Swimming Upstream

Author:Alan Wheatley

Swimming Upstream Finance & Development, September 2016, Vol. 53, No. 3

Alan Wheatley

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 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.

Original thinkers Kunal Sen, a professor of development economics and policy at the U.K. University of Manchester, calls the CGD’s research thought provoking and says it is required reading for his students. “CGD is distinctive in the way it provides new ideas and thinking on topics,” Sen says. He gives Birdsall credit for bringing in original thinkers including Michael Clemens, Lant Pritchett, and Owen Barder, the CGD’s director for Europe. “In a very short time it’s become one of the leading think tanks on development policy,” says Sen. “They have combined very strong, rigorous research with very effective policy advice and impact.”

Like many things in Washington, the CGD started over lunch. Ed Scott, an entrepreneur and former high-ranking government official, wanted to finance a nongovernmental organization devoted to debt. After consulting such well-known experts as Tim Geithner, Gene Sperling, the late Carol Lancaster, and the IMF’s Masood Ahmed, Scott became convinced that the think tank should also address issues such as governance, health, and education.

But who should head it? Over lunch at the Occidental with Ngaire Woods, whom he knew from studying at Oxford University, Scott went through a list of potential candidates Geithner had compiled. Woods, now the inaugural dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford and professor of global economic governance, strongly recommended Birdsall. They went to see Fred Bergsten, then head of what is now the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who had agreed to sponsor a research program on debt for Scott. Bergsten told them he had someone in mind to lead the project—Nancy Birdsall.

“So within the course of an hour two independent people coming from two different directions had strongly...

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