Smart Power: Applications and Lessons for Development

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
American University, School of International Service
Washington, DC
April 8, 2010

Thank you, David. It's wonderful to be here with you tonight at American University a place that is very close to my family, of course, through my husband Joe.

But of course, Joe is not the only reason I am here tonight. The School for International Service is educating some of the exceptional globally-minded leaders for the 21st century. From the school's ground breaking ceremony with President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957, SIS has grown to be the largest school for international affairs in America. I know you have former Ambassadors among your teaching ranks. All share a commitment and dedication to President Eisenhower's vision of "seeking a peace based on justice and right."

I am sorry that my friend Dean Goodman could not be with us tonight, but I'm sure he's off seeking peace and doing good for the world. It's wonderful to see many friends and familiar faces.

I am a life-long student of international affairs. Before joining the State Department about eight months ago, I led the microfinance organization ACCION International - a pioneer and leader in a field of development that has arguably grown more than any other in recent history. I have worked in development for the entirety of my career.

I am now the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs. At the State Department, we use shorthand. The Secretary is referred to as "S". They call me "G" for Global. As Under Secretary, I oversee a broad range of global issues: Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; Oceans, Environment and Science; Population, Refugee and Migration; and Trafficking in Persons. I am also the Special Representative for Tibetan Affairs.

Though the portfolio is diverse, it is united by a common thread - that of human security and protection.

Many of you are familiar with the concept of human security: the idea that peace and prosperity are contingent on protecting and empowering individuals on a variety of fronts - political and economic security, food security, and health and environmental security. It also reflects the need to protect individuals fleeing persecution or those suffering in slavery, to empower civil society and human rights advocates, and to protect the earth in an era of increased pressure from climate change and competition and conflict over scarce natural resources.

In other words, we in "G" are in the business of protecting the most vulnerable, giving a voice to the repressed, and empowering the marginalized. Our task is to advance America's national security interests by tackling the threat of climate change to our fragile environment, to minimize to the scourge of labor and sex trafficking that plagues so many nations around the world, and to reduce human suffering and persecution. It is our responsibility to ensure that these issues are addressed head on in conversations with foreign governments across the globe.

Though these issues have not always been at the forefront of US foreign policy, under the Obama Administration and Secretary Clinton's State Department, they are receiving unprecedented attention.

Which brings me to what I want to talk to you about tonight. I will share with you how the Obama Administration is addressing development, and the thinking that is driving the State Department's leadership in this area. In that context, I'll also share how my career outside of government is informing my career inside of it. For the most part, the worlds couldn't be more different; but luckily, some of same lessons apply.

My personal transition, from development professional to diplomat, comes at a time when the United States government is elevating international development to an unprecedented level of importance in how we envision, plan, and conduct our foreign policy.

You can be sure that Secretary Clinton had this in mind when she first called me about taking this job. In fact, this audience will appreciate that I received her voicemail after coming home from an AU basketball game last year when we were on our way to the NCAA finals. So you can imagine how my heart was throbbing.

Secretary Clinton has been a forceful and effective advocate for what she describes as "Smart Power." Within the foreign policy context, smart power is addressing the basic necessities of people's lives, understanding their challenges and empowering them to help themselves. We are applying smart power in Pakistan when we send a rule of law expert to work alongside our police trainers. In Kenya, we execute smart power when our military personnel are collaborating with local border control officers and US refugee coordinators to make sure fleeing Somalis and Sudanese are properly assisted. And in Guatemala, we're using smart power when experts from the Department of Treasury work with US diplomats and the local government to hasten the passage of important financial reform that will help microentrepreneurs and small businesses. This is smart power.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton seek to implement a foreign policy that considers development, diplomacy and defense as mutually beneficial to one other. When these three pillars are implemented in concert with one another, we amplify the dividends of peace and justice, creating stronger and more vibrant societies.

The Obama Administration understands that we cannot reach a more equitable world when one-third of humankind lives in conditions that offer them little chance of building better lives for themselves or their children. Or when half the world's population - women and girls - are excluded financially, politically or socially. Nor can we stop terrorism or defeat the ideologies of violent extremism when hundreds of millions of young people see a future with no jobs, no hope, and no way to catch up to the developed world.

In January of this year, Secretary Clinton delivered a speech on development. Many of you have read it, I'm sure. For those of you who haven't, I encourage you to do so - it is on the State Department's website.

In that speech, Secretary Clinton said this:

It's time for a new mindset for a new century. Time to retire old debates and replace dogmatic attitudes with clear reasoning and common sense. And time to elevate development as a central pillar of all that we do in our foreign policy. And it is past time to rebuild USAID into the world's premier development agency.

Now, the challenges we face are numerous. So we do have to be selective and strategic about where and how to get involved. But whether it's to improve long-term security in places torn apart by conflict, like Afghanistan, or to further progress in countries that are on their way to becoming regional anchors of stability, like Tanzania, we pursue development for the same reasons: to improve lives, fight poverty, expand rights and opportunities, strengthen communities, secure democratic institutions and governance; and in doing so, to advance global stability, improve our own security, and project our values and leadership in the world.

Implicit in that statement is the acknowledgment that we cannot build a stable, global economy when hundreds of millions of workers and families who have yet to find their place within the growing markets of a globalized world are cut off from markets and out of reach of modern technologies.

  • That we cannot advance democracy and human rights when hunger and poverty threaten to undermine the good governance and rule of law needed to make those rights real;
  • That we cannot stop global pandemics until billions of people gain access to better healthcare;
  • And that we cannot address climate change or scarcer resources until billions gain access to greener energy and sustainable livelihoods. Climate change will alter the livelihoods of millions in our lifetime. We must learn not only to prevent further damage but also adapt to the changes that are currently underway.

It is this thinking that drives the U. S. government's current effort to incorporate development into every aspect of our foreign policy. It is a strategic, economic, and moral imperative - and it is central to our role as a leader in today's world.

Effective and sustainable development turns vulnerability into stability and desperation into hope. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have together committed to articulating a global development policy for our country. The Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review - or QDDR - is an assessment of current State and AID capabilities and will provide recommendations for improved performance. This process, along with the Presidential Study Directive on US Global Development Policy, is giving unprecedented attention to how our government will advance sustainable development policies. Ultimately, they will ensure that diplomacy and development remain essential and mutually reinforcing aspects of our national security.

Any effort to define the United States' development efforts is, of course, no small task. In today's globalized world, issues that have their origin on foreign soil impact our domestic well-being. And our specialized agencies across government are working accordingly - more than 40 US agencies have operations in other nations. For example, disease control is a global challenge that can have domestic implications, so the Department of Health and Human Services and Center for Disease Control and other agencies have dedicated teams abroad. The Environmental Protection Agency works on the quality of air and waterways, two issues that cannot be contained by sovereign borders. The Department of Justice deploys rule of law experts around the world. And the Treasury Department leads and coordinates our nation's engagement with the international financial system.

US agencies harbor an impressive amount of expertise and resources, both of which are sought after by other nations. Just last week, I was in Brazil where they have designated large tracks of land as newly protected areas; and they have asked our National Park Service, with its century of experience and expertise, to help them. And that is just one example among many.

So the US government has an enormous opportunity to lead and to use our development expertise and resources - across government - to address the world's most pressing problems.

To this end, the Obama Administration has set forth two major initiatives: the Food Security Initiative and the second is the Global Health Initiative. Let me tell you a bit about both.

In September 2009, Secretary Clinton unveiled the Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative - now known as Feed the Future. This initiative was created to address the fact that more than one sixth of the world's population - that's one in six people - suffer from chronic hunger. Hunger and malnutrition rob countries of critical human capital and capacity. Inhibited productivity and the spread of preventable diseases stunt a nation's ability to develop. Through Feed the Future, this Administration seeks to catalyze agricultural-led growth by raising the incomes of the poor, increasing the availability of food and reducing under-nutrition through sustainable development.

This is truly a whole-of government undertaking, with not only the State Department and USAID, but also leveraging the Department of Agriculture's expertise on agricultural research, the U.S. Trade Representative's efforts on agricultural trade, and the contributions of many other government agencies.

The focus of Feed the Future, and that of Global Health which I'll talk about in a moment, is country-led plans. Let me take a moment to explain this, because it is at the core of President Obama and Secretary Clinton's vision of effective and sustainable development. Country-led plans affirms the United States' commitment to real partnership. This means making mutually beneficial decisions with other nations and the joint definition of strategies that are endorsed as much by local professionals as they are by US experts. (Put simply, this is not a case of the United States saying and doing what we think is best.)

Partnership also means mutual responsibility. As President Obama said to the Ghanaian Parliament last year: development depends on good governance, and the best measure of our success comes after we leave. So local governments must assume the responsibility of improving the welfare of their people. It is incumbent upon country leaders to implement their own reforms that engender economic and social development. Secretary Clinton made this clear after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, when she said that the long-term reconstruction effort must be led by the Haitian government. So we will continue to support democratic governments - in Haiti and around the world - to build their own capacity so that they can provide for their own people.

The second major development initiative underway addresses the enormous need for better health interventions and systems around the world. Every day, millions die from preventable diseases such as malaria; hundreds of thousands die from lack of access to basic healthcare. Nearly 9 million children die in the developing world every year; approximately 2/3 of these deaths are from preventable causes.

The Global Health Initiative brings together the State Department, HHS, USAID, and others under a six-year $63 billion effort that addresses key health challenges, including child and maternal health and infectious diseases. The initiative maintains United States' funding and strong commitment to existing programs - including the fight against HIV/AIDS - but it also addresses broader health issues, such as family planning and undernutrition. It will also provide a specific new focus on strengthening health by increasing local capacity.

There are two tenets that underpin both of these initiatives that I want to highlight for you tonight. The first is one that Hillary Clinton has championed throughout her career: uplifting women. As Secretary of State, she has said that you simply cannot develop a country when half its population is left behind. This is of course a lesson that I came to know intimately through my work with ACCION in microfinance.

Indeed, whether we seek to fight hunger, improve health practices, or create microenterprises, no actor proves more reliable or determined than the mother, sister, daughter, or wife. In communities around the world, it is the women who drive the family, the community, and the society towards a better future.

The scourges of our world, such as poverty, exclusion, repression, and illness, impact women both first and worst. All too often, women are the first victims of crisis. A disproportionate number of women are refugees, as I recently witnessed when visiting the Dadaab refugee camps in Northeastern Kenya near the Somali border. Across the globe - from the DRC to Haiti - women are victims of gender-based violence, the most traumatic tool of war. And they are undereducated and disenfranchised compared to men in nearly every corner of the world.

But women are often the source of resilience, ingenuity and entrepreneurship, even in the most adverse conditions. When all else fails, a woman's sense of determination, her protection of her family, and her thirst for survival shines through, and she forges her own path to a better life. And it is because of this resilience that the enormous challenges facing women are also opportunities to engage them in resolving those challenges.

Within the Food Security and Global Health Initiatives, the role of women is central to the development and implementation of our strategies. They are leading actors in both story lines.

Around the world, an average of 60 percent of farmers on every continent are women. So when we are looking at the efficiency of agricultural production, or linking harvests to export markets, or providing better advice on new farming techniques, more often than not we will be working with, educating, and training women.

And when we're working with local communities to improve family planning or decrease child mortality or train more local health workers - all through the Global Health Initiative - we will be working with, educating, and training the women.

So you see, women are an important focus of our foreign policy and development strategies, and they are powerful vehicles of change and progress for the strategies - and more important - for themselves.

The second tenet that underpins these two major development initiatives - Food Security and Global Health - is that of water. Providing access to safe drinking water and sanitation for the millions of people who lack it is a global concern. And in a world where water scarcity is a growing reality, it becomes a global imperative. Within this context of limited resources, no less than seventy percent of the world's water is used in agricultural production. So, we must look at ways to create new efficiencies for water use in agricultural settings - especially where potable water is increasingly scarce, and could lead to conflict within or between nations.

Inadequate access to water supply, sanitation, and hygiene cause the deaths of more than 1.5 million children each year. Diarrhea - caused by dirty water - unnecessarily kills millions every year. We can prevent this by scaling up existing infrastructure and interventions, better utilizing technology, creating new partnerships, and leveraging resources for greater impact.

There is little doubt that climate change is resulting in extreme weather, making wet regions wetter and dry regions drier. Floods and droughts can wipe out crops and decimate economies that depend on agriculture. Tension between and within nations over increasingly scarce water resources will grow. So, good water policy and sound water management are crucial not only to our food security initiative, but to our strategic priorities with nations around the world.

Women and Water. Food Security and Global Health. Partnership and Mutual Responsibility. The highlights of the Obama Administration's approach to development and diplomacy We don't need to reinvent the wheel . We need to make an investment in development and diplomacy and use them effectively and smartly. We need to be thoughtful and innovative about how we approach development. And in the process, we need to strengthen development as an essential tool of our country's foreign policy.

We - and I mean 'we' as if I was sitting where you are sitting - we have an opportunity in this Administration to apply the lessons that many of us have learned from a lifetime of working in development. Let me the key lessons that I've found to be most transferable - from "NGO" to "G."

First, we must work locally. Long-term success is only possible when we engender local ownership and pride of development projects. From building a school to digging a borehole. The school walls will crumble and the well will collapse if the community does not count them as their own. I saw this with the banks ACCION helped to start in Latin America and Africa - we did not create our own model from scratch, with the ACCION brand and foreigners at the helm. Instead, we sought out competent and willing partners - locals who shared our priorities of helping the poor in a sustainable manner. We learned from their knowledge of the environment and market, and they learned from our understanding of banking principles. And when we left, the banks not only stayed standing - they grew. Such local capacity - coupled with motivation - is at the heart of sustainability in development. It also stimulates dignity, confidence, and self-worth - among both the local operators and their poor clients. So it becomes a multiplier of success.

Second, we must draw our solutions from all realms - governments, private companies, multilaterals, universities, nonprofits and so on. What we are finding today is that innovation occurs at the intersection of worlds that are newly connected. When you bring people together, tapping new expertise and resources from every corner, and think outside of your respective box, perspectives shift and challenges break down. At ACCION, we created the Center for Financial Inclusion to do just that.

Just think of the new terms that have arisen out of combining otherwise foreign concepts: Social+Entrepreneur, Micro+Insurance, Corporate+Responsibility, Financial+Inclusion. We've brought poor people into banks, put modems on the back of bikes, delivered agricultural advice through mobile phones. We can cross hundreds of thousands of miles at the click of the button and turn dirty river water into a clean drinking source with a packet of solution the size of your palm. Through public-private partnerships, companies like PUR and Hewlett Packard are distributing those little packets in villages around Africa. At the State Department, we have the Global Partnerships initiative - giving new emphasis to such collaboration. For-profit business models are helping nonprofits reach sustainability, and social motives are improving the bottom-lines of multinational corporations. When we work together, our capacity for innovation is nearly limitless.

Third, we must focus on development that works and is capable of scale. The need is too great - the numbers too large - for us to dally on efforts that deliver negligible results. We should recognize what we do well, and expand on it.

Fourth, perhaps my most important lesson from ‘micro'finance - there is nothing ‘micro' about the human spirit. Perhaps the best way to tell you what I mean is by sharing the story of a woman I met while I was taking a delegation of ACCION donors to Guatemala. On one of our visits to microenterprises, we met with Esperanza, a tiny woman of Mayan descent who made shoes in a corner of her one room house with a dirt floor.

Esperanza welcomed us in and proudly showed us her businesses, which probably produced 20 pairs of shoes a week. After a few minutes, one of the professors asked me to translate "Can you ask her what her unit cost of production is?"

I turned to him and said, "No I can't do that. She will be embarrassed in front of their two daughters because she doesn't know."

He insisted persistently, until apologetically I asked: "Dona Esperanza, this professor from the north wants to know if you know - if you can tell him what your unit cost of production is."

She looked up at him, and answered with a strong, assured voice, "Of course I know, it is 18 quetzales (Guatemalan currency) a pair, and please come and I will show how much it is at each step of production."

I felt so humbled, but I was also thrilled! This woman, with a little capital, was able to do things she never before imagined. She didn't have formal training, but she figured out how to create and sell a product – at a profit. Her sense of self-worth, of dignity, of empowerment spilled over into the roles her daughters, as she juggled running a business and taking care of them.

To this day, I imagine her mentoring other young women in her community, perhaps taking the lead in demanding water and sanitation facilities from the Municipality, and telling her daughters that of course they should go to college, even though she didn't finish the third grade.

Esperanza reminded me that I should never make assumptions about the capabilities or potential of the people I meet - more often than not they will surprise me, and not only that, they will likely have something important to teach me. But this is not just a sentimental anecdote. It also speaks to one of the premises of development, as first articulated by the great economist and thinker Amartya Sen - that human dignity is at the core of social justice and progress. We cannot measure our success in development only by the number of teachers trained or incomes raised, but by the dignity inspired in women like Esperanza.

We know that development does not happen overnight. It begins with the individual, rises up slowly through the family, onwards through community, and upward throughout the nation. The Obama Administration is bringing renewed energy to our development work, and we are committed to bringing our best resources and expertise to bear on the challenges that faces the world's vulnerable populations. But the most powerful tools at our disposal are those of long-term, quiet success. So though I know I don't need to, I will close by encouraging you to keep it up. Stay committed, and together we will achieve "a peace based on justice and right."

Thank you again for all that you do. I look forward to answering your questions.