Why Study Global Development In The Isolationist Age Of Trump?

Development at its core is global social justice.
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By Rajesh Sampath

With any new administration, there is always a reason to study development. If we look back at former President George W. Bush, he took a surprising turn away from his campaign promises to become more isolationist, particularly after 9/11. Throughout his presidency he showed concern about aid, most significantly in his commitment to Africa and its socio-economic development. By the time President Obama took office, there was a strong sense of a cosmopolitan ideal to ensure that societies are in peaceful cooperation and diplomatically striving towards common aspirations like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The approach of the previous two presidential administrations is in direct contrast to the inward-looking mentality of President Donald Trump, who wants to return the U.S. to a setting in which we put the United States first, above all else. We would have to go back many decades to recall this type of isolationist approach since the U.S. has played such a strong global role through the Cold War and beyond. That alone should force us to reflect on our responsibility as a nation to the world.

Development is inextricably bound not just to sustainability issues, but to human rights issues as well. That is hard to defend when the president may not even care about global inequality, and the plight of many who suffer under the weight of failed or collapsing states. His vision of building a prosperous American economy does not include dealing with global inequality, let alone domestic wealth inequality, as evidenced by his stance against raising the minimum wage and his selection of a corporate CEO in the fast-food industry for Secretary of Labor.

Studying and promoting development makes a statement that these universal goals still matter, and that the commitment to our species as a whole supersedes our obligations as citizens to take care of a single national economy.

“Development is inextricably bound not just to sustainability issues, but to human rights issues as well.”

For me, development at its core is global social justice. It has to deal with not only the alleviation of poverty and sustainability of the environment, but facing state-sponsored oppression of certain groups head on. In our domestic context, consider the United States’ prison industrial complex or the profound, structural racial inequality that is exacerbated by the sort of white nativist ideology emanating from some of Trump’s spokespeople and strategic advisers. Compare that with the plight of ethnic, racial, religious and LGBTQ peoples in other cultural contexts and countries. Development is all about human rights.

We need to continue the momentum of the post-Cold War period in which the U.S. is part of a multinational world where it is one player among many. America may have been the dominant player, but it leveraged its influence to build partnerships and dialogues across many different countries that were in different phases of development.

Trump doesn’t think this way. He is very mistrustful of what he perceives as the disadvantage that America created over decades of failed policies that put the country in a very precarious economic situation, but also burdened it with the responsibility of taking care of the rest of the world. So he’s pulling back from that.

Development today is an affirmation that we care about common goals as the path forward for the planet. Otherwise, we’re not going to survive as a species. It is a moral obligation that extends beyond any individual commitment to the nation state. When you find yourself opposed to a political party or even an individual leader who has taken over the government, development can serve as an act of civil disobedience. When we commit to development work, it is a direct statement of opposition to those who don’t feel that international problems, like global poverty and social inequality of minorities, are an issue.

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