The next U.S. president will not be elected because of foreign policy.  And she or he certainly will not get to the White House on the strength of election promises about global development.  For some candidates, the less time talking about poor people overseas the better – and even better if the U.S. government spends less money on them.

Yet, candidates who take this view miss two important truths.  First, development is not just about foreign aid – which makes up a tiny and decreasing fraction of how the world pays for development.  Second, if we help countries build strong and inclusive economies, then we are also helping to build prosperous, democratic, and stable societies.  That’s the whole point of foreign policy.  And that’s why global development matters for the 2016 election cycle.


Whoever wins will inherit the same responsibility that every U.S. president bears: to protect the American people and promote their prosperity.  Yet, the ever-growing connectivity between the United States and the developing world means the next president, whether Republican or Democrat, must address growing global threats while simultaneously advancing U.S. commercial and foreign policy interests.

Whether it be merciless extremists in the Middle East, Nigeria, or Somalia; faltering democracy in Egypt and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa; or territorial disputes involving Russia or China: these security challenges have the potential to export terror, breed homegrown extremism, and send waves of refugees across the globe in search of safe haven. The Ebola crisis in West Africa – exacerbated by weak health systems and lack of a timely global response – is a frightening reminder of how quickly pandemics can emerge, spread, and directly threaten the United States.

While the list of challenges is long, U.S. leadership has contributed to tremendous global progress over the last quarter century.  The number of poor countries has fallen by roughly half due to strong and sustained economic growth.  Health and education have improved at a pace previously unknown in human history.  Life expectancy has increased by nearly a decade in the poorest countries.  And girls in developing nations are nearly twice as likely to complete secondary schooling.

Not only does the developing world need America’s leadership, but America needs the developing world more than ever.  U.S. exports to developing countries have grown by over 400 percent during the last 20 years.  They are now greater than U.S. exports to China, Europe, and Japan combined.  Three decades ago, Brazil, Colombia, India, Korea, Malaysia, and Turkey were relatively poor countries that offered limited commercial opportunities.  Now their emergence as huge consumer markets brings opportunities for U.S. firms.  Populous countries like Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Nigeria have the potential to be the next wave of emerging markets.

These are both challenges and opportunities.  To ensure and enrich America’s own future, the next president should promote shared global prosperity and security.  Here are three ways to do that:

First, the next administration should better harness America’s greatest strengths – its $17 trillion economy, innovative businesses, risk capital, and world-class research institutions.  This means advancing development-friendly trade agreements, reforming existing trade preference programs, negotiating investment-promotion treaties, and implementing win-win migration policies.  

Second, the United States is often the only actor capable of marshaling the resources, political capital, or technical know-how to address global or regional challenges.  The next president should tackle corruption and impunity by promoting greater tax, budget, and procurement transparency – both at home and abroad.  He or she should also continue efforts to provide electricity to the 600 million Africans who lack any meaningful access, thereby boosting economic growth and employment opportunities.  And while climate change divides much of America, at least one related area commands bipartisan support – combating tropical deforestation throughout the developing world.

Third, the next U.S. president must ensure that America’s existing development institutions and tools are fit for purpose in an increasingly multi-polar world.  Emerging powers – like China, Brazil, India, and Turkey – are aggressively expanding their engagement and influence with poorer or smaller countries.  To stay relevant, the United States needs to strengthen and modernize agencies such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, USAID, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Doing so will both deliver bigger development bang for the buck and make America once again the strategic and commercial partner of choice for developing nations.

Each of these practical ideas – at little or no extra cost to U.S. taxpayers – can make a major difference.  Together, as part of a broader strategic vision of promoting prosperity abroad, they can deliver a more secure future both for Americans and for the world’s most vulnerable people.

Leo is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and co-editor of the White House and the World 2016, a set of more than a dozen shovel-ready policy ideas for the next U.S. president.