Bringing The Diplomacy Of “Dignity Promotion” To the UN MDG Summit

In a March 2008 article in the American Prospect, ]the journalist Spencer Ackerman wrote the first serious attempt to understand the organizing principals of then-candidate Obama’s foreign policy vision. Ackerman discovered that should Obama assume the presidency, “the Obama doctrine” as he put it, would be premised on “an agenda of ’dignity promotion’ to fix the conditions of misery that breed anti-Americanism and prevent liberty, justice, and prosperity from taking root.”

Two years into the Obama presidency, the precise contours of a “dignity promotion” agenda are beginning to take shape. That agenda will be tested on the world stage next month for the first time when President Obama meets with other heads of state for a United Nations summit on the Millennium Development Goals. That summit will show just how far the United States has come in increasing the relevance of global development in its foreign policy strategy—but also how far the United States and the rest of the world still has to go if it is to live up the promise of the MDGs.

In May 2010, President Obama released his administration’s first National Security Strategy—a quadrennial review of American national security priorities. Featured prominently was a section titled “promoting dignity by meeting basic needs,” which articulated the ways in which the United States was working to eradicate extreme poverty and promote global health.

The strategy document tied these efforts directly to American values, namely “the freedom that American stands for.” And, for the first time since 2000, when nearly 200 world leaders agreed to a set of poverty reduction and health promoting measures known as the Millennium Development Goals, those goals were mentioned, by name, in a US National Security Strategy. “The United States has embraced the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals and is working with others in pursuit of the eradication of extreme poverty,” the strategy read.

A few months later that strategic level guidance was followed up by the release of a more narrowly focused agenda of the administration’s strategy for reaching the MDGs. Titled “Celebrate, Innovate, and Sustain: Toward 2015 and Beyond” this document was the clearest manifestation yet of how the administration’s approach to extreme poverty and global health. With its release, the administration provided an insight into the nuts and bolts of how at least one part of its “dignity promoting agenda” would be implemented.

The theme of “innovation” runs throughout the document. The idea is to use American funds and expertise to fill discreet gaps in research, technology and other needs. “Drawing on America’s long tradition of development through innovation,” the document says, “we will increase funding for applied research, expand access to effective existing technologies, and practices, build learning partnerships and stimulate innovation in partner countries, and expand global access to knowledge.”

I asked USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah how that will work, in practice. “Just like we are on the verge of eradicating polio because they invented a vaccine that allowed us to not have to provide everyone with treatment services using iron lung,” he said, “in the same way we have huge opportunities to transition from more costly and ineffective strategies to things that are more highly scalable and lower cost.”

The hope is that a renewed focus on innovation may yield significant technological breakthroughs in the near future. For example, one promising new tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS is the first vaginal microbicidal gel which women can apply themselves, pre-intercourse. USAID largely funded the research that lead to this breakthrough, which is yielding promising results in clinical trials. If this document delivers on its promises we may see other important public health breakthroughs, including a new vaccine to fight childhood diarrhea, which kills two million children a year.

Of course, that is a big “if.” When the President’s latest budget was released earlier this year, some in the public health community expressed disappointment at what amounted to only marginal funding increases for these kinds of programs.  Further, many advocates – while generally positive about the MDG plan– lament that a long promised Obama administration strategy on global development has not yet been released. “Until the US has some kind of mission statement, all of these piecemeal reform efforts are like a ship without a compass,“ wrote Oxfam’s Porter McConnell.”Why  bother investing in ‘game changing innovations’ if we don’t know what destination we’re trying to get to?”

Still, the MDG strategy document provides a public demonstration of the administration’s commitment to the MDGs at a crucial time. When world leaders meet at the UN in September, they are expected to sign onto a plan that spells out the specific ways in which donors and recipient countries alike will help make the MDGs a reality by the 2015 target date. Diplomats are now deep into negotiations so as to finalize that document before their presidents and prime ministers arrive.

The last time world leaders gathered for this kind of confab was 2005. Back then, the American commitment to the MDGs was in serious doubt. Just weeks before the 2005 UN summit, the American Ambassador to the UN tried to scrub all mentions of the MDGs from an early draft of the outcome document, sending negotiations into a tailspin.

The United States has come a long way since then. Still, there is only so much that any one country can do on its own. These are, after all, a global effort. And while there has been progress in the aggregate since 2000, it has been uneven across regions, with sub-Saharan Africa still lagging behind. “Without a major push forward,” warns the UN. “Many of the MDG targets are likely to be missed in most regions.”

Closing that gap by 2015 is a key ambition of the summit. Whether that happens will, in part, be a test of how well a “dignity promotion” agenda is applied to traditional diplomacy at the UN. For the sake of billions of people around the world living below subsistence levels, let us hope it translates well.