All abuzz about the QDDR. The what?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

C’mon, they couldn’t come up with a better name for this thing?

On Wednesday, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton announced the Obama Administration’s proposal for transforming U.S. foreign aid and diplomatic policy. Here’s a video of the announcement from Dipnote (the State Department’s — also unfortunately named — blog):

Clinton and the Obama Administration could have called this proposed overhaul (and they actually do call it this, sometimes) the “Smart Power Initiative” or “Modernizing Diplomacy and Development” or just a “new strategy for foreign aid and diplomacy” … or maybe even “New Hearts and Minds.”

But no, Clinton’s wordsmiths at the State Department decided to dub it the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (mimicking military talk, I guess, after the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review).

For those in the know, it’s the QDDR and it’s the acronym du jour for the development community. The gist of it had been leaked earlier (not by Wikileaks, mind you, which did have something to say on how Clinton was transforming diplomacy and development in a different — not altogether positive — way), but Wednesday’s announcement provided the full monty.

There’s plenty of commentary and reaction out there to the QDDR, largely ranging from those celebrating the proposed changes that include beefing up staff and strengthening the role of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin, for example, said the NGO community likes the QDDR but is worried about implementation (i.e., money mostly but also the practical reality of turning lofty phrases into a new reality). Says Rogin:

One huge issue is whether Congress, where power in the House is about to shift from Democratic to Republican hands, will properly fund the initiatives in the QDDR. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton … sees the QDDR as a document that can justify funding for diplomacy and development next year, while also rebuilding the capacity of USAID and reforming the way the State Department does business both at home and abroad.

One of the more important points, to my mind, was made by Paul O’Brian of Oxfam America:

“The QDDR is an important step in reaffirming the efforts to modernize USAID and further elevate it as ‘the world’s premier development agency. But the document leaves open the question of how the United States will resolve situations where diplomacy and development will require different approaches and tradeoffs.”

There’s lots of media coverage about the politics behind the QDDR, the funding challenges and any number of specifics in the reform proposal. But I think one of the issues that deserves the hardest looks is this potential conflict between our government’s political goals and the goals of foreign aid/development.

I’ve written about this before, when some of those present at Wednesday’s unveiling of the QDDR were in Seattle to talk about a subset of this new vision that they called “Smart Global Health” policy.

An article on the QDDR by Interpress also mentions the problem of mixing up foreign aid, development and international politics:

InterAction, a network of U.S.-based NGOs focused on global poverty, echoed O’Brien’s concern, though, by pointing out that the State Department would have some oversight over foreign assistance and development strategies and that this could, again, lead to political objectives overriding development ones.

The QDDR’s call for beefing up the U.S. government’s meager investment in foreign aid and development, along with efforts aimed to improve efficiency and coordination across agencies, is welcome news to many working on multiple fronts against poverty, inequity and poor health around the world.

But more attention likely needs to be paid to defining the difference between diplomacy and development, foreign aid and foreign policy, before we move too rapidly toward merging them together under one roof. And let’s hope the QDDR gets replaced by something a little less wonky.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.