Beyond the White House

Jimmy Carter

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Beyond the White House
Jimmy Carter
288 pages (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

Readers of Jimmy Carter’s latest book, Beyond the White House, will find plenty to remind them of the 39th president; the book has a dogged style and a big-hearted agenda. It is not a smooth positioning piece (Bill Clinton’s latest book, Giving, comes to mind), but it’s hard to shake the impression that Carter’s tireless efforts as a private citizen, cataloged one after another, are meant to assure his readers that he was and is more than a well-intentioned but ineffective president.

Beyond the White House is divided into three main sections: “Waging Peace,” “Building Democracy,” and “Fighting Disease.” Each section breaks the Carter Center’s efforts (with President Carter at the helm) down into brief essays detailing projects undertaken and results achieved. It is a report of which any foundation would be jealous: ceasefires brokered, elections made right, diseases eradicated. Carter’s book will not set the chattering classes atwitter, but I suspect he has little interest in doing so. His farm-raised practicality is never far from sight, either in the writing itself or in the midst of the heated and complex situations it describes.

There are popular writers who make a living tying a book full of anecdotes to a big idea, but Thomas Friedman this is not. Beyond the White House amounts to a spectacular foundation report without much in the way of a unifying thesis (livened up with some very memorable anecdotes, to be sure). Readers will likely pick this book up for one of three principal reasons: curiosity about what Carter has accomplished since his exit from office; a common interest in Carter’s approach to peace building, development, and health issues; or admiration for the man. Readers with a sufficient combination of these to make it through Carter’s plodding prose will find it hard to deny that the conventional wisdom about Carter falls very short of capturing his character and accomplishments.

In its dry, just-the-facts style, the book paints a Jimmy Carter of ceaseless initiative, tireless energy, and delightful creativity, ever on his way to tense, late-night living room negotiations with this or that rebel leader, despot, or head of state. In Panama, as polling officials announce fictitious victories for Manuel Noriega’s candidates, Carter forces his way on stage, shouting in Spanish: “Are you honest officials or thieves? You are stealing the election from the people of Panama!”

Much of Carter’s work has been tremendously effective. But readers will be left wondering what, if anything, advocates and practitioners of peace building, democracy, and health can take away from his successes. The model he describes in tackling these issues manifestly (and sensibly) circumvents conventional approaches to this work. As long as Jimmy Carter leads it, the Carter Center occupies a unique space: a civil society actor only – but one with the connections, experience, and authority of a U.S. president. Standing with Daniel Ortega as the Nicaraguan president receives word that his Sandinistas have lost reelection, Carter does what few advocates for democracy could: He looks Ortega in the eye and urges him to let the results stand because he, Carter, is enjoying an influential “second life” out of office. Why shouldn’t Ortega do the same? And so Ortega does.

This dynamic makes Carter’s stories by turns frustrating and inspiring. Carter’s brilliant successes, particularly in the area of fighting disease, make one wonder why every former president isn’t doing this much good for the world. Yet it is not clear from Carter’s accomplishments that the inspired reader could go and do likewise.

But Carter does teach us lessons. His successes are not random or shallow: We see Carter assess the need, the tools at his disposal, and the likelihood of impact carefully before undertaking each new project. Foregoing spotlight causes like AIDS, Carter makes huge dents in “forgotten” diseases – guinea worm, river blindness, schistosomiasis, trachoma are all but wiped out in Latin America and severely curtailed in Africa because Carter corralled village elders and pharmaceutical companies both to meet the need.

These are clear victories, a rare sighting in the realm of foreign aid. Such successes may not lift the beneficiaries out of poverty as economists measure it, but they are certainly worthwhile. Carter brings three assets to his work that allow him to do foreign aid unusually well: knowledge and connections, strategic focus, and a realistic expectation of results. Economists and policymakers engaged in current debates over whether “foreign aid works” may not be able to replicate Carter’s knowledge and connections, but they should certainly follow Carter’s lead in terms of strategic focus and realistic expectations. Rather than asking, “Does foreign aid work?” let us instead ask, “For whom?” and “To accomplish what?”

Joshua Weissburg is a project associate at the Aspen Institute’s Global Interdependence Initiative, a consultancy that helps to plan, evaluate, and communicate clients’ work on improved global health, governance, and economic development.