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Development Expert says New President must not Neglect International Responsibilities - PART 1 of 5

In addition to facing grave domestic challenges, the next president of the United States will almost immediately be confronted with a number of foreign policy decisions that will affect Americans and the rest of the world. Several of these challenges for the new man in the White House will be in Africa. Experts agree that poverty, insecurity and disease in the developing world threaten the well-being of the international community to a far greater degree than ever before. They say Washington’s influence on the world stage, as well as growing globalization, means that the next president belongs not only to the United States, but also to the world.

While much of the United States and the international community in recent months focused on the dramatic race between Barack Obama and John McCain, one of the leading US think tanks was concentrating its energies on trying to set the development agenda for the new administration.

Experts at the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington, D.C., put their heads together to consider what they regard as the most pressing problems in the developing world that the new president should urgently address.

Their insights are collected in a recent book, The White House and the World: A Global Development Agenda for the Next U.S. President, which includes chapters on fragile or failing states, climate change, trade and infrastructure, and what the new American administration can do to help developing countries.

“(The publication) shows how modest changes in US policies could greatly improve the lives of poor people in developing countries, thus fostering greater stability, security and prosperity globally and at home,” says a CGD statement.

It continues, “Sound global development policy – on trade, migration, investment, and climate change as well as foreign aid – is no longer just the right thing to do; it is crucial to the safety and prosperity of the American people.”

One of the main authors of the publication is CGD president Nancy Birdsall, who’s known internationally for her work in the fields of the economy and globalization, among others, and for her great experience in developing nations. She’s also the author of several books on the challenges facing poor countries.

Birdsall’s convinced that developing countries – and development – will bear fundamentally on the next president’s responsibility to protect Americans and promote their prosperity in the near future. She says the current global financial crisis, with its roots in the US, has shown that “we live in a hyper-connected world.”

“Much more today than in the past, Americans rely on markets and opportunities in the developing world for their own economic prosperity, and they face risks in the developing world that affect their security,” Birdsall states.

Terrorism, she acknowledges, is the most “high-profile” danger to the US as a result of lack of security in the developing world, but she emphasizes that the risks extend beyond that, to, for example, diseases such as avian flu and instability in oil-rich economies like Nigeria and Venezuela. The US relies on these countries in part for fuel supplies, and so their instability directly affects America’s economic stability. Birdsall adds that deforestation – seen by many experts as one of the reasons for climate change – in the developing world, also affects quality of life in the US.

Support fragile states

In an interview with VOA, Birdsall said the “key risk” to the US in the future and one that will “immediately” confront the new president “comes in the form of what have come to be called ‘fragile states’ or ‘failed states’ – sometimes ‘flailing states’ is the expression used.”

These terms are applied to under-resourced countries with little or no good governance, poor economies and extreme poverty, in which a void therefore exists to be exploited by terrorist groups and other militants.

Birdsall says instability in Africa – especially in countries like Sudan and Somalia, where Islamic militants are a powerful regional force – has the potential in what is today a “much smaller world” to “spill over” into neighboring countries and eventually into the United States itself, in the form of terrorist attacks against American targets.

She advises the new administration to take a number of steps as soon as possible to prevent “negative fallout” from fragile states.

“The key issue is to provide support – and I’m not just talking about money and foreign aid – to these countries, to make them safer and more secure” through expanded training to their security forces, for example.

Birdsall says drug trafficking in the developing world poses an “obvious risk” to the United States, as does the “corruption that often follows in countries that are victims of the drug trafficking problem.”

She says the new administration must support governments that are “seriously struggling” to eliminate corruption and to build their capacity to have “sensible governance arrangements.”

The US, according to Birdsall, should do its best to support the “growth of a middle class” in developing economies, “because we know in our own system that the middle class is the bulwark of good government, in many ways. It’s the middle class that wants the rules of the game to be played, that wants a level playing field….”

Special US development official

The economist argues that the new president must “put development at the core of his foreign policy.”

“(This is) the sort of development that is conveyed by a bigger middle class, that is symbolized by a better and more stable middle class. That has to do with economic security, of course, but it also has to do with the other indicators of development and wellbeing for people: better school systems, more access to educational opportunities at the higher level, improved health services, infrastructure that is adequately maintained, eliminating corruption….”

In terms of development, says Birdsall, a revamped Washington should take the lead in “protecting people in developing countries from global risks” such as climate change.

“The US could make a major contribution just by harnessing its own technological acumen, research and development capacity and science ability, by developing and transferring technologies that are clean – clean energy,” she comments.

Birdsall calls upon the new president to, within a few weeks of taking office, appoint a special official to lead America’s development efforts in poor countries. This, she writes in The White House and the World, will “realize a revitalized vision of the role of the United States in the world and (will) ensure the country’s ability to implement that vision of a better future for all the world’s citizens, Americans included.”

Such a person, she insists, should have “substantial experience on the ground” in the developing world.

“Ideally it’s a person who understands the global community’s approach to working in and with developing countries. It’s someone who understands the economic issues, the social issues, ideally has some experience in international organizations, or in a key part of the US government…. In, say, the US Treasury or USAID (United States Agency for International Development).”

Birdsall adds that the US’s special development officer should have “sympathy and empathy for the challenges faced by countries that have still together millions of people living below the poverty line.”

But “most important” with regard to this person, she says, is that it’s someone who “has the ear of the president, because the task for this person, as I envision it, is to work closely with Congress – indeed it could be a person that comes from Capitol Hill – and the various federal agencies that work on development issues.”

Give Africa fairer trade

International trade and economic experts have praised various initiatives by the Bush administration, such as the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, designed to boost economies on the continent, but have also criticized the US for “unfair” trade practices that impact negatively on the developing world and have resulted in a lot of resentment towards the US from poor countries.

Birdsall says Africa undoubtedly deserves a fairer deal with regard to trade from Washington.

“There are some good steps that are difficult, politically, that could be very positive and actually would have very limited impact on US businesses and American workers who are concerned about too much free trade,” she comments.

Opponents of allowing African goods into the American market with little restriction argue that certain countries in Africa already enjoy preferential access to the US, and that this is more than sufficient. But Birdsall disagrees. She says these arrangements, which are called preferences, aren’t permanent and “have to be renewed from time to time” which hinders Africa’s efforts to do profitable business with America.

“They do not provide the kind of comfort and confidence that investors, both domestic and foreign, like, say, in Cambodia, or Bangladesh, or in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, would like in order to give them incentives to invest and develop industries that would then export to the very rich US market.”

Birdsall says one of her “major” recommendations to the new president would therefore be “to make out of trade policy something that is actually a development-oriented policy, by saying that some countries should have easy access to our market.”

She advises the next administration to “select a group of countries – there might be a dozen or more – who have responsible governments, who clearly are making an effort to meet the needs of their people, and who are very poor, and to guarantee them what we call duty-free, quota-free access to the US market. That means, guarantee them access without any of the tariffs, or any of the limits on their imports, that they now face.”

Restore America’s image

Birdsall says initiatives that help developing countries improve the United States’ international image, which she’s convinced is in serious need of repair. She says this will be one of the main tasks for the new man in the Oval Office.

“I think Americans are aware that the US has certainly lost its shine in the rest of the world in the last eight to ten years…. Attitude surveys suggest there’s been a decline in the respect that people all over the world have for the US.”

The Bush administration says it has been widely praised for several foreign aid initiatives that prove its commitment to the poor and enhance its reputation as the biggest aid giver in the world. As Birdsall herself acknowledges, the Bush government can rightly point to its provision of “100 per cent debt relief” to 30 of the world’s poorest countries and its increase of foreign aid, from $12.6 billion in 2001 to $23 billion in 2006. In addition, the Bush government has also established two major new aid programs, the Millennium Challenge Account and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

Birdsall praises these initiatives, but still believes United States has “sort of lost respect” in recent years “because we didn’t seem to be honoring our own democratic principles, because our military strength was being dissipated in Iraq, because our model of open, global capitalism seems to have failed.”

She explains that the current financial crisis in the U.S., which some economists say is already a recession and may eventually evolve into a depression, will “come to be seen as a final blow to what many people in especially developing countries see as the US (economic) model” and that this represents another setback for the US’s “fragile” reputation.

She concludes that while the challenge for the new president will be “very great” in terms of rebuilding the US’s image, he can begin immediately by declaring his commitment to the development of poor countries, and expanding upon the “wonderful work” already being undertaken by America in this regard.