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New Global Agenda Seen for Obama's Washington

Alison Raphael

US President-elect Barack Obama speaks to the press on November 07, 2008 in Chicago. (AFP/File/Stan Honda)

WASHINGTON, Nov 7 - U.S. civil society groups are hopeful that the election of Barack Obama will place issues of energy and the environment, human rights at home and abroad, and aid for the world's poorest high on the change agenda he promised during the campaign.

International development groups such as CARE and Oxfam expect Obama's election will mean the United States will now "re-engage with the international community" on global aid issues, in the words of Oxfam America President Raymond C. Offenheiser.

CARE, Oxfam, and other groups, organized into the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, are calling for reform in the way foreign assistance is delivered that they believe will "increase its effectiveness without additional cost," Offenheiser added.

Among the main ingredients are the appointment of a Cabinet-level foreign aid czar to coordinate all aid efforts; revamping of the Foreign Assistance Act, written more than 50 years ago; and greater cooperation with multilateral institutions.

CARE President Dr. Helene Gayle called on Obama to "remember the poorest of the poor" who live on less than $2 a day.

"From the conflicts in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the worsening violence throughout Afghanistan; from the drought in Ethiopia to the devastating floods in Haiti, women and children bear the brunt of these tragedies," she noted, adding: "our engagement with them often means the difference between life and death."

Kumi Naidoo, co-chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, said of Obama's election: "If Obama stands firm on his campaign promise of doubling U.S. aid, and integrating the Millennium Development Goals into policy, then his election could spell the biggest step towards ending poverty...that we have seen in over 30 years."

The Millennium Development Goals are eight targets set by United Nations member countries in 2000 with the aim of reducing poverty, hunger, and infant and maternal mortality, and improving environmental conditions in every country of the world.

Climate Plan

The new administration is also a source of hope for environmentalists. The Center for Global Development yesterday offered the new administration a six-point plan it believes is "focused, affordable, and -- most importantly -- critical for our common survival."

The group's senior climate fellow David Wheeler recently wrote: "The next president can secure a place in history by mobilizing America to confront climate change, while starting a clean energy revolution that will strengthen American security and create the next wave of economic growth."

Wheeler's agenda calls for immediate enactment of so-called cap-and-trade policies, which aim to reduce emissions by putting a price on global warming pollution. Wheeler also urged negotiations with global partners to seek a positive result for upcoming climate talks, and a shift to clean energy sources such as wind and solar power, as well as support for energy-efficient vehicles.

"We don't have a moment to lose," he stressed. Climate scientists have said that drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are necessary by 2012, and even further cuts by 2020, if the world is to avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of global climate change.

Human Rights Primacy

Human rights groups are also offering the president-elect an agenda for change.

In a paper entitled "Actions for Restoring America" the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lists the actions that the new president should take in order to "decisively signal a restoration of American values and a rejection of the shameful policies of the past eight years."

First and foremost, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch agree that immediate steps should be taken to close the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, end all forms of torture, and cease the practice of "rendition" (transfer of a prisoner to another country without a judicial process).

More broadly, Human Rights Watch argues that Obama's government must seek to bring U.S. policies and practices in line with international human rights and humanitarian law, and restore respect for human rights as a "central pillar of U.S. foreign policy."

'A Generational Change'

The groups offering advice to the new government acknowledge that Obama will take office at a time of unusual global turmoil on every front, but are hopeful that he will bring new approaches and new policies to Washington.

"Many people in the U.S. and around the world see Barack Obama's election as symbolic of a generational change, from top-down decision-making to participatory democracy, from the predominance of financial and military muscle to the values of equity, justice, [and] freedom. If that were to happen, we might truly begin to see the change we need, become change we can believe in," said Ingrid Srinath, secretary-general of CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

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