"A Pillar's Progress: How Development's History Shapes U.S. Options in the Present"
Discussion Paper 2010-03, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
Author: David Ekbladh, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2009–2010
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
"Development is back. U.S. President Barack Obama has put it high on his strategic agenda. It is at the center of the State Department's much ballyhooed "Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review." These aspirations come with real backing—Obama's fiscal year 2010 budget promises to double foreign aid to nearly $50 billion. Perhaps more importantly for supporters of development, across official Washington accord is growing that development must play a greater role not just in conflict zones but in general U.S. global strategy. It is not only the typical aid constituencies calling for greater attention. Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has urged a continuation of the emphasis on development that characterized policies of his last boss, former President George W. Bush. Almost assuredly, a pattern of bigger budgets, needed policy focus, and reform to the disjointed aid mechanisms within the U.S. government will emerge. Complementing (although not always supporting) this U.S. activity internationally is a collection of groups ranging from nongovernmental organizations (NGO)s to the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank. Overall, the place of aid U.S. foreign policy has not been so prominent or secure since the end of the Cold War. Development is once again, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterizes it, "a core pillar of American power."
One sign that foreign aid has recaptured significance is the continuity of development's strategic importance from one administration to the next. While particular approaches may be different, Obama is continuing an emphasis on foreign aid to promote development that began in the George W. Bush years. Indeed, development was given a prominent place in Bush's controversial 2002 National Security Strategy. Development was to "drain the swamp" and remove the appeal of dangerous ideologies and movements that they can inspire while extending stability and the influence of the United States. Behind this is a more amorphous but equally important mission, to shore up the international credibility of the United States. These basic goals have not been altered.
As strategy should, a recommitment to development shapes the tools available to diplomats, aid workers, and soldiers on the ground. As the United States ramps up its involvement in Afghanistan (and Pakistan), development has again been yoked to counterinsurgency efforts. Echoes of the past are loudest here. Obama's new Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, has advocated an extensive program of rural development as a means to sell to the American public what is likely to be a long struggle to stabilize Afghanistan. He has declared that "the U.S. should consider basically what Roosevelt did with the farmers in America in the 1930s, the Rural Electrification Administration, a massive multibillion dollar program, that involved seeds, water, fertilizer, roads, markets."
Outside the U.S. government, there has been considerable ferment in the wider global aid community. There are, of course, efforts of rock stars like Bono and the "Live 8" benefit put together by political activist Bob Geldof. Behind the media savvy is a great deal of humanitarian effort, often with NGOs in the lead. A jubilee movement has worked hard to free developing countries of onerous debt obligations believed to hamstring their development. Its case has attracted particular attention of "rock-star" economist Jeffrey Sachs, who has promised an "end to poverty" if his vision is followed. Sachs is in line with others, who see a need for greater scale in development efforts to transform societies and pull them out of their "poverty traps." However, the needs are diverse and require the coordination of efforts among institutions from all quarters of the global aid community. Sachs sees governments in revived roles working with international institutions, NGOs, and businesses to implement wide-ranging programs of development that embrace whole countries and regions. Dipping into the past, he plucked out a prime example of "successful regional development programs [that] help us understand how international development can succeed"—the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).
Even with all of this activity, advocates should be grimly aware that aid to promote development has long been a magnet for controversy. Ranks of critics are prepared to challenge its worth and accomplishments, but some larger, lingering concerns exist that should give its boosters pause. Even well-versed members of the global aid community harbor doubts about contemporary efforts to promote development. Perhaps the most vocal of these is former World Bank economist William Easterly who thinks that the larger goals for what international development "is doing, will do, can do, or should do" are at best, "muddled." Easterly has become a relentless critic of what he considers to be the shortcomings of the international development community. With his vision that foreign aid should be more entrepreneurial and market-based, Easterly has particular venom for what he calls Sachs' "big plan"—something he characterizes as a sort of Marxist charade, where a Leninist vanguard pushes history toward a Final Cause. But even Easterly's criticism betrays how the past looms over debates in the present about development's future. Echoes of older ideas and controversy are heard in the arguments of the present. "Planning" is slung as an epithet. Large projects and the role of the state are viewed with skepticism. Like many others both liberal and conservative, Easterly's critiques are based in perspectives influenced by decades of arguing over the correct approach to global development.
Easterly and others do have one point. The means and ends of development are jumbled, even as it is taking on a vital role in U.S. strategy and international affairs generally. Development is a perpetually forward-looking concept seeking, at the very least, to provide positive change from what relationships and capacities exist in a society. Yet, the very suspicions that Easterly and others espouse are tied to development's controversial history in the twentieth century. It is this past that that shapes the opportunities and limits of development in global affairs today...."
For more information about this publication please contact the ISP Program Coordinator at 617-496-1981.
For Academic Citation: