Putting poor people first

The world community adopted the eight MDGs a decade ago: firm targets for dramatic reductions in income poverty, hunger, maternal and child mortality, disease, gender inequality, and environmental degradation—all by 2015. If leaders today invest enough to achieve the MDGs and meet their aid promises, it would mean that five years from now, millions more mothers will survive childbirth, children will survive infancy, boys and girls can go to school, adults can earn enough to care for their families, and countries can grow their way out of poverty.

But that’s a big “if.” We need a clarion call to inspire a collective push to keep our promises. Here’s the speech I believe President Obama needs to give, laying out America’s strategy for development leadership in the 21st century:

Fellow leaders:

Today, a billion people continue to struggle to escape extreme poverty. This fact poses a fundamental threat to our efforts to build a world that is secure, prosperous and just. Tackling this challenge needs to be our shared priority, because eradicating poverty is in our shared interests. It is in our moral interest, for poverty undermines our efforts to build a just and decent world. It is in our economic interest, for extreme poverty excludes one sixth of the planet from effective participation in the global economy. And ending poverty is in our shared security interest too, for the billion people who struggle for survival every day are a vulnerable mass who can be swept into conflict, mass migrations, or political upheaval.

That is why I’ve long said the Millennium Development Goals are America’s goals as well, and why my administration released in July an action plan to achieve them.

I urge my colleagues in every country to issue national plans of your own, so we can hold ourselves accountable in the push to meet the MDGs on time. I pledge that I will report annually on U.S. progress for as long as I am president, and I call on all UN member states to do the same.

Yet, we know the MDGs are only milestones, not the finish line.  Even though we are on target to meet the goal of halving extreme poverty, in 2015, 920 million people will still be living on less than $1.25 a day. Even though 33 million more children are now in school than at the decade’s start, on current trends, 56 million children will still be out of school in 2015. Even though maternal mortality is in decline, 960 women will die today, and every day, because of complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

We have learned that foreign aid is indispensable to combat global poverty, yet it is insufficient. Policy change is required by governments, including by my own, to reform the systems and remove the barriers that prevent poor people from effectively investing in their own potential.

We also know today’s challenges cannot be met with outmoded tools. In the U.S., the Cold War-era laws that guide our global development efforts incorporate 140 different goals and priorities and 400 directives, and our efforts are executed by at least 12 departments, 25 different agencies, and almost 60 government offices. When it comes to foreign aid, Americans’ generous impulses and intentions are thwarted by our own confused system, which too often results in conflicting priorities, missed opportunities, and wasted resources.

That is why, today, I am announcing the United States’ first ever National Strategy for Global Development. From now on, my country’s development mission is clear: reducing global poverty.  We will do that by supporting citizens and governments who are working together to achieve broad-based, sustainable, private-sector driven economic growth. And as we pursue economic growth, we will also support people’s efforts to secure their rights and dignity.

We will emphasize ownership – acknowledging that development is only possible when we hand over the reins to those we are trying to help. Going forward, our aid will reflect the priorities of citizens and their governments, not plans we impose from afar.

Our strategy’s scope is not limited to foreign aid, but reflects the impact of other global policies, including trade. From now on, the USAID administrator will be a full member of my cabinet and the National Security Council, to ensure policy coherence and to elevate development priorities alongside those of diplomacy and defense.

We also will focus on measuring results, looking at outcomes – not just inputs and outputs. We need strategic patience in promoting development, just as we do in fighting wars and waging peace; and that means long-term investments toward lasting change, not short fixes or quick wins.

Finally, our strategy calls for modern tools to more effectively deliver aid, which is why I will be working closely with Congress, in a spirit of bipartisanship, to enact a new Foreign Assistance Act for the 21st century. We are determined to help poor people achieve lasting change in their lives and their communities, and for that, we must rebuild our capacity to combat global poverty, not just to save the world’s poor, but to improve the world we share.

Raymond C. Offenheiser is the president of Oxfam America.