Obama and Romney recently responded to a request from the ONE Campaign, a global anti-poverty organization, to lay out their thoughts on foreign aid. Refreshingly, both said such assistance is an important part of U.S. foreign policy and economic policy, and both referred to aid using variations of the term "investment."
But Romney embraced the investment approach, which has advantages in both rigor and effectiveness, more fully than Obama. His emphasis was on laying the groundwork for private enterprise in poor countries: eliminating barriers to trade and investment, and, crucially, solidifying property rights and the rule of law. These are some of the same policies that allowed China to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and jump-started growth in sub-Saharan Africa, even in countries without enormous natural resources.
Unfortunately, however, Romney made only passing reference to global health programs, even though health is a prerequisite for development. One also hopes that his emphasis on faith-based aid organizations would not exclude non-faith-based but equally meritorious groups.
In contrast, Obama's point of view on foreign assistance seemed outmoded and narrow, hinging solely on interventions targeting hunger and health. These can indeed be useful, even essential, but by themselves do little to support a broader environment conducive to economic growth. Voters can also examine Obama's record. His administration's Feed the Future initiative has promoted some helpful agricultural programs, especially in helping poor farmers get better access to markets and information. But because agriculture is most efficient when it is capital-intensive, not labor-intensive, it's just as important to generate options for people who want to get off the farm.
On global health, Obama mentioned epidemics, family planning, and human trafficking. Yet the biggest need in most poor countries is for regular, primary care delivered by efficient health systems. Right now, too much funding is tied to just a few diseases. In this area, the president's thinking needs an update.
Verdict: Advantage Romney