Wed | Sep 26, 2018

Obama’s got unfinished work

Published:Sunday | April 19, 2015 | 12:00 AMIan Boyne
A pensive Barack Obama.

US President Barack Obama should spend the rest of his term in office waging war on international poverty with drone-like precision. It would seal his Wilsonianism and establish a legacy of not just peace, but development.

Barack Obama has had the sagacity to know that fighting terrorism involves more than by counter-insurgency methods. Terrorism has to be fought at its roots, weeding out its sources. His view, expressed at his uncritically acclaimed town-hall meeting with young people in Kingston, is that countries should just concentrate on growth and not obsess over things like debt relief. Growth is necessary for sustainable development, but it is not sufficient.

Now is a good time for President Obama to tackle the international development issues as intense preparations are under way for the post-2015 development agenda. Jeffrey Sachs, world-renowned development economist, has just published his 543-page book (2015) The Age of Sustainable Development, which leading evolutionary biologist Edward Q. Wilson has dubbed "my candidate for the most important book in current circulation".

Sachs makes a compelling and riveting case for pursuit of sustainable development goals (SDGs), making it clear that market mechanisms are not adequate in achieving those goals. Says the development guru (Barack Obama should listen): "There are a few crucial reasons why the private-sector approach, which would ideally be the universal one if it actually solved problems, does not solve many critical problems ... . The first case is when the challenge is fighting extreme poverty. Markets are basically designed to ignore the poor, as they are generally not good customers."




Sachs continues (I hope Damien King is reading this): "When it is a question of access to health care, for example, the poor can die as a consequence of this lack of market access. This is where the concept of 'merit goods' comes in. There are areas of our economic life - health, education and other areas - where Government should provide services whether people can pay for them or not because they are meritorious goods which should be universally available. Public financing is essential to ensure the poor have access to merit goods."

Public financing is crucial for the financing of sustainable development goals. Taxpayers of high-income countries have a moral obligation to help poor countries to finance their sustainable development goals (This is a controversial area, but that scintillating philosopher Thomas Pogge has done some very significant work advocating it.) As one who is concerned about human rights, especially gay rights, Barack Obama should work to ensure that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 is finally given some force in terms of realising its social and economic rights.

Focus is usually given to the civil and political rights enshrined in the Declaration and short shrift paid to other rights. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for the right to work and to a livelihood that enables individuals to meet their basic human needs. Article 25 states that there ought to be a universal right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of the individual and his family. The US gets worked up when civil liberties are trampled on, but why not exercise equal passion for the one billion people in the world living in extreme poverty?

Official development assistance became a pillar of the international community in 1970. It was then that there was the recommendation of developed countries contributing 0.7% of their GDP to official assistance. The United Nations General Assembly adopted that as a goal for high-income countries in that year, yet today only five such countries - Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom - exceed that target. The combined development assistance of the developed countries is only 0.3%. The US is way below the target at 0.18% of 1% of its $16-trillion national income. The US is giving only US$30 billion per year in development assistance, rather than the $112 billion if it followed that 1970 UN target.




If the rich countries were implementing that 1970 stipulation of 0.7% for official development assistance, developing countries would be getting $280 billion per year. As Sachs says in his book The Age of Sustainable Development: "Official development assistance (ODA), in other words, can make a huge difference when it is operated for the real problem of development ... . ODA can make a real difference between success and failure in breaking free of the poverty trap. It comes at a very low cost, less than 1% of national income of the donor countries. If the rich world makes that effort, and if the funds are well used, ODA indeed can help to ensure that we are the generation that ends poverty."

President Obama should devote much of his attention to this, for on this track he can confront many of the issues that face the United States as a global power. Obama has wisely rejected Bush's global policeman role and he has a keen grasp of liberal internationalism. He knows why pulling the international community together on key global issues is the way to conduct foreign policy, rather than the narrow, muscular approach of the Republican hawks.

He has already copped the Nobel Prize. He must go after the prize for international development by lending his support to the post-2015 development agenda and the reform of the international financial architecture. President Obama should also support the efforts of Caribbean countries like Jamaica to have the World Bank overhaul its antiquated classification system that discriminates against middle-income countries like us small-island development states, with real needs not addressed by development financing, for we simply don't qualify.

As the UN 2015 Report on the World Economic Situation and Prospects says: "In many critical areas of sustainable development, such as meeting the needs of the poorest or financing national and global public goods, public finance is necessary and cannot be substituted by other sources of finance. Stronger international collaboration on ODA (official development finance) and other forms of international public finance will remain critical to meeting these needs, particularly for those countries with limited capacity to raise public resources domestically." Already, ODA has increased significantly between 2000 and 2013. Net ODA flows from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development increased from US$82 billion to US$134 billion.

I was happy to read the communiquÈ of the Intergovernmental Group of Twenty-Four on Monetary Affairs and Development issued to the IMF last week as it started its spring meetings: "Two thousand and fifteen is a pivotal year of action on development and climate change and marks the deadline for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. We look forward to the upcoming Third Conference on Financing for development, the launch of the post-2015 development agenda, including the sustainable development goals, and the UN climate-change conference." Note this from these experts to the IMF: "We look forward to a credible financing framework for the SDGs. Country-level actions will be crucial in meeting the SDGs, but global efforts will also be essential to support these actions and address collective challenges ... . We also support a review of the role, scale and effectiveness of existing multilateral development banks to determine how they can scale up support for the implementation the SDGs." This is what President Obama should give full support to. You can't underestimate the clout of the world's richest and most powerful country on these issues that so heavily impact the lives of the poor.




As I stated last week, President Obama must think big and aim high. Palliative measures won't do, applauded as they are by cash-starved and overexuberant Caribbean populations. Sustainable development is more than just dealing with the environment. It is a holistic concept. This is how the Rio plus 20 Group puts it in its outcome document, The Future We Want: "We also affirm the need to achieve sustainable development by promoting sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, creating greater opportunities for all, raising basic standards of living; fostering equitable social development and inclusion ... ." As Sachs puts it in his tome: "Sustainable development is a normative or ethical view of the world, a way to define the objectives of a well-functioning society, one that delivers well-being for its citizens today and for future generations."

Sachs goes on to make an important philosophical point, often missed in discussions about economics in Jamaica: "The basic point of sustainable development in that formative sense is that it urges us to have a holistic vision of what a good society should be. The easy answer for many people is that a good society is a rich society, one in which higher incomes are the ultimate purpose of economic and political life. Yet something is clearly too limited in such a view."

Indeed, it is. I remember Barack Obama and Bill Clinton tirelessly trying to get those Republicans to grasp that point, shrouded as they are in their Ayn Randism. If Obama understands that nationally, it should not be hard for him to extend that to the international community. Leave that legacy, Mr President.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to and