"Progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all," the president told the audience he described as "a lot of do-gooders" at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, as he detailed the inroads U.S. policies had made overseas. "We’ve shown this can work. Now we’ve just got to keep it up."
"Obviously, this has been a tough couple of weeks, not just here in the United States but around the world," he said, adding that if the U.S. continues to make investments in developments overseas "we're also going to be in a better position to protect our country and improve our country."
"And this is why, as president, I've elevated development as a key pillar of American foreign policy." Obama quipped the U.S. would remain the world's top donor of humanitarian aid "as long as I'm president," before adding he was "confident" it would continue under the next administration.
Mary Beth Goodman, senior director of development and democracy at the National Security Council, told reporters Tuesday in a conference call that administration officials have “really tried to make evidence, innovation, partnership and accountability central to our business model” over the past 7½ years.
“The signature development initiatives of this administration have reduced poverty, malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality,” she said, “while also spurring entrepreneurship and economic growth, increasing the number of young women in school, and helping to build more stable, accountable, and inclusive societies.”
Obama’s development initiative has been based in part by building on his predecessors’ work — by expanding George W. Bush’s PEPFAR program to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa — and by launching a new agriculture initiative as well as ones focused on electrification and strengthening the global health system.
Although some development experts have identified areas where Obama could have pushed harder or devoted more attention and resources, most credited the president with working to expand and establish programs that could have an enduring impact.
Tom Hart, U.S. executive director of the ONE campaign, a humanitarian organization, said the administration’s Feed the Future initiative is helping developing nations “literally grow their way out of poverty” and helped mobilize private investment in agricultural innovation in Africa. “I think that’s a model we need to replicate.”
The program, which Obama launched in 2009 in response to a spike in global food prices, has attracted more than $150 million in investment from firms including Coca-Cola. It has supported more than nine million farmers, according to administration officials, boosted their sales by more than $800 million, and has improved nutrition for 18 million children.
The Global Food Security Act will codify this program into law: Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), who co-authored the bill, said he and other lawmakers such as Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) wanted to sustain the program beyond the end of the administration.
“It’s absolutely critical to have it be a policy that’s enduring and isn’t subject to the whims of Washington,” Casey said in an interview Tuesday, adding that the measure will not only address hunger but curb global instability. “Obviously when you’re hungry, any one of us can get desperate, and that can lead to instability around the world.”
Isakson noted in an interview that at any given time there is only a 90-day global food reserve, and that expanding agricultural production leads to “better food security” in the United States as well as in the developing world.
After Obama announced he had signed the bill, he received sustained applause, prompting him to joke, "You’re not surprised I signed it, right? I mean, you guys are all excited about it. We’ve been working on this for a while. We got it passed, so it's my job to sign it."
A separate administration initiative, Power Africa, was codified into law through passage of legislation this year. The administration has dedicated $7 billion in aid and financing to the program, which has been matched by billions more in private-sector commitments.
Projects slated to generate up to 29,000 megawatts are in development, although only 400 megawatts have come online since the program was launched three years ago. Operations accounting for total of 4,600 megawatts in electricity generation have "reached financial close" according to a White House fact sheet, meaning they have crossed a critical financial threshold.
U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Gayle Smith said these kinds of new efforts, coupled with the expansion of existing programs, have paid major dividends. Bush’s last request for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was $500 million; Obama’s most recent one was $1.3 billion.
“We've been able to proceed with 2.0 on PEPFAR, which is where we expanded dramatically the number of people on treatment based on the research, to now the kind of 3.0 version where we are really focusing on the most vulnerable groups,” Smith said. “So if we don’t address [them], it will prevent us from defeating this epidemic. But we do honestly believe — and I think the science and data suggests this — that an AIDS-free generation is within sight.”
When it comes to malaria, Smith added, between 2000 and now “we have been able to save the lives of over six million people.”
Isakson said that Obama has made “a great contribution to many of the programs of George Bush.”
Development policy may be one of the few remaining areas where bipartisanship is the norm rather than the exception: Casey joked that Isakson was “my third Republican” partner on the food security bill, because two other senators had left office over the past four years.
“With regard to Congress, we’re in a period where the hard things are impossible, and even the easy things are difficult,” Casey said.