How Changes in Global Development Impact Today’s Leaders


Changes in international public health, politics, and economy have ripple effects that permeate the developing world. Experts are now considering how these changes, influenced by the current global pandemic, will impact today’s leaders in government, private, and nonprofit sectors. If you are wondering how to start a career in international development, understanding the potential effects of these policies in the near future will help guide you.

Professor Jason Foley has worked in the field of international development and affairs for 25 years, including executive positions in the public and private sector, and teaches Globalization, Security and Development, and US Foreign Policy at the Elliott School. We asked him about how changes in global development impact today’s leaders.

How has the COVID-19 crisis changed the global development landscape? 

What COVID-19 has done is highlight the severe challenges that developing countries are facing, particularly in their health systems and their agricultural and food security systems. These developing countries have had very weak health systems for a long time, and part of what international donors, such as USAID or The World Bank Group, do is to help build those health systems and social services systems.

When you have a pandemic like this expose those weaknesses, it makes it very difficult for those countries to test, detect, and adequately treat it.


Additionally, in the developing world, there is humanitarian assistance and there’s development. Humanitarian assistance is often short-term in nature and comes in response to natural disasters, wars, or famine. Development is long-term and focused on the transformation of an economy or political system. COVID-19 has been a wedge between both of these, where there is an immediate need for humanitarian assistance to deal with the sudden onset of the pandemic and its implications, but this assistance also can’t simply be a Band-Aid. Humanitarian assistance and development also have different partners, different ‘flavors’ of money, and different appropriations for different authorizing authorities. So, there needs to be longer-term solutions that strengthen those developing countries’ systems to adequately address problems down the road.

Lastly, because of the sudden onset of the pandemic and the potential for loss of life, as we’ve seen with rising cases of COVID-19  in Africa and the Middle East, there is a related increase in the potential for more conflict, as people give up hope that the system is working for them. If systems and social cohesion start breaking down, everyone will be in for quite a shock. If therapeutics are developed, such as a vaccine, then we can prevent true devastation from happening.

What would you say are the biggest financial and health threats that have surfaced in global development since the start of COVID-19?

Many countries, including the United States, are focused primarily on domestic issues and the domestic constituency. They want to ensure that domestically they can address the needs of their citizens, with PPE, ventilators, and other equipment. This is understandable, but at the same time, there are international obligations.


The US may be withdrawing from the WHO, but it has also provided a significant amount of assistance to other countries bilaterally through other organizations to meet the needs of developing countries. Some countries like China think they can use this as an opportunity to show more global leadership, and so the threat is that the assistance becomes politicized and is not as effective as it could be. 

A big threat is that the social safety net, the special services which are provided in developing countries and funded from outside sources, will become further frayed, and people then have no place to turn to. Economically, it’s a catastrophe because many of these countries owe a debt which, at this point, they are not going to be able to pay back. There will be more and more debt overhang and the cost of interest will be more than the loan.

What should global development leaders and heads of state keep in mind in regards to addressing the historic levels of refugees around the world?

The first thing is to acknowledge that the vast majority of refugees are a result of man-made crises, not natural disasters. We can continue to provide an increasing level of humanitarian assistance to alleviate these end results, but increased attention needs to be placed on how we can reduce increasing refugee flows by understanding what’s driving the conflict. 


What’s often driving the conflict are political issues that military and development solutions cannot solve, and so political solutions are required. Difficult, political settlements and compromises need to be reached with actors that they don’t agree with. Leaders need to consider this, and other countries need to support them in their search for those political solutions and not try to make things black and white; we need to understand that there are real grievances and we have to address those.

We also need to try to leverage existing local government systems when delivering humanitarian assistance. Often there is such a desire to set up an independent delivery channel because we want to get the money to people fast and we don’t trust the government because they’re too slow, or corrupt, so we then create two different channels of delivery. For example, if you have a large humanitarian channel delivering social services, then the government won’t be able to own that and take over.

What are some issues or topics in global development that need more attention?

I would like to mention three, and the first is climate change. 

I think what we’re doing in COVID-19 now is a dry run for where we’re going to have to — in our lifetime, or kids’ lifetime — go through similar exercises of staying indoors with things shut down because the air is poisoned and the levels of toxicity are too high. 


The second thing is trying to find ways to blend finance, to make investments in developing countries along with private sector resources and government. The United States launched the Development Finance Corporation recently, which is one vehicle to do this. We need to harness multiple sources of investment, particularly if we are going to start changing the climate footprint, which will be expensive.

The final thing I’d say is that we spend a lot of time on the development side trying to measure development outcomes, figuring out what we’re getting for our money in a particular country for health, education, or agriculture. We have pretty good metrics on that, but what I think is missing is the ability to measure political impact. Anytime we put an investment into a country that has a political-economic impact, we don’t quite understand those results as well as we should, so we have to better understand how it adds to political order within a society, at a local or national level. We also want to ensure that we do no harm because we’ve done harm in the past, unintentionally, and we want to be sure that we’re leaving a positive impact on people. 

Preparing Global Development Leaders

More than ever, those people pursuing careers in global development will face extraordinary challenges and require a skillset that advances a secure future. We invite you to explore ways to extend your education and training that will equip you to make a difference in the international landscape.

The Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University is a globally recognized institution for research and academic excellence. With more than a dozen graduate degrees taught by practicing policymaking experts in the heart of Washington D.C., we are equipping the global development leaders who will help us address development issues within the international landscape. 

Explore our degree options, including our Master of International Policy and Practice program, designed specifically for driven mid-career professionals who want to make a difference through policy.

Statements made in this article reflect personal views and do not reflect the opinions or positions of any organization.