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Dear Washington: The Debt Ceiling & Development

Dear Washington D.C.:

Phew. It’s over – this time at least. You must be relieved that the debt ceiling debate was put to rest on Tuesday. So why I am I so uneasy? Let me count the ways…

As I listened to you all — Democrats, Republicans and those people from the Tea Party — I was fascinated with how you “plan” to “restore” America’s economic viability, create jobs, and jumpstart economic growth. Since that’s what we do here at PDT, I thought I’d map out where all this talk had us this week. Here‘s what I found:

Obama on the debt ceiling


That’s you Mr. President, talking about the debt ceiling on Monday. Seems that Congress, Senate, Republicans, vote, people, problem, support, American, and bills are important to you. That sounds more like dinner conversation with my parents than a formula to boost the economy. (Trust me, that’s not a good thing.)

Here‘s what you had to say, Mr. House Speaker:

Boehner on the debt ceiling

On your mind is Washington, the president (it is his birthday after all), debt, spending, government, Congress, business, and bill. …Well, at least business is in there.

Unfortunately, “at least” doesn’t help people struggling to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, cover health care expenses, and send their kids to school.

What’s one to do? Blame isn’t helpful. Nor is cutting important public programs or aid budgets, which the recent bill plans to do. U.S. foreign assistance, already among the lowest in the world, plans to be cut by 11 percent; USAID’s funding will decrease from $1.3 billion to $982.5 million. International disaster assistance will be cut by 12 percent to $758 million. Really, people?

But that’s okay. Cuts are a cruel reality in the fickle funding world of humanitarian aid and development. What is here today might be gone tomorrow. We’re used to it.

Sure, that often leads to ineffective results: sometimes programs aren’t able to plan ahead or follow through. Yet funding cuts do not diminish the intention and will to make a positive difference. For all our faults, the aid and development world exists on faith, hope, and the future – the very idea that one day, things will be better.

No, I haven’t hit my head and gone all Pollyana on you – fear not. Faith, hope and the future aren’t enough to end poverty, educate girls, and cure diseases. Hope is not a plan. Answers to those challenges require multi-dimensional strategies executed by top-tier talent and held to account through thoughtful impact measurements. But I’d be nothing more than a boisterous bag of air (ahem) if I didn’t admit that underpinning those answers is intention and trust, without which most strategies are useless, let alone able to reach fruition.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years as a do-gooder, it is that trust is everything. Trust is our social contract, the anchor of our collective communities. Let’s not belittle its importance or put a premium on it and drive it to extremes – and into that anarchic world Thomas Hobbes hinted at long ago.

In The Leviathan, the English philosopher asked “what life would be like without government – each person has a right or license to everything in the world.” He concluded that it would be like war. Haven’t we had enough of that?

And that’s the point of my letter. While we in the aid and development world have so much to do and improve upon, we are way ahead of you, Washington. It shouldn’t be that way.


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