The Obama Administration’s First Year in International Development Policy

One year in, what has President Obama accomplished in US foreign assistance? So far, we’ve seen a lot of delays and a handful of promises. They’re good promises, but it’s going to take at least another year before we see how well those promises are kept.

The Delays

The year led off with a delayed transition at PEPFAR. The Obama administration removed Mark Dybul as the US Global AIDS Coordinator after a series of mixed messages. It took five months after that to confirm Dr. Eric Goosby, leaving global AIDS programs rudderless. Now that he’s in office, Dr. Goosby has been saying all the right things as Global AIDS Coordinator. He is emphasizing AIDS prevention and health system strengthening, while maintaining American commitments to providing anti-retroviral drugs to people living with AIDS. With only six months on the job, though, we have yet to seen any substantial changes in PEPFAR’s actual programming.

A second, even more substantial delay pertained to the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The agency was left without a head from the end of the Bush administration on January 20th 2009 until Rajiv Shah was approved by Congress on December 24th. The interim period was marked by stagnation on the part of USAID. Acting administrator Alonzo Fulghum, a career USAID officer, kept the agency alive, but his acting status made change impossible. This was especially hard on morale at USAID, which had looked to a new administration to help rebuild the agency.

Lastly, the Quadrennial Defense and Diplomacy Review was announced on July 10th. Its purpose was to “provide the short-, medium-, and long-term blueprint for our diplomatic and development efforts. Our goal is to use this process to guide us to agile, responsive, and effective institutions of diplomacy and development…” As of yet, there has been no product of the review.

The Promises

In May, Obama promised a six-year, 63 billion dollar Global Health initiative, intended to fight the spread of HIV, reduce maternal mortality, expand access to family planning, and bring down infant mortality rates. However, these priorities weren’t matched by any new money. As Lillian Gu pointed out at, it actually turns out to be a decrease in funding.  

More recently, Hilary Clinton gave a speech to the Center for Global Development on US foreign assistance. In it, she promised robust support to US leadership in international development. She discussed a whole range of development work, from sustainable agriculture to global health and gender equity. Once again, however, we have yet to see how those impressive goals will play out in practice.

On the whole, you can argue that the Obama administration didn’t really have a first year in international development policy. At least not yet.