President Barack Obama was in New York yesterday for United Nations week, the annual gathering of the world’s heads of government to discuss issues of global importance. Discussion of the Millennium Development Goals had dominated the discussion leading up to Obama’s speech (and will likely be the focus of ongoing discussion, as Texas in Africa notes).
President Obama’s speech was—as many of the speeches to the United Nations by heads of state tend to be—long on rosy rhetoric and short on details. Obama did hint at a couple of (potentially) interesting shifts. He announced a new “U.S. Global Development Policy” and outlined his “new approach and new thinking” in which America’s “national security strategy recognizes development as not only a moral imperative, but a strategic and economic imperative.” Collectively, according to him, means that “the United States is changing the way we do [development] business.” Much of the rhetoric offered nothing new. His speech emphasized the same need for transparency, good governance, and commitment to free markets that have defined U.S. development policy since the early 1990s (at least).
More concretely, Obama recommitted the United States to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. He also suggested the need to rethink how we define development. According to Obama,
“For too long, we’ve measured our efforts by the dollars we spent and the food and medicines we delivered. But aid alone is not development. Development is helping nations to actually develop—moving from poverty to prosperity. And we need more than just aid to unleash that change. We need to harness all the tools at our disposal-from our diplomacy to our trade and investment policies.…
[W]e’re changing how we view the ultimate goal of development. Our focus on assistance has saved lives in the short term, but it hasn’t always improved those societies over the long term. Consider the millions of people who have relied on food assistance for decades. That’s not development, that’s dependence, and it’s a cycle we need to break. Instead of just managing poverty, we have to offer nations and peoples a path out of poverty.
This could suggest a more dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy. For example, the United States may move away from providing in-kind food aid to a greater emphasis on cash for emergency aid and an increase in non-emergency food development. But this kind of shift involves more than a simple speech at the United Nations. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.