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US policy must adjust to transnational issues

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The November election will usher in new thinking on how the United States interacts with the rest of the world, regardless of who wins the White House. Already there is a robust discussion on diplomacy and defense, two of the three “Ds” associated with foreign affairs. But what about the third — development?

For starters, perhaps even the phrase “development” should finally be retired, replaced with another word that better captures just how much the world has evolved.

During the 1960s, it seemed reasonable to posit a linear path forward toward a predefined “final” destination, each individual country moving from “undeveloped” to “developed” status as part of a staged process, one that largely would reflect the same path followed by various European countries during the previous century.

That paradigm now seems much less compelling or relevant, despite the fact that the premier U.S. institution involved in this work is still named the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). 

Realistically, countries that once seemed “less developed” now have growing middle-class populations that, in some cases, are as large and prosperous as any found in Europe or North America. Conversely, health indicators in some parts of the United States compare unfavorably with those reported in countries perceived as much less developed. 

Against this backdrop, the coming administration might first consider a name change, overhaul or even remaking of USAID — forging a new or radically different organization that explicitly recognizes and responds to a world that has also radically changed. This would require a new mindset, and selection of prominent people, but this may be exactly the time to consider it.

Perhaps dusting off an old name — International Cooperation Agency (ICA) — might make sense as a starting point. Already, both Japan and Korea use this framework, preferring the word “cooperation” to “development” in naming their aid agencies. Other ideas could be woven into the name change narrative, including the need for a creative global response to China and the importance of having a new agency added permanently on the National Security Council that could directly design and act on transnational concerns.

Of course, it is not only the term “development” that needs to be reconsidered; it is also the framework for engaging on so-called “soft” issues, including those that involve projects and programs in areas diplomacy and defense can’t possibly tackle at the required levels. As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates, such issues, if not anticipated or addressed in real time, can have very “hard” consequences globally. 

When looking at the rest of the world, policymakers typically employ a bilateral lens, viewing the international stage as the sum of the nearly 200 sovereign countries that have been carved out and placed upon it.

The establishment of the United Nations and its associated agencies after World War II did mark an attempt to introduce and strengthen multilateral approaches. But, by and large, individual countries interacting with each other remain the major unit of analysis and contact point for addressing global concerns.

Moreover, multilateral agencies such as UNDP, UNICEF and the World Bank almost always engage with other countries on strictly bilateral terms, parsing their funding as well as their programs on a primarily country-by-country basis. Indeed, even multilateral agencies often find it difficult to effectively address transnational concerns.

Yet, as international relations theorists increasingly point out, the world has become a much more complicated place. Individual countries still matter, but some of the biggest issues of our time are transnational, impervious to national boundaries and increasingly irrelevant to them. Examples include migration, social media, trade, urbanization, terrorism, pandemics and environmental issues ranging from water to clean air to global warming.

The diminishing importance of national boundaries combined with the flourishing of non-state actors — some violent (such as terrorist organizations), some hugely powerful (such as multinational corporations) — also underscores the need to respond to some of the biggest concerns of our time in a different and more direct way. 

Put another way, some issues can be seen much more clearly and addressed much more effectively when viewed through a set of “bifocals,” adjusted when needed to take into account the reality of both national and transnational concerns.   

Whether it retains its current name or not, USAID is one institution that would surely benefit from recognizing more explicitly the power of a transnational approach, perhaps reorganizing itself along largely functional, rather than geographic, lines. While USAID — and the State Department, for that matter — have long-established global bureaus, the institutional center of gravity of both organizations remains where it always has been, firmly pointed in a bilateral direction.

Given the growing existential threats posed by global issues such as health and the environment, an effective reorganization of USAID might well start with the premise that the long-held bilateral country paradigm finally needs to be turned on its head, guided by a recognition that transnational approaches increasingly should stand at the center of its global mission.

Jonathan Addleton, a former U.S. ambassador to Mongolia, served as a USAID mission director in multiple countries. He currently is the rector of Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan.

Alonzo Fulgham was acting USAID administrator during the first year of the Obama administration and served as a mission director in multiple countries. He currently is executive vice president at VIATEQ, a government contractor in business support operations.  

Tags Globalization United States Agency for International Development

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