Faces of Globalization: The Washington School

By RUSSELL TOTTEN  |  May 1, 2005 at 2:22 AM
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WASHINGTON, June 3 (UPI) -- On a late-April afternoon at the end of the spring 2004 semester, representatives of the world's rich countries gathered in a polished, state-of-the-art think-tank conference room in Washington, D.C., to pick up their report cards. The subject was global development, and the lecturer was Dr. Nancy Birdsall.

Birdsall, the president of the Center for Global Development, together with her colleagues presented to the public the second annual Commitment to Development Index Rankings, which rate rich countries' contributions to global development by measuring the benefits bestowed -- and the costs imposed -- by several key aspects of their foreign policies, including trade, migration and security, as well as foreign aid.

Launched in late 2001, the Center is one of the new kids on the block, nestled between its big brothers the Brookings Institution and the Institute for International Economics on a prime stretch of Massachusetts Avenue. The "Index" is the brainchild of the Center and Foreign Policy Magazine, and Birdsall calls it her "signature product" -- a new device in the global development toolbox designed to educate the developed world and provoke debate on how it can better help the world's poor.

After spending nearly 20 years climbing bureaucratic ladders in development behemoths such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank and working on projects designed to tell poor countries what they should do to deal with their poverty problems, Birdsall became acutely aware that the world has plenty of institutions that measure poor countries' progress on following rich countries' instructions.

"No one has been the watchdog or the measurer of the performance of the rich countries that are actually running the world, directly and indirectly. Directly because they're so big and they matter and they're powerful, and indirectly because they have most of the critical control of most of our international organizations," she said.

Birdsall, along with Founding Chairman Edward Scott and IIE Director C. Fred Bergsten, identified the need for a new institution "dedicated to making the forces of globalization work for the poor," and the Center for Global Development was born.

A number of forces combined to bring Birdsall to the position she finds herself in today. Her years of research at the World Bank focused heavily on the areas of health, education and family issues -- and her own family played a major role in landing her at the head of the Center.

"I don't think it's an accident that within economics I chose to work on these issues that have to do with people and family decisions. I worked on why families do or don't send and keep their children in school in poor countries; why people end up with eight children instead of three. When I started doing that, the development field was elsewhere -- it was with trade policy and macroeconomic adjustment problems. Time has brought the whole field more and more to worrying about people, human issues, human development and how we reduce poverty. It's very interesting and compelling for me that the field is going in the direction that it is."

As a mother, Birdsall found that working on Latin American issues was much more conducive to her various responsibilities -- even though she spoke French, not Spanish.

"Latin America is an easy commute; it's closer, it's the same time zone, and the 'missions' as they call them in the World Bank are shorter," she said. So she learned some new languages, squeezed in a full-time Ph.D. in economics from Yale, and soon found herself in charge of an environmental program that covered the entire region. That experience primed her for the No. 2 position at the IADB, where as the bank's executive vice president she traveled extensively to its 26 borrowing countries. "I found that I really enjoyed the process of working much more directly with officials in our borrowing countries. ... It was an experience that was very important in seeing the constraints and the challenges at the political level in implementing ideas that look great on paper but may not always make a whole lot of sense in a constrained political setting."

By the time her second daughter was well into her high school years, Birdsall moved to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (home of Foreign Policy Magazine), which helped her spend a little more time at home -- and provided her with the think-tank experience that prepared her for the challenges of running her own institution.

"Nancy has done a very good job of getting the Center started, getting it on the map in the Washington community," said Jeffrey Sachs, the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a member of the Center's board of directors. "She is one of the important voices in calling for and pushing for global responsibility. I see it very much as the critical task of the Center of helping to reinvigorate America's foreign policy vis-à-vis the poor countries of the world."

Sachs is also a special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the director of the U.N. Millennium Project, which consists of 10 task forces aimed at meeting clear targets for reducing poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women by the year 2015.

"Nancy co-chairs the task force on education, and I turned to her and asked her to do that because of her expertise in international development policy in the international institutions of the World Bank and the IADB and her expertise as a development economist in the issue of human-capital formation, that is, health and education, to forge human productivity. She will be preparing one of the core reports of the project and is co-author with me and the other task-force coordinators of its final report."

The Center is already having a major impact on enriching the debate and holding a mirror up to rich nations and their policy makers. Birdsall notes that the Center now has "implicit partner organizations that are asking good questions about how the corporate sector operates, and there are service organizations that are trying to understand better how to meet peoples' needs in post-conflict situations. So we're part of a larger system, all of which I think is a growing industry, some of which, at least in the U.S., is a healthy response to the wake-up call of Sept. 11, which alerted many more Americans to the fact that this is a global system with a lot of interdependence. It's in our own enlightened self-interest to become more engaged, and I think the Center has benefited from that as part of what I hope will become a larger trend toward Americans trying to understand our place in a changing world."

As retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark put it at the unveiling of this year's Index: "We need a new means of reaching out to states and helping states develop. Otherwise, their insecurity becomes our insecurity. ... There is now no one in the United States government that I can identify who's really responsible for helping other countries avoid conflict through peaceful development. And that's what we have to fix."

Sachs' major concern is that "for very misguided and mistaken reasons the U.S. has cut back sharply in our role in poverty-reduction efforts. American's don't know that in general. They don't understand the dangers for the United States of this terrible neglect. And I see the Center as necessary to help once again get this country back to a sensible foreign policy. That's a big task, and the result of the Center in part will be measured by how much they help to accomplish that."

Though this is the first administration the Center has worked with, it has already enlisted the active support of key government officials, including John Taylor, treasury undersecretary for international affairs, and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Economic Policy, Export, and Trade Promotion.

Birdsall's third and youngest child will be leaving home for college in the fall. "So next year, empty nest," she said. "Even if I were no longer the head of the center, because I don't think any organization benefits if one person stays too long, I would want to still be based here. After ten years, it's rare that someone can continue to be effective (as a leader), in my opinion. My goal would then to become a senior fellow, lower the workload, do a little bit more writing and research and a little less management.

"I think it's important for me and for how things have worked out. I really enjoy teaching; I enjoy writing in ways that people can understand, not in economics jargon -- so it's a great job for me. Every bit of it has some portion that I enjoy. In terms of my own plans, this is the last job for me. I've done different things, and this is like finding home, in the sense that it allows me to exploit experience, to use the skills I've acquired, and to be a little bit of a missionary on something that I care about.

"If and when I'm no longer the president and I'm still hale and hardy, I have in my mind that I'd spend a year or more teaching abroad back in the developing world, probably in Latin America, which is a place that I've learned to love."

Faces of Globalization -- The above piece by UPI correspondent Russell Totten is part 12 of a half-year series by United Press International which focuses each week on the human face of globalization in locales ranging from India to the heartland of the United States. The series looks at the complex array of social and economic issues facing workers, managers, students and others, who have been affected by the growing worldwide investment, trade and technological interconnections that have come to be known as globalization.

Series edited by T.K. Maloy, UPI Deputy Business Editor. (tmaloy@upi.com)

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