Spotted: Development in the 2013 SOTU

February 13, 2013

My (low) expectations for the 2013 State of the Union address were happily exceeded when President Obama delivered an ambitious speech that spanned a myriad of US and foreign policy topics.  Admittedly, most of his remarks on development were cleverly disguised as domestic issues.  But the 100+ wonks gathered at CGD’s annual State of the Union Bingo event weren't fooled, as mentions of climate change, immigration and trade set ink daubers in motion and prompted victorious shouts of “BINGO!”

Indeed, the President remarks were in keeping with a key CGD idea: that  that rich-world development policy is about more than aid. The trade, migration, investment, environment, security, and technology policies of the United States have far-reaching impacts on poor people in the developing world. And while the president wasn't exactly speaking about these things in the context of development, he did discuss several issues that CGD experts had said they wanted to hear.Perhaps the best example of this was his comments on climate change.  My colleague Michele de Nevers had said she would like to hear the president call for market-based solutions, and pledge to do everything he can to ensure that the United States is a leader in the global response to climate change.  And – short of quoting her exactly – President Obama nailed this:
“I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will.”
Seeing that there’s about zero chance for congressional action on climate during this legislative session, the president will likely have a chance to follow through on his promise to use his executive powers (we have a few ideas for where he should start).
Paul O'Brien of Oxfam displays his bingo card.
Other issues like trade and immigration came up within the context of the US national security and prosperity (which is fair since this is the SOTU).  But America’s interests and good development policy are often mutually reinforcing. For instance, as Michael Clemens has argued, efforts to reduce unauthorized migration to the United States will be much more successful if the eventual reform package includes new, legal means for US businesses to hire temporary workers from abroad – a move that could put more money in poor people’s pockets than the entire US foreign assistance program.That said, President Obama did make an explicit, albeit brief, case for development for development’s sake:
“In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades: by connecting more people to the global economy and empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve and helping communities to feed, power, and educate themselves; by saving the world's children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation.”
But if the president really wants to make progress towards any of these goals, he should take one concrete, easy (and budget neutral!) step: make the USAID administrator a permanent member of his National Security Council (NSC).While I was generally pleased with the speech, there was one glaring missed opportunity. In keeping with a troubling trend, the president’s only mention of Africa was in the context of national security.  CGD visiting policy fellow Kate Almquist Knopf has pointed out that this rhetoric does a disservice to the complex reality of Africa.  As home to six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies, the continent is ripe for US investment, trade and partnership and should be seen as an opportunity, not a problem to be solved.Bottom line:  I was encouraged that President Obama chose to frame many steps that would be good for development issues within the context of US interests – whether he meant to or not.  After all, as the world’s richest and most powerful nation, the state of our union will has immense implications for people and nations around the world.


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.