Alan Wheatley profiles Nancy Birdsall, founding president of the Center for Global Development
Slight, bespectacled, measured, and reasoned, Nancy Birdsall looks to be someone who would rather play safe than bold. But appearances can be deceptive.
Under her stewardship the Center for Global Development (CGD), the Washington think tank she cofounded in 2001, has carved out a reputation for being innovative, even radical. And though the CGD is now regarded as a leader in its field, Birdsall still likes to portray it as something of an outsider. “We’re swimming upstream all the time to try to push the system to address problems in the way the system works, which tend, in general, to make life more difficult than it ought to be for those who are vulnerable,” she tells F&D.
For Birdsall, who recently stepped down as CGD president but remains a senior fellow, development has to encompass much more than aid. Concretely, the goal must be to ensure that the rules of the game on global issues such as trade, migration, and climate change are not rigged against the poor. To that end, the CGD’s research aims to show how the policies of rich-country governments and international financial institutions affect people in the developing world and can be improved to reduce poverty and inequality.
“I think the development community and the international community are moving much more in that direction now,” Birdsall says. “I feel as though we’ve been very important in that respect, in that we have generated ideas. We haven’t just said this policy should be changed or improved. We have come up with new products that address these problems at the global level in ways that are reasonably practical.”
Among the initiatives to the CGD’s name are the Commitment to Development Index, which ranks 27 rich countries on policies that affect the global poor; development impact bonds to catalyze private financing; and an international push for an evidence-based approach to development programs. Its most popular publication is Millions Saved, a collection of successful public health case studies now widely used as a teaching aid.