Just as the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov
explored the idea of predicting the future to influence the world towards a more prosperous, democratic, and peaceful track, so too must USAID try to better understand the challenges of tomorrow, said Donald Steinberg
, deputy administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, during an address at USAID’s “Future of Development” symposium at the Wilson Center late last year. “Development now is too important to the United States to be left to actions that occur over 1, or 2, or 5, or even 10 years,” he continued. Looking beyond budgetary cycles, Steinberg asserted that “we have to prepare for future development patterns” by analyzing the present.
Why Aid Matters
Drawing on the President’s remarks during the UN’s 2010 Millennium Development Goals Summit in New York, Steinberg outlined three reasons why development aid is central to U.S. foreign policy.
First, we all stand to benefit from living “in a world that’s peaceful, that’s democratic, that’s prosperous, that’s respectful of human rights and respectful of human dignity,” he argued.
Second, “a world that is developing is in our economic interest,” he said. “Developing nations are our fastest growing markets abroad,” providing lucrative outlets for U.S. trade and investment. Eighty-five percent of new U.S. exports over the next two decades will find their way to recipients of U.S. foreign aid, he said.
Third, aid impacts national security. Countries that are developing and prospering “don’t spew out large numbers of refugees across borders or across oceans,” he said, “they don’t transmit pandemic diseases, they don’t harbor terrorists, or now even pirates” – in short, “they don’t require American forces.”
Looking to the Future
According to Steinberg, we can take hold of the future by being prepared to grasp opportunities, even if they come in the midst of challenges.
“We’re seeing demographic shifts that are complicating once steady development patterns,” he said, “and we’re seeing more uneven distribution of wealth within countries and between countries.” But “maternal and infant mortality have plummeted [and] literacy rates are skyrocketing.”
“We still see rampant corruption and we still see crackdowns on civil society all around the world,” however Steinberg pointed out that 17 new democracies have emerged in Africa in the last 15 years alone.
On climate change, he drew from recent events in the Horn of Africa. “A changing rain pattern – from a drought every 10 years to what is now basically a drought every year – has brought together a perfect storm of famine, war, and drought,” he said. Yet across the border from Somalia, the situation is markedly different – in part because “USAID has had the capability to work with eight million Ethiopians over the past decade to strengthen their resiliency.”
Each of these shows the opportunity for positive change amidst difficult challenges, if we are prepared.
“We went through a period where we had eliminated our office of policy and planning,” said Steinberg, but over the last few years the newly established Policy, Planning, and Learning Bureau at USAID has brought back an emphasis on futures analysis. “We are now seeking to become…the thought leader in the development field,” he said.
Overall, the total amount of official government aid is small compared to other sources from the United States, said Steinberg – around $30 billion a year (compared to $36 billion in private giving, $100 billion in remittance flows, and $1 trillion in private capital flows). To make the most of that, USAID should be “a catalyst for development,” he said, working in partnership, encouraging technological innovation, and advancing cross-sectoral understanding.
“We at AID like to think in terms of budget cycles,” said Steinberg. “We’re starting to think about fiscal year 14, but I want you to start thinking about fiscal year 25 and fiscal year 30. I won’t challenge you to think 30,000 years ahead like Isaac Asimov did, but I think we do have to consider what the lessons of today are teaching us about the future.”
Sources: The White House.