Dear Obama: follow through on your promise to the poor

    This small market in Mukono Town Council, Uganda would likely benefit from increased investment in entrepreneurial opportunity and legal institutions. Photo by Ben Armstrong / North by Northwestern.

    To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.
    – You, January 20, 2009

    Dear President Obama:

    For the three million on this planet living in poverty (less than $2 per day), these thirty words constitute a promise: America, no matter the domestic hardship, is committed to confronting global poverty. But how can we commit to alleviating global poverty when we have no money to spend?

    Standing frozen on the national mall, I did not expect to hear the phrase “starved bodies” in your first speech as president. After all, the United States is currently undergoing a domestic crisis and is deploying hundreds of billions of dollars to ward off further catastrophe. Congress has allotted $700 billion to the banks and devoted another $819 billion in a domestic stimulus package. Even liberals might become a bit wary if you decided to push for a dramatic increase in foreign aid.

    While the United States currently provides the most total foreign aid of any country in the world, we provide the second least in foreign assistance among industrialized countries as a percentage of Gross National Income (as of 2004, Italy is the only stingier industrial state). Though we committed to allot .7 percent of our Gross National Product to aid, our aid budget has only reached .16 percent of GNP. Realizing the hypocrisy, you promised to double American foreign assistance. Then came the storm.

    Once the financial crisis hit, Joe Biden admitted that your administration would likely have to go back on its pledge to increase aid so that you could keep the domestic economy afloat. Nearly $1 trillion later, it does not look as if Congress will approve more humanitarian assistance any time soon. As donor budgets get tighter, aid must become smarter.

    We can successfully respond to the severity and the urgency of humanitarian crises without spending more money. The United States remains the international political maestro when it comes to development. We appoint the president of the World Bank and manage aid operations throughout the developing world via USAID. Within its current budget and programs, the United States has the power to dramatically increase the welfare of those in dire circumstances throughout the world.

    Your administration has already begun. Last Friday, not unexpectedly, you signed an executive order ending the global gag rule. This policy reform will ensure that health treatment facilities offering family planning assistance will not be barred from receiving American aid.

    Here are the five more policy changes that you can implement for free:

    1. Buy our food aid from foreign farms. The United States currently mandates that the large bulk of its food aid must be purchased from American farms and shipped to the hungry via American freighters. We refuse to purchase food from African or Latin American farms that can be delivered locally to suffering populations. In urgent cases, populations can wait for weeks before American freighters deliver American grain to their shores. All the while, local surplus is left untouched. If we change our policy and use our food aid to buy up local supplies, we will support local commerce and mount a quicker response to acute cases of famine.

    2. Reduce farm subsidies for American farmers and urge the EU to do the same. The farm lobbies in America and the EU have killed the Doha trade round and other efforts to eliminate farm subsidies in rich countries. Ultimately, subsidies from rich governments make farmers in rich countries more competitive on international markets than those in poor countries who often lack fertilizer and modern equipment. Eliminating farm subsidies to American and European farmers would increase the competitiveness of farmers in developing countries and allow their operations to grow and prosper.

    3. Replace military aid with increased financial support for legal institutions. While America currently provides military assistance to select poor nations, we should redistribute this aid to promote law enforcement and the development of legal institutions. Particularly, we should offer incentives to those nations in Africa that rank near the top of the Ibrahim index for good governance and those nations that implement progressive property registration policies so that entrepreneurs face fewer obstacles in organizing new businesses. Opportunities for firms to flourish in the formal sector, coupled with a trustworthy legal system, will do much more for stability in the developing world than a few 20-year-old tanks.

    4. Use the new Africa Command to secure aid convoys. While the United States recently established an Africa Command (AFRICOM) to combat terrorism, the new military network should not be limited to offensive operations. The United States should use AFRICOM’s military infrastructure to provide security for aid shipments to fragile regions. In conflict zones, aid can easily be looted or picked off by insurgent groups that either consume or sell it. Securing the delivery of this aid will stretch the influence of our current humanitarian spending and reduce the power of insurgent groups that prey on assistance operations.

    5. Encourage American universities to establish locations in developing countries. Innovation from within is key to the development of poor countries. The current educational systems in many developing states fail to encourage creative thinking and entrepreneurship. Imagine a series of Northwestern University outposts throughout Latin America, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The purpose of these campuses will not be for American students to study abroad, though there can be exchange between campuses. American university campuses in downtown Dakar, Nairobi and Luanda will be to focus and expand the country’s innovation potential. Universities in developing cities will provide new opportunities for growth in research, cultural understanding, invention and leadership.

    These reforms will not top your policy agenda, nor should they. However, your 30 words elicited grand expectations from billions listening across the world.

    Please follow through,

    Ben Armstrong


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