By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 7:38 PM
NEW YORK - At a time of global economic uncertainty, President Obama urged wealthy countries Wednesday to maintain development assistance to poor nations out of self-interest, though he argued that aid should be delivered in smarter ways.
Obama made his pitch at the U.N. Millennium Development Goals Summit, an international gathering charged with assessing how effective rich and poor nations have been in meeting an ambitious set of anti-poverty benchmarks. The results have been mixed: Progress was reported in alleviating poverty in Asia and Africa, but trouble continued in addressing women's and children's health issues in much of the developing world.
In a speech to the General Assembly on Thursday, Obama will address the administration's broader efforts over the past 20 months "to restore American leadership in the world," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. The president will lay out "what the United States is - what the purpose of American leadership is in the world," Rhodes said.
On Wednesday, while outlining changes in how the United States will pursue international development, Obama challenged rich nations to view assistance to poorer ones as a vital part of their national security strategy.
"I suspect that some in wealthier countries may ask, 'With our economies struggling, so many people out of work, and so many families barely getting by, why a summit on development?' " Obama told an audience of several hundred people in the U.N. General Assembly hall. "The answer is simple. In our global economy, progress in even the poorest countries can advance the prosperity and security of people far beyond their borders, including my fellow Americans."
The Obama administration has been working to redefine development aid as a national security tool, and the strategy the president outlined Wednesday seeks to more closely coordinate the nearly two dozen government agencies involved in aid policy.
Obama said his administration will begin assessing development policy by how successful it is in helping countries move "from poverty to prosperity," not just by how much money, food or medicine it distributes.
"Our focus on assistance has saved lives in the short term, but it hasn't always improved those societies over the long term," the president said. "Consider the millions of people who have relied on food assistance for decades. That's not development, that's dependence, and it's a cycle we need to break."
Administration officials said the new development strategy will rely on evidence to more rigorously assess programs and will end those that do not work.
In addition, Obama said he will favor countries that carry out economic, judicial and political reforms that increase the chances for development aid to make a difference. He cited Tanzania as one such country, saying that "over the long run, democracy and economic growth go hand in hand."
Noam Unger, policy director of the Foreign Assistance Reform project at the Brookings Institution, said Obama's approach reflects an "international current" that is "fed up with ineffective assistance efforts and trying to do things more comprehensively and deliberately."
Obama noted global progress in expanding educational opportunities; ensuring that more people have access to clean drinking water; combating HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria; and lifting "hundreds of millions of people" from extreme poverty.
"Yet we must also face the fact that progress towards other goals has not come nearly fast enough," he said, citing the still-high rates of women dying in labor, malnutrition and chronic hunger across much of the developing world. "This is the reality we must face - that if the international community just keeps doing the same things the same way . . . we will miss many development goals."
Obama said the promotion of economic growth will remain the chief goal of U.S. development policy.
He said that "every nation will pursue its own path to prosperity," but he emphasized that "certain ingredients," such as democracy and the effective rule of law, help ensure sustainable growth in developing countries.
"Let's put to rest the old myth that development is mere charity that does not serve our interests," he said. "And let's reject the cynicism that says certain countries are condemned to perpetual poverty."
Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.