What Global Legacy for Obama?

May 30, 2013 By John Glenn

One of the most hotly debated issues on the foreign policy circuit is the Obama Administration’s plans for a global legacy in its second term.  The recent announcement of the President’s upcoming trip to Africa in June has some wondering if this might be the moment to reveal the Administration’s intentions.

The President and Mrs. Obama are slated to visit Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania from June 26 – July 3.  According to the White House, the trip will focus on “expanding economic growth, investment, and trade; strengthening democratic institutions; and investing in the next generation of African leaders.”  With 7 out of the 10 fastest growing economies in Africa, it’s no surprise to see the focus on opportunities, rather than challenges in Africa.

In this year’s State of the Union, the President called for ending extreme poverty through a number of initiatives that might be part of his legacy:  “by connecting more people to the global economy and empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve and helping communities to feed, power, and educate themselves; by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation.”  These are ambitious, potentially transformative goals that have a policy foundation to build on.  Might the Administration choose to focus on Africa?

Strengthening agriculture and reducing hunger is one area where the Administration could make an impact by reducing the number of people who live on less than $1.25 a day.  The Administration’s Feed the Future initiative and New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition have already shown signs of progress.  Is the Administration ready to scale up its work for a broader impact?  Last week the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released its latest report, “Advancing Global Food Security:  The power of science, trade, and business,” which focuses on the likely elements of such a plan:  partnering with the private sector on innovation, leveraging trade agreements, and focusing on nutrition not just increased production.

The Administration’s recent budget request includes a modest increase in funding for Feed the Future.  At the Chicago Council’s conference last Tuesday, Administrator Shah flagged USAID’s efforts to be more selective and focus their efforts in countries where they can be most effective.  He noted that USAID shut down 22 agriculture programs to focus on 19 countries where governments are ready to work with the U.S. to increase agriculture productivity.  He also previewed an upcoming progress report on Feed the Future, saying 7 million farmers have already adopted new technologies to increase their harvests, poverty rates have fallen by 5%, and stunting of children due to poor nutrition is down by 6%.

Or might it be a focus on energy, building on current USTR-nominee Mike Froman’s trip to Africa last year?  More than 550 million people in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have electricity, or about 70% of the population. Without reliable power, many things we take for granted are extremely difficult, especially in health.  Women give birth in under-equipped hospitals, and vaccines for children requiring refrigeration are at risk.  Routine business transactions beyond cash exchanges are hard.

It’s unlikely this would mean the United States is committing to provide electricity directly, but energy might be a sector where targeted U.S. policies could help set the stage by improving the enabling environment for private sector investment.  The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, which joined Mr. Froman on his trip last year, has already begun to work with American businesses to bring sustainable energy to the developing world.  And OPIC, which returns a profit to the U.S. budget through its investments each year, also saw an increase in the President’s FY14 budget to enable it to do more.

Focusing on food security or energy need not come at the exclusion of the other, especially given the comprehensive nature of the challenge of ending extreme poverty.  But the near certainty of leaner budgets given sequestration means the Administration will have to make choices.  The countries the President and Mrs. Obama will visit are places where the United States has already invested in effective, targeted development assistance, from the PEPFAR to the Millennium Challenge Corporation.  The potential is there to capitalize on these successes and define the Administration’s global legacy of reducing extreme poverty by promoting economic growth.   Let’s see what we hear.