefits of immigration, climate, and trade, if not necessarily with the development lens offered by CGDers below. We were also thrilled to hear the shout-out to Power Africa (oh, and to Mad Men).

President Obama will deliver his 2014 State of the Union speech Tuesday, January 28. We polled CGD experts to find out what they’re hoping to hear when the president addresses Congress and the nation.  Check out their oratorical contributions below and read about the development-related decisions and policies they would like to emerge in support of the rhetoric.

Read the whole thing below or jump to a topic:

On inequality, Nancy Birdsall

On immigration, Michael Clemens

On multilateralism, Scott Morris

On transparency, Charles Kenny

On climate and forests, Frances Seymour

On global health, Amanda Glassman

On trade, Kimberly Elliott

On US Africa policy, Ben Leo


On inequality from Nancy Birdsall:

“Last year I called for an end to extreme poverty in the world by 2030. That end is in our sights. But inequality is rising not only here in the United States, but in China and India, in Europe and in Africa. To achieve real progress in tackling this pernicious challenge, we need to put the fight against inequality on our global agenda, as well as our domestic one.”

The president is justifiably concerned with growing inequality and declining social mobility in the United States. In the developing world, inequality remains a serious problem and one increasingly associated with a worrying cycle in which high concentrations of economic wealth corrupt political systems, and in turn feed rent-seeking by privileged insiders. Protests this year in Turkey, and in Brazil and Chile (countries where inequality is falling but remains very high), and the rise of resurgent extreme right parties in Greece and Spain signal citizens' growing frustration with economic policies that seem to sustain rather than fight that cycle— whether intentionally or not. The president can send a critical message, at no cost in budget terms, about American democratic values and commitment to inclusive growth around the world -- simply by referring to inequality as a global political as well as economic challenge. Follow-up should include revisiting the position of the United States on the framing of a post-2015 development agenda, as well as revitalizing support at the upcoming G20 summit for toughening up measures on tax cooperation and reduction of cross-border tax abuses already agreed to by the G-8 last year.

On immigration from Michael Clemens:

“The US economy was built by the hard work of immigrants and today immigration is more important than ever. But Silicon Valley does not run on engineers alone. It also runs on nannies, janitors, farm workers, and dish washers. Immigration reform that creates safe, legal pathways for low-skill migration will contribute to the recovery and continued sustained growth of our economy, prevent future crises of unauthorized immigration, and foster global development in ways that go beyond traditional aid.”

Over the next decade the US economy will need more than 5 million new low-skill workers for jobs like health aids, nannies, food services workers, and landscapers—jobs that require less than a high-school education, and can’t be off-shored or mechanized. Over this same period, just 1.7 million Americans will enter the labor force, only a small fraction of them without a high school diploma. The country needs a way for economically essential migration to take place legally. Filling those essential jobs is critical for our economic recovery and continued economic growth, because they directly complement higher-skill workers and make all of us more productive. This is why immigration reform that includes a robust temporary low-skill worker program, like the W-Visa program in the immigration bill passed by the Senate last year, is good for the American middle class. Meeting American firms’ demand for these low-skill workers will prevent future flows of unauthorized immigration, and expanding opportunities for temporary work in the US will have development benefits that far out size what traditional aid can offer—and at no fiscal cost to US taxpayers.

On the US commitment to multilateralism from Scott Morris:

“I am calling on Congress to pass legislation that will ensure continued US leadership in the IMF, a vital partner to America’s economic interests. Congressional inaction undermines US interests in an institution that plays a critical role in combatting deeply damaging financial crises globally, helps to ensure a level playing field for US workers and companies around the world, and works with us to root out the financial seeds of terrorism.”

The United States badly needs a win on the international economic stage. In a year when the global community decided to go big in support of IDA, the World Bank’s fund for the poorest, the United States decided instead to go big on the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. As a result, a substantial chunk of the United States’ NPR-style matching pledge to the Global Fund went unmatched, and the champions of IDA this time around were countries like the UK and China (China!). But nowhere in the international economic sphere is the United States more visibly out of step with the rest of the world than on IMF reform, where the US is singlehandedly holding up a hard-won agreement due to congressional inaction. Just a few months ago, President Obama weighed in personally on behalf of the Global Fund, making a direct appeal to other donors. It’s time for him to put his voice to the need for Congress to act on the IMF.

On transparency from Charles Kenny:

“American taxpayers deserve to know the government spends their hard-earned money. My Administration has taken steps to make accessing data on government spending faster and easier, but we can do more. I will instruct the Office of Management and Budget to publish the full text of all government contracts and task orders online at, in a fully searchable database, and to develop new guidelines consistent with the Freedom of Information Act that will provide specific guidance on commercial and national secret exceptions.”

US taxpayers fund government contracts with the private sector that are worth hundreds of billions a year. They have a right to know what they are paying for, and there is plentiful evidence that greater transparency in the contracting process can lead to better outcomes in terms of price and quality. A number of other countries from Colombia to Slovakia to the UK already publish government contracts online. In the United States, you can access government contracts using a Freedom of Information Act request, but it can be a long, painful process and the rules governing what counts as ‘commercial secrets’ within a contract are vague enough that the released, redacted document is sometimes more black marker than text.  The US should join a growing global movement towards contracting transparency-–and an Executive Order could make it happen.

On climate and forest conservation from Frances Seymour:

“Stopping the loss of tropical forests is one of the most urgent, affordable, and feasible actions the international community can take to avert catastrophic climate change. The United States will provide meaningful rewards to those countries and companies that demonstrate success in reducing deforestation.”

Greenhouse gas emissions from tropical deforestation are our emissions too: forests are being cleared to make way for production of the food, fuel, and fiber that US citizens consume. But there are practical solutions to decouple production from deforestation, including policies being put into place by the governments of forest countries to improve law enforcement and forest management, and commitments from private companies to rid their supply chains of deforestation. The United States should join Norway and Germany in allocating aid funding to reward governments that successfully reduce deforestation with “Cash on Delivery.”  As part of its contribution to the Tropical Forest Alliance, the US should ensure that the Lacey Act--designed to prevent the import of illegally-produced forest products-- is fully funded and aggressively implemented, and that federal procurement standards are “greened” to create markets for products certified as deforestation-free.

On global health from Amanda Glassman:

“We will ensure that our anti-tobacco policies are supported—not subverted—by our trade policies, and strengthened by our investments in aid.”

The United States invests billions each year to address some of the most pressing health challenges around the world, but more can be done to ensure that US policies on international trade back up this commitment to global health.  Globally, deaths from tobacco use each year exceed the number of deaths from HIV/AIDs, TB, and malaria combined. At home, the United States has enacted smart policies and made tremendous progress against tobacco-related deaths--efforts that should be ‘exported’ and replicated around the world. Failure to stand up to the big tobacco bullies will make it more difficult for these countries to enforce anti-tobacco policies like package warnings and advertising restrictions, and will undermine the United States standing as a leader in global health. Further, the United States should do more to ensure that organizations like the World Bank and the IMF that have a mandate to modify taxes and subsidies, support countries in increasing tobacco taxes and cutting tobacco subsidies, saving both lives and money.

On trade from Kimberly Elliott:

We know trade is vitally important to our economy, but it is also a critical tool to reduce global poverty. As the United States continues to make progress negotiating with our trade partners across the Pacific and the Atlantic, we must ensure that these agreements benefit US workers and consumers but do not undermine our efforts to promote development in low-income countries or weaken the multilateral trade system that is so crucial to global prosperity.”

Negotiations across the Pacific and with the European Union will no doubt dominate the US trade agenda this year. The greatest risk for smaller, poorer countries is that these “mega-regional” deals will weaken the World Trade Organization and leave those countries with no refuge from discrimination and bullying by more powerful trader partners. Some poor countries, particularly Bangladesh and Cambodia, could also see their exports fall as a result of more favorable market access granted to competitors that are included in these deals, such as Vietnam.

To guard against the risk of undermining multilateralism, President Obama needs to be equally committed to ensuring that ongoing negotiations and development of a work program at the WTO are successful. In particular, US negotiators should push for a food security package that reduces or eliminates rich country agricultural subsidies, reforms food aid, and develops new rules that give developing countries the tools they need to pursue food security goals without distorting global markets. And, to mitigate the potential for trade diversion, President Obama should work with Congress to reduce barriers to trade with the world's poorest and most vulnerable countries.

On US policy in Africa from Ben Leo:

“My Administration will work closely with Congress to extend trade legislation with Sub-Saharan Africa, negotiate new investment treaties, and significantly expand our efforts to promote more US investment in this important region, particularly in the power sector. Increasing our engagement will yield benefits to US businesses and put more Americans to work. And I look forward to finding additional opportunities for partnership this coming August, when I will host the first ever US-Africa Summit with leaders from 47 African nations.”

This past week, the White House formally announced that President Obama will host leaders from 47 African nations in early August. The summit agenda will focus heavily on promoting trade and investment ties with the region. These interests reflect the continent’s rapid economic growth over the last decade and widespread improvements in macroeconomic management and governance (despite pockets of instability and ongoing challenges in places like South Sudan and the Central African Republic). In the interim, the Administration and Congress will be considering a number of important programs and policies. First, both branches will be determining whether (and how) to extend the African Growth and Opportunities Act, which provides preferential US market access for qualifying countries. Second, the Administration will continue efforts to conclude bilateral investment treaty negotiations with the East African Community. Third, the Administration will continue implementation of its Power Africa Initiative, which seeks to expand electricity access for 20 million households. A presidential reference to these three efforts will be important for either getting them over the finish line (in the case of AGOA and the US-EAC BIT) or putting pressure for early and concrete results (for the Power Africa Initiative). 

Beyond this, the US government should also take further steps to promote greater trade and investment ties with Sub-Saharan Africa, including: (1) unleashing the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; (2) expanding select USAID programs focused on unlocking private capital for development, such as the Development Credit Authority; and (3) announcing a new strategy for improving the impact and coherence of US trade capacity building programs.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.