One World

5 Ways to Put Global Poverty Back on (Whichever) President’s Agenda

Five ways either Romney or Obama can lead the world in meaningful development. By Jamie M. Zimmerman.

Jewel Samad / AFP-Getty Images; Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney will head to New York this week to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative, an annual summit where global leaders and other change makers convene to address the world’s most pressing development challenges. Though global poverty is far from a hot-button campaign issue, the candidates’ appearances at the CGI summit affirm a simple, bipartisan, yet easily ignored truth: the United States has a clear stake in maintaining its leadership position as a champion of global prosperity and stability. Indeed, with decreasing access to jobs, increasing food prices, and accelerating political volatility around the globe, the stakes have never been higher.

How will President Obama—or President Romney—lead the world to a more prosperous, peaceful future starting on day one? Unlike the candidates’ plans for health care, education, and the federal budget, their global development agendas can—and should—look the same.

Here are five nonpartisan ways either Obama or Romney can maintain—and even strengthen—America’s position as a global development leader.

1) Embrace technological innovation. The cutting edge is a position the U.S. aches to maintain globally, and with innovation comes both savings and impact. The State Department and USAID have been working to leverage technology to combat corruption and streamline aid. But we can do more. Biometric, broadband, and mobile tools can change the way our organizations work, enhancing internal systems and allowing leaders to more effectively and efficiently reach people in need. Precious resources are often wasted “in transit”; an estimated 17 to 32 cents of each aid dollar actually makes it to its intended recipient. But now in Haiti, transferring emergency relief aid via mobile phones has allowed governments and NGOs to track their aid flows. In Afghanistan, biometric identification is helping NATO forces ensure wages and payments reach the right people, and thwarting systemic corruption and collusion that's prevalent when large amounts of cash are involved. The next administration should double down on efforts to spur technological advances, taking a venture-capitalist approach to creating innovation spaces.

2) Focus on ownership. Handouts are unpopular in U.S. politics, so it’s no surprise that the topic of aid is largely avoided during campaign seasons. To many Americans, pouring aid dollars into a developing country may seem like siphoning cash into a black hole. What we need is a shift in rhetoric: Politicians should characterize and describe global development as an effort to provide poor people with the tools to pull themselves out of poverty. This includes access to financial services, property rights, information, and communication technology, and a formal identity, for example. Aid isn’t a handout, it’s an investment. The idea of an “ownership society”—where personal responsibility, economic liberty, and asset ownership are routes to prosperity—is universally popular. While it was born out of the “compassionate conservative” ideals of President George W. Bush, it resonates with both sides of the aisle.

3) Build alliances. Sharing the burden of development costs among all stakeholders—or creating a global social contract committed to prosperity—is a politically and fiscally expedient way of moving forward on most any cause. Traditionally, alliances have equated to binary public-private partnerships. But this is too narrow of a view. The future of alliances rests in multi-stakeholder communities of practice, which share information, ideas, and, of course, costs. Take the mHealth Alliance, a global coalition that includes several dozen members from governments, nonprofits, researchers, multinational corporations, and donors, among others, to develop new technological solutions to advance global health. The mHealth Alliance works because of the power in numbers. And such alliances offer the added benefit of mitigating concerns surrounding U.S. dominance (from abroad) or wasteful government spending (from within).

4) Go big (ideas). High-leverage ideas—ones that create multiple impacts through a single intervention—are the future of development work. Big ideas that can, say, simultaneously spur the private sector, reduce corruption, and improve government spending, while providing economic opportunity and social inclusion, may seem like an impossible dream. Yet they certainly exist. Take the idea of linking cash transfers to opportunities to save, or using digital technology to transfer aid or other cash-based payments into a bank or mobile money account. This seemingly simple idea can actually become a win-win-win for governments, business, and people. It allows the poor to save both time and money, as they now can receive and manage their resources automatically and safely. And the streamlined aid delivery is also more efficient, improving government transparency and reducing leakage—two factors that contribute to development work’s bad rap. Finally, business gets to profit from both lucrative government contracts and access to a large and increasingly empowered market base. Big ideas should be attractive to any administration looking to brand itself as committed to out-of-the-box solutions to global problems.

5) Embrace hope. Not just a stale rally cry of the 2008 presidential election. New studies indicate the psychosocial effects of opportunity on a person’s hopes and future outlook can be extremely powerful. In their groundbreaking book Poor Economics, MIT professors Abihjit Banerjee and Esther Duflo highlight how “the deficit of hope can be the source of a poverty trap, and, conversely … hope can fuel an exit from the poverty trap.” Providing hope is a powerful tool in the development tool shed, as it can mean the difference between healthy and risky decisions, maybe even life and death. Columbia University professor Fred Ssewamala’s research on the effects of nudging asset-building behavior via matched-savings accounts for AIDS orphans in Uganda, for example, demonstrated that vulnerable youth were less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior when they had even small amounts of savings, and plans for the use of it, such as higher education or a small business. Hope is a lofty ideal that politicians can sell, and that Americans understand and believe in.

To be sure, while global development issues will not rise to the top of either party’s agenda in today’s politicking, the next administration will undoubtedly face mounting pressure to show it can do more with less, maintaining its position of global leadership on a tighter budget. Finding low-cost, high-impact solutions that accelerate the pace of innovation in international development is something both parties can agree on.