No country has escaped the setbacks caused by the pandemic, but its impact on low-income countries is particularly devastating. The World Bank estimates that the pandemic and efforts to contain it will drive 150 million people around the world into extreme poverty.
Yet there is hope even in the face of this grim reality. Governments and international development organizations have accumulated a great deal of knowledge about what works to reduce poverty and increase economic activity. As the Biden administration works to build a post-pandemic environment, here are three lessons it can apply to global economic development.
1. American leadership matters. The U.S. has led and sustained the global economic development agenda for the past 70 years. There have been notable successes, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which started in 2003 under George W. Bush. This ongoing, multibillion-dollar global effort to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS is widely considered to be a hugely successful public health effort. Not only has PEPFAR saved more than 20 million lives and prevented millions of HIV infections in more than 50 countries, it has also enabled millions of people to continue to work and contribute to their communities, helping promote economic growth, food security and poverty reduction. Since much of the $85 billion spent to date has been invested in building health care capacity and health care infrastructure, this farsighted program continues to play a major role in driving sustainable economic development even beyond the health sector.
The U.S. can once again mobilize the public and private sectors to help poor communities help themselves during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the most urgent issue is climate change. Low-income countries are still largely agricultural. Drought, floods and other extreme weather events destroy economic capacity and force people to flee their homes, often to other countries also affected by climate change.
Public and private development organizations must integrate resilience to climate change in all decisions and programs, from lending for food security to health care programs. The Biden administration has talked about a “whole of government” approach to climate change. This must apply to international development, as well. When it does, other governments and international organizations will follow.
2. We need more and better globalization. At its base, globalization is the integration of economic activity around the world. It has its downsides, which have been well documented by both its opponents and supporters. Nevertheless, the sharing of ideas, goods, services and capital has resulted in the largest reduction in poverty in history.
Globalization has significantly reduced the potential for the kind of devastating wars that defined the first half of the 20th century. Because of their interdependence, great powers must now cooperate on numerous issues to promote their interests. Global integration has transformed many enemies into competitors, and even fierce competition is far better than armed conflict.
Low-income countries seeking to lift themselves out of poverty need more investment — especially in sustainable agriculture and clean energy — more new ideas and more help building institutions based on the rule of law and accountability to citizens. These investments not only reduce poverty, they also mitigate “push factors” such as lack of jobs and food scarcity that force people to leave families and friends for what they hope are better lives in other countries, and thus reduce brain drains and emigration.
3. Humility and patience are critical. The U.S. and other high-income countries have faced significant challenges over the past two decades. Many of those challenges — and even crises — were born of an inability or unwillingness to address internal economic and social imbalances and often unrealistic desires to transform other societies in their images.
The U.S. and its liberal democratic allies will continue to hold up and promote individual rights, limited and accountable government, rule of law, multiculturalism and the other values that undergird our societies. Recent history has shown this must be done with humility and patience.
In practice, this means helping communities and countries build on what is already working in their particular contexts and helping develop capacities on the ground. Training needs to focus not only on technical skills but also on leadership with a focus on women and youth. This requires time and consistent effort. These kind of changes cannot be measured through short-term metrics. Rather, long-term assessments of improvements in income, health, education, equality, governance and other factors will add up to a better way of life. That takes time.
The modern global order has been through some tough times. The current period of pandemic, economic stress and anti-democratic movements may be the toughest in a century. That only means it is time to work that much harder — and smarter — to continue the tremendous improvements in living standards and freedom achieved over the past 70 years.
Ultimately, communities and nations are responsible for their own improvement. Wealthier nations and international development organizations can play a part, just as they have for decades. A more open, prosperous, equitable and free world is still worth fighting for.
Kate Schecter (email@example.com) is the president and CEO of World Neighbors, which works with communities in 13 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean on lasting solutions to poverty, disease and climate change.