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U.S. Foreign Policy Challenges in the 111th Congress: The Developing World

January 30, 2009 // 9:00am10:30am
Event Co-sponsors: 
Africa Program
Latin American Program
Maternal Health Initiative
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On January 30th, 2009 Wilson Center on the Hill hosted the first session in a two part series on the key foreign policy challenges in the 111th Congress and the policy options it may consider over the next two years. This panel, focusing on the developing world, featured Wilson Center experts Cindy Arnson, director of the Latin American Program, Gib Clarke, coordinator of the Global Health Initiative and senior program associate with the Environmental Change and Security Program, and Howard Wolpe, director of the Africa Program. The discussion was moderated by Mike Van Dusen, deputy director of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Arnson noted that the two most significant issues likely to come before the 111th Congress are 1) the free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia and 2) decreasing the drug flow into the United States. These issues will be complicated in the context of the immediate challenge of finding a way to cushion the effects of the financial crisis. Globalization and reform in the 1990's opened the region's economies and integrated Latin America more deeply into global markets and the international financial system. However, the growth that was experienced over the last few years has come to a standstill. With the start of the global recession in 2008, regional growth on average dropped to two percent and is projected to be one percent this year. Some countries—Mexico and Argentina—expect negative growth. Arnson noted that the world is in the midst of a crisis that originated in the advanced industrial world but is being felt everywhere.

Another key development in the U.S. relationship with Latin America is the evolving U.S.-Mexico relationship. The two countries are integrated in many areas including trade, migration, and security. Mexico is the second largest destination for U.S. exports and one-third of U.S. immigrants are from Mexico. This close relationship will bring many issues in front of Congress, including the Mérida Initiative which strengthens cooperation on security issues in the region.

Gib Clarke suggested that the most significant issue the 111th Congress will face with regard to the developing world is the reorganization of foreign assistance As the financial crisis deepens and the U.S. budget deficit grows, will Congress be faced with an "either-or decision" when it comes to funding existing or new programs. Clarke noted that, although more money is needed, there has been more attention and more funding being paid to development than ever before. Disease is the largest cause of death in the world. HIV, Tuberculosis, and Malaria kill millions every year. The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funds programs for prevention, treatment, and care; funding has gone from $15 billion over five years in 1993 to $48 billion over five years in 2008.

The health issues that plague the developing world go beyond disease; maternal health, child mortality, and family planning are areas of great concern. Unfortunately, there has been almost no improvement in the area of maternal health. Women in the developing world lack access to basic services. Although child mortality rates have decreased by half in the last fifty years, Clarke noted that many still suffer from pneumonia, diarrhea, and malnutrition and lack the safe drinking water and vaccines they need to survive. Unfortunately many countries have stalled their transition from high mortality and fertility to low mortality and fertility. This affects many facets including food security, economic growth, and strains already weak healthcare systems. In an effort to combat these issues, President Obama has reinstated U.S. funding to the United Nations Family Planning Agency and USAID funding in this area has doubled from $500 million to $1 billion.

Clarke said that there are many reason to be hopeful as global health issues have recently received unprecedented funding and attention. However, he also noted that funding should be more flexible and not solely directed at one part of the system or one disease. It is also important to fund programs that do not simply address the disease, but also prevention and infrastructure.

Howard Wolpe said that the key challenges in Africa range from economic issues and oil to conflict and the need to rethink the United States' approach to supporting democracy in Africa and around the world. The financial crisis has left no one unaffected, including Africa. The effects of the crisis have yet to be seen but are coming. Wolpe suggested that there has been a great bipartisan move to build and expand trade relationships. This helps to strengthen the continent's capacity to produce and signifies a movement from Africa being seen as a welfare state to a real partner. Oil is one of the continent's largest export products, but it comes with its own set of challenges. Although oil has offered great income for many of African largest economies, Wolpe noted that oil has "been far more of a curse than a blessing." Oil has also come with increased corruption and inequality, which fosters long-term instability. To combat these issues there is a need for greater transparency in the system.

Wolpe noted that the issues on the continent are greatly non-partisan. During the Clinton era there was a great increase in aid levels, and these policies grew during the Bush administration. The Obama administration is expected to announce special envoys to both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan and Wolpe noted the "very exciting" formation of a new mediation unit within the Department of State. Wolpe said Congress will need to address the personnel and resource shortages that have hampered the U.S. diplomatic capacity. He also noted that the issues in Nigeria will need attention from Congress.

One person asked how climate change has affected development. In response, Clarke noted that from a health perspective it is a major concern. One is example is malaria, which is now being found at higher elevations. Arnson said that this is a huge concern for Central America because it is a coastal region. The results of climate change are causing countries that are large energy consumer like Chile to look for alternatives. Another audience member asked about the different approaches to development in Africa and Latin America—infrastructure versus social development. Wolpe said there is no hope for sustainable economic development if the many conflicts on the continent are not controlled. Arnson stated that Latin America is the most unequal region in the world and thus there is a great demand for development strategies to have a distributional impact.

Drafted by Elizabeth Byers, Wilson Center on the Hill Program
Kent Hughes, Director, STAGE Program

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