October 4, 2016 Eleanor Clift
In the midst of a contentious election year, a White House Summit on Global Development doesn’t get the headlines it should. The daylong event at the Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., brought together the biggest names and the best activists working in international development to discuss the challenges of overcoming persistent poverty and hunger, and improving public health and governance worldwide.
The wide range of speakers reflected the chief areas of concern as the Obama administration prepares to leave office. Just as President Barack Obama built on President George W. Bush’s signature PEPFAR program to combat the spread of HIV in Africa, the initiatives the current administration has put in place on food security, global health and civil society are meant to leave a framework that the next president can adopt.
Among the event moderators were United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Among the panelists were: Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE USA; Gary Hattern, president, Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation; and, Dr. Kent Brantly, medical missions advisor with Samaritan’s Purse. Brantley made headlines when he contracted Ebola while treating patients in Liberia, returning to the United States to be successfully treated at Emory Hospital in Atlanta.
“Progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all,” Obama said in his keynote address at the Summit. “We’ve shown this can work. Now we’ve just got to keep it up.” He spoke after a wave of violent terrorist-inspired attacks not only in the United States, but abroad, had many people on edge. He said continued investment in overseas development is part of national security, and puts the United States “in a better position to protect our country, and improve our country.”
Bill signings are so rare in today’s gridlocked Washington that Obama got sustained applause from the audience when he said he had just signed the Global Food Security Act, a centerpiece of his administration’s efforts to address human needs and foster civil society worldwide. The president seemed a bit taken aback by the boisterous response, joking, “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.”
It was a moment to mark progress when the Summit convened on July 20, but there are also mounting obstacles for nonprofits operating in many countries. The second panel of the morning was titled “Transparency, Accountability, and Open Government.” Moderated by Power, it addressed a wave of new legal requirements that restrict how nonprofits can operate in 63 countries.
Power said China is “in the midst of an unprecedented crack down,” with a new law that bans international groups from engaging with their Chinese counterparts. “What you see around the world plays itself out at the UN with countries ganging up to prevent other countries from participating in a conference on HIV/AIDS,” she said.
Douglas Rutzen, president and CEO of the International Center for Not-for-Profit-Law, cautioned against oversimplification, getting a laugh from attendees when he said, there’s no “world movement for autocracy, with people sitting around sipping cognac.” Governments have legitimate concerns, he said. It’s “not simply good guys versus bad guys,” and the response should not be to just denounce what’s happening, “but be more pragmatic,” Rutzen said.
Rakesh Rajani, director of democratic participation and governance with the Ford Foundation, spoke of a decade full of contradictions, citing the Arab Spring and noting that a poor farmer in Tanzania, Rajani’s home country, has more access by cell phone than President Bill Clinton had when he was in the White House from 1993 to 2001.
Svitlana Zalishchuk, a member of Parliament in Ukraine who was instrumental in organizing the social media movement that led to the country’s “Revolution of Dignity,” talked of the “price we pay to break away from the old and corrupt system.” Her message was underscored by news she received that morning of the assassination by a car bomb in Kiev of crusading Russian journalist Pavel G. Sheremet.
Power called Zalishchuk “a true engine of reform,” praising her work on human rights, anti-corruption and gender equality. Elected to Parliament in 2014, she pushed through a “Declaration On Assets” to require all members of Parliament to reveal their income and assets. “There is huge resistance even though it’s the law,” she said, adding, “It’s not yet the end of corruption, but you have people able to monitor their MPs.”
What Rutzen calls “a contagion of legal restraint” is the result of four drivers. First, national security and counter-terrorism concerns, which he said are legitimate. Second, concerns about the effectiveness of development. Third, governments are clamping down on political dissension and don’t want outside meddling. Fourth, there are concepts of transparency in some countries that discourage participation. For example, in India, if you are a voluntary trustee of a charity, you have to disclose all your assets, including your car, and your jewelry.
The crackdown is affecting not just human rights groups and groups that deliver social services. “It’s everybody,” Rutzen said in an interview after the panel, citing Green Peace, LGBT advocacy groups and orphanages. “That’s why organizers added this panel, and why the President is giving this his highest attention.”
Other panels zeroed in on specific initiatives, like food security, global health, sustainable development, public-private partnerships in Africa, and “Engaging Generation Now,” moderated by Dana J. Hyde, CEO of Millennium Challenge Corporation. The independent U.S. foreign aid agency established by President George W. Bush to fight global poverty with competitively awarded grants has continued under President Obama, who is counting on his successor to continue his cherished initiatives in the same spirit of non partisan global development. NPT