The Future of Development Policy

Principles for the Next Presidential Administration

There are a lot of big issues at stake this election. Global warming, the war in Iraq, health insurance, and the economy all have earned a prime share of the public consciousness.

However, none of these issues strike me as the most critical topic to be settled. The war has largely settled down and the damage is mostly done. Health insurance is a major issue but is only part of the problem, as social determinants are far more significant, and neither candidate would dare propose a universal insurance plan anyway. Global warming is a big issue, but it’s far off in the distance; there are more pressing issues that have killed people yesterday and will kill others tomorrow.

Global poverty, however, was a causal factor in tens of millions of deaths worldwide last year. It is a major social determinant of disease and is the main reason the people who will suffer the most from global warming will be at high risk. (If your house is made of shoddy materials you are much more likely to be harmed by flooding in Bangladesh. If you have levees, better construction materials and emergency medical infrastructure, much of the damage will be mitigated.)

Since global poverty is such a major issue, the next president should have an agenda to address it and make it a priority. This ‘Poverty Agenda’ should include at least the following elements:

Continue Effective Health Interventions

The most common storyline about global development is one of corruption, wasted money and stagnation. While there is some truth to this, many health interventions have been extremely successful. Smallpox has been eradicated worldwide. Polio has been largely overcome and measles deaths in Africa have dropped 90% over the past few years.

Deworm the World, an effort based on research at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, will cure over 10 million kids in the next year from parasitic worm infections. The US Government’s AIDS treatment program, PEPFAR, despite its flaws, has managed to get millions of Africans on anti-retroviral therapy, helping to stop the spread of the HIV virus.

End Farm Subsidies (esp. Corn Ethanol and Cotton)

Economists universally agree that domestic agriculture subsidies are bad for farmers in developing countries and are also harmful to U.S. consumers. The truth is that our government gives away about $15 billion to agribusiness each year. By getting rid of farm subsidies, the only losers would be these large multinational companies. While it would have a small impact on the urban poor, the cost would be much less than $15 billion a year.

Start a Real Development Round

When the World Trade Organization (WTO) met in Seattle in 2000 there were riots and mass protests. People didn’t like globalization. The response was the so-called “Doha Round” of trade talks, a true development-focused round. The short story is that the talks crashed and burned, but the need for development-focus trade initiatives didn’t go away.

Don’t Expect Magic Bullets

There is a tendency in development work to expect a project to be a magic bullet that instantly lifts people out of poverty. The history of global development, however, indicates that magic bullets don’t exist and that the process is long, difficult, and still poorly understood. Few projects turn out as well as expected, but that shouldn’t stop our progress.

Make a Serious Commitment

This one is difficult. However, since development is a long-term process, it needs a long-term commitment in order to really make a difference. Better data, more experiments, and more trial and error are needed to deduce which policies work best. We can’t set a timetable of 20 years to end extreme poverty and become cynical when we don’t achieve everything we have set out to do.

There are a lot of other things that can be done — starting with funding for universal primary education — but I wanted to capture the big picture from the perspective of the government. Democracy, however, is a two way street. Our elected officials represent us, so they prioritize our interests and vote for what we favor, meaning we have the power to influence them.

This means the fifth goal — making a serious commitment — applies as much to citizens as to governments. In 2009, each of us can write an e-mail or a letter to the new President telling them what we feel should be done about global poverty or why we care about international development. There are a few worrying signs that neither candidate intends to implement their development plans during their four years in office.

When asked what programs would have to be sacrificed because of the financial crisis and the cost of the bailout, Senator Obama mentioned only one: “[while] I’m a strong supporter of foreign aid … we may have to delay that.”

Joe Biden echoed the sentiment in the vice presidential debate: “the one thing we may have to slow down is a commitment we made to double foreign assistance.” For his part, Senator McCain has argued for a total freeze on non-military discretionary spending. We have the power to change their minds. Citizenship doesn’t end at the ballot box. Make your voice heard.

Steve White ’11 is a member of the MIT Global Poverty Initiative.