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Although President Obama will be plenty busy during the remainder of his first term working with Congress to avoid the fiscal cliff, he need not wait until the start of his second term to further his vision for making US policy more supportive of global poverty reduction.
Indeed, one of the great things about being the richest and most powerful nation on earth is that seemingly minor stroke-of-the-pen moves can make a big difference in the lives of extremely poor people half a world away—and in the process help make Americans more secure.
Here, then, are five actions that the president and his top appointees can undertake before Inauguration Day to get a running start on a central—but frequently overlooked—challenge of his second term.
1. Onward with foreign aid
Sarah Jane Staats suggests three steps for President Obama to keep his foreign aid agenda moving. First, give development a voice in the decisions that matter by making the USAID administrator a member of the National Security Council. Second, name members to the still-vacant White House Global Development Council and fill two vacant nongovernmental Millennium Challenge Corporation board seats. And finally, keep pushing for better, more open foreign aid data, especially on the US Foreign Assistance Dashboard.
2. Unleash OPIC to fight energy poverty
More than a billion people lack electricity. The main US weapon in the fight against this energy poverty is the Overseas Private Investment Corporation or OPIC. Todd Moss says that an overly rigid cap on the carbon emissions from OPIC-backed projects is preventing the agency from helping to bring power to poor people. He proposes an exemption that would permit OPIC to back natural gas power plants in countries where poverty is greatest and emissions are lowest.
3. Grant Haitian Humanitarian Parole
Haitians who have been approved for US permanent residency must sometimes wait as much as 11 years in Haiti to receive their green cards. Marla Spivack explains a proposal that she and Michael Clemens are championing that would permit some of them to wait for their green cards in the United Stated instead. US law already allows for this under a provision for “humanitarian parole.” Spivack says this would be one way for the United States to use smart migration policy to help Haiti, which is still struggling to recover from the 2010 earthquake and, like the northeastern States, was also battered by Hurricane Sandy.
4. Pressure Syria’s Assad with preemptive contract sanctions
Kim Elliott says the United States should use a new tool to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad: preemptive contract sanctions. Elliott says countries that rid themselves of repressive dictators are often left with odious obligations that legitimate successor governments must meet to maintain access to international credit markets. The United States, she says, avoid this problem by declaring that any new contracts signed with the Assad regime are illegitimate and not subject to enforcement in US courts. This would discourage new contracts and loans that are helping to keep the regime afloat and free a legitimate successor government from unjust debt.
5. Release PEPFAR data
Mead Over says the United States has been a leader in the fight against the global AIDS epidemic, spending billions of dollars through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to help poor countries prevent and treat the disease. Six million people now rely on US assistance to pay for AIDS medicines that keep them alive each day. Over says that this effort could be more effective—and the money better spent—if PEPFAR would release the reams of data it and its contractors routinely collect so that researchers, US policymakers, and country recipients could use it to make better-informed decisions.