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Obama underscores how inequality undermines development

This is a part of a series of dispatches correspondent Tom Murphy is writing from New York during the U.N. General Assembly and all the related events.

President Obama addressed the United Nations on Sunday at the conclusion of the summit for the Sustainable Development Goals. It was one of the few occasions that Obama spoke at length about the issue of global development and poverty eradication.


He brought up issues that stand in the way of development progress – from war to the status quo to climate change to governance. But it is his remarks about inequality that deserve additional attention. Obama outlined how it threatens development and requires shifts in power to resolve.

Development is also threatened by inequality…Ever country has to grapple with this issue. The wealthiest and most powerful in our societies oftentimes like to keep things as they are, and they often have disproportionate political influences. When poor children are more likely to get sick and die than children in wealthier neighborhoods just across town; when rural families are more likely to go without clean water; when rural families and religious minorities, or people with disabilities, or people of different sexual orientations are discriminated against or can’t access education and opportunity – that holds all of us back. And so, in all of our countries, we have to invest in the interventions that allow us to reach more people – because no one should be left behind just because of where they live of what they look like.

Corruption and governance get nods in the lead-in section. Issues that campaigners say deserve more attention – tax havens and illicit financial flows – are not discussed much further than a passing mention or allusion.

Worryingly, the president concludes his section on inequality with better interventions as the answer. He does not go as far as saying that the balances in power that contribute to the dichotomies in outcomes he illustrates must be addressed.

Economic growth and innovation feature as answers to enabling development, in the speech. There are some key language changes that recognize the value and importance of locally-driven solutions, whether it is civil society participation or business growth. It concludes with little in terms of substantive policy and a promise to do what is necessary to end extreme poverty and “upholding the inherent dignity of every human being.”

With close to one year left in office, there is still time for the Obama administration to make its mark on international development. But achieving that will require policy changes and new initiatives.

Something to watch for on Monday: Obama will again speak before the U.N. as the round of heads of state speeches kick off. His remarks will deal less with development than major foreign policy problems, one of which is the Syrian refugee crisis and civil war.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]