A Win-Win: The President’s Case for Global Economic Development and Why It’s Good for Us

In his speech at the U.N. Summit on the Millennium Development Goals in New York last week, President Barack Obama announced a new U.S. Global Development Policy—the first of its kind by the U.S. government—that recognizes worldwide economic development as a moral, strategic, and economic imperative for the United States. This is an important step toward reclaiming America’s stature in the world, making America’s future safer, and ensuring that our economy is more competitive in the coming decades.

The president “put to rest the old myth that development is mere charity that does not serve our interests” by promoting development as being in our own economic interest as well as for moral and strategic reasons. The notion that promoting development is in our economic interest is perhaps less well understood than promoting development for moral or national security reasons.

Global economic development helps ensure that countries compete on an even playing field and in particular that no one country can leverage poor labor practices for economic gain. As our economy faces difficult challenges with budget and trade deficits and high rates of joblessness, it is natural to focus only on domestic policy solutions. But it is crucial to recognize that in an integrated global economy none of these challenges can be met without taking other countries into account. Competitiveness is gauged relative to other countries.

Well-conceived and well-executed economic development policies can contribute to an expansion of the global middle class, especially in emerging countries—creating new markets for our own products and services in the long run, and shifting global demand away from still heavily indebted American consumers to propel more balanced global economic growth.

But the creation of “just jobs” and labor must be at the center of any policy to promote sustainable economic growth and sustainable development. Development can only be sustainable if people around the world have the opportunity to earn a decent wage to support their households and contribute to their communities and economies at large.

The Presidential Policy Directive highlights three major initiatives that reflect the core elements of President Obama’s new development policy:

  • Feed the Future, an initiative aimed at forging a global response against hunger and food insecurity
  • The Global Health Initiative, a $63 billion effort to improve health outcomes around the world
  • The Global Climate Initiative, which is aimed at fostering low-carbon growth, promoting sustainable and resilient societies, and reducing emissions from deforestation and land degradation.

The Obama administration should launch a fourth global initiative that places the creation of just jobs—jobs commensurate with decent wages, labor rights, and good working conditions—at the heart of global development initiatives. The administration should work with international partners and multilateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the International Labor Organization, and the Group of 20 leading developed and developing nations to make just jobs a priority on the international community’s to-do list.

Public opinion polls suggest the American people understand the moral and strategic justifications behind supporting development. They believe that the United States should internationally engage to uphold the values they believe America stands for—freedom, equality, justice, and democracy. And our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan show that military intervention might win a war, but war alone cannot win the peace.

Last week President Obama made it clear in his speech to the United Nations that his administration will invest in well-conceived and well-implemented global development programs and initiatives for their own sake but also in our own hard-nosed economic interest. That’s a two-edged international economic push that’s good for the world and good for us.

Sabina Dewan is Associate Director of International Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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