UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - President Barack Obama called on Wednesday for new ways to tackle global poverty and said his administration would focus its help to the poor on promoting economic growth and fighting corruption.
Obama told a special U.N. summit that for too long progress in fighting poverty was measured by the sums spent to deliver food and medicine — a practice that had saved lives in the short term but not always helped poor countries develop.
“We need more than just aid to unleash that change,” Obama told the 192-nation General Assembly, advancing what he called a new U.S. global development policy. “We need to harness all the tools at our disposal — from our diplomacy to our trade and investment policies.”
Obama’s 20-minute address emphasized points already made by leaders of several major Western economies, who have called for a results-based approach to aid instead of simply throwing money at development problems.
The new approach coincides with severe budget problems in many rich countries in the wake of the global financial crisis, but America’s first president of African heritage — his father was Kenyan — said overall U.S. aid would not decline.
Saying America needed to be “big-hearted and hard-headed,” he said Washington would seek partnership with countries that emphasized policies that promote economic growth and accountability and tackled corruption.
“Let’s move beyond the old, narrow debate over how much money we’re spending and let’s instead focus on results — whether we’re actually making improvements in people’s lives,” said Obama, whose speech was greeted with lengthy applause.
The United States would also reach out to countries making the transition to democracy, and from war to peace, he said, adding that he hoped that would include Sudan.
International aid group Oxfam said Obama’s speech had clarified the U.S. approach to fighting poverty. Several development experts had criticized the Obama administration for its lack of leadership on development issues.
“The purpose of development — and what’s needed most right now — is creating the conditions where assistance is no longer needed,” said Obama. “So we will seek partners who want to build their own capacity to provide for their people.”
That meant not just handing out food to the needy but also helping countries develop their agricultural sectors, improve crop yields and help farmers get their products to market.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said developing nations “must understand that they will not receive a blank check” but acknowledged that Britain’s economic trouble “does not compare to the abject pain and destitution of others.”
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said developed countries should carry out their promises. “The assistance should be selfless and have no strings attached,” he said.
The three-day U.N. poverty summit has reviewed progress so far in meeting globally-agreed targets to slash extreme poverty by 2015. Strong growth in China and India will help the world halve poverty and hunger but progress on other goals such as maternal and child health has been much slower.
The meeting of 140 leaders was to issue a declaration agreed earlier this month promising to recommit to the so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) issued by the world body 10 years ago.
Looking to bolster the global fight against poverty, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday launched a $40 billion plan aimed at saving the lives of 16 million women and children over the next five years.
Current rates of maternal and child mortality were “simply unacceptable,” Ban told a meeting attended by China’s Wen, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several African leaders. “The 21st century must be and will be different.”
The United Nations argues that investing in the health of women and children reduces poverty and stimulates economic growth. In addition to saving lives, the strategy seeks to prevent 33 million unwanted pregnancies by 2015.
A U.N. statement said more than $40 billion (25 billion pounds) had been pledged by governments, foundations, businesses and non-governmental organizations. The figure covers both domestic investment and aid to other countries.
U.N. officials said nearly $27 billion was new money being announced by governments — indicating the rest had already been committed since plans for a global strategy for women’s and children’s health were first disclosed in April. Some $8.6 billion was coming from low-income countries, they said.
Some anti-poverty advocacy groups were skeptical of the MDG summit. Joanna Kerr, chief executive of ActionAid, called it an “expensive side-show that offered everything to everyone and nothing to no one.”
“An avalanche of warm sentiment cleverly concealed the fact that no fully funded plans of action for tackling poverty were actually announced,” Kerr said.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman