Development Needs New Words, Better Ideas, & Dramatic Innovation to Build a Better World

Yesterday evening, thinking I’d relax and catch up—at least virtually—with some friends, I opened my Facebook account. As I scrolled through, I once again saw that post that has become all too ubiquitous, complaining about foreign aid. You know the one—it says that in America our homeless don’t eat, our mentally ill don’t get care, our troops don’t have equipment, yet we “donate billions to other countries before helping our own.”  I also noted the number of Facebook friends who had liked or shared it—people who are well-read and at least somewhat aware of the fact that they live in a globally-connected world.

When I saw this type of anti-foreign aid post in the past, I inevitably got angry at the poster’s ignorance and inability to see simple realities surrounding the cost and benefit of the U.S. investment in improving lives abroad. This time, though, it occurred to me that the ignorance is a direct result of the poor ability of those who believe strongly in foreign assistance to tell that story.

Advocates almost always begin with the go-to statistic:  less than one percent of the U.S. budget goes to international humanitarian response and development. This is immediately followed by a condescending shake of the head, and the revelation that a majority of Americans think that number is closer to 30 percent. The stark reality is that that fraction of one percent places America—the wealthiest country in the world—in 19th place in spending on international development work as a percentage of Gross National Income.

Today’s raging debate on illegal border crossings provides further fodder for solid arguments: the best way to secure our borders is to invest in economic opportunity in the world’s most underserved countries.  Also worthy of consideration is the fact that a large portion of aid dollars create jobs here in the United States, supporting tens of thousands of taxpaying individuals and private companies who provide services around the world on behalf of USAID or other U.S. government agencies.  And foreign assistance enhances America’s global economic competitiveness, improves national security through the reduction of poverty and civil strife, and of course, amplifies the importance of American values.  Doesn’t it?

If Not Aid and Development, Then What?

With a list of good reasons and a relatively low cost to this work, why then are there still so many skeptics out there, in the United States and other donor nations? A new body of research, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, tries to shed light on this disconnect. The Narrative Project is a partnership of several international NGOs and donor institutions seeking to increase public support for foreign assistance by finding better ways to coordinate and more compelling ways to tell the stories of what works, and why the general public should care.

The Narrative Project reviewed a couple dozen studies produced over the past decade, and held its own focus groups.  They learned that, while the moral argument for development assistance is still strong, people are highly skeptical that the approaches undertaken are effective; believing that, in fact, little has improved in 30 years. Not surprisingly, underpinning these opinions was a finding that the general public’s knowledge about development is quite limited.

The Narrative Project is using this initial study as a foundation on which to create new language and new narratives, providing the most persuasive arguments in favor of development, which is a good thing. Innovation in the language we use to describe this important work is badly needed. As an experienced practitioner, I can say definitively that ‘development-speak’ leaves even the most knowledgeable veteran cold, and certainly does not attract support outside the field. But in many ways, The Narrative Project is just the beginning.

By limiting the research to four donor countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany—the project subtly implies that the views of those countries that provide the largest amount of foreign assistance in gross terms are the most important. But this perspective is incredibly shortsighted for at least two reasons. First, it prioritizes an antiquated construct of charity in which the wealthy are counted on to supply those in need. Second, it overlooks the views of the public in the countries receiving assistance—additional research that may also be envisioned, but was not evident from the initial findings. If nomenclature counts in the United States and Germany, surely it must be at least as important in Malawi and Bangladesh.

This oversight is critical as it risks sanctifying language that effectively persuades Americans, Brits, French, and Germans, but offends or condescends to those individuals whom it directly seeks to serve. In the enshrined ivory tower of wealthier countries, it is easy to overlook the implications of even the friendliest of terms: development, beneficiaries, and empowerment, for instance. Each implies an ongoing, paternalistic relationship rather than a partnership for mutual gain. Will a new development vernacular continue this trend, or is it possible to find better language that is uniformly accessible, convincing, and enriching for all?

Can Past Failures Drive Future Success?

It is also clear that The Narrative Project is not enough. The Narrative Project states that “the conversation focuses on what doesn’t work and what is wasted.” It is true that there is a lot of noise about wasted funds and corruption, and perhaps not enough lauding of wild successes, such as the progress of PEPFAR or the contributions to economic stability in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe. But development also needs a complementary body of research that takes a deep and critical look at the lessons of the past 50 years and offers innovative recommendations on how to be more effective in the coming decades. Not enough has been done to examine why those efforts succeeded and how to replicate that success in other sectors or geographies. Equally important, or perhaps more so, is that little to nothing has been done to understand the failures—even the colossal ones—of so many efforts, both large and small.

Some might criticize this proposition, suggesting that such an undertaking would only arm the opposition, providing the skeptics with further proof of their righteousness. But such a study, I believe, would serve the opposite end. By actively embracing a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the failures of the past that have so successfully fortified the skeptic’s view, advocates might better convince those individuals that change is truly upon us.

At PYXERA Global, our team has initiated its own development insurgency, piloting new and innovative ideals in partnership with willing funders in many corners of the world. Be it local supply chain development in Mozambique, collaborative global pro bono in Ethiopia, or innovative integrated community development in India, we are learning from almost 25 years of experience in more than 90 countries how not to do things and how to do them. Seeking to forego the paternalistic implications of international development, we instead work under the umbrella of purposeful global engagement.

Yet our approach, too, is deserving of scrutiny and we are committed to carefully assessing our own work, as well as that of the development sector at large. This analysis should be done and shared broadly, including an understanding of successes, an admission of mistakes, and a roadmap to ensure this sector institutionalizes what works and avoids replicating the blunders of the past.

The Best Ideas Start Small

This future project could also explore some of the contributions to development from non-traditional sources, particularly those that focus on social innovation, such at the Hult Prize and the MIT IDEAS Challenge.  Both of these programs foster student-driven initiatives that have the potential to dramatically effect change on a global scale.  The winners have the freedom and the funding to explore their innovations without the constraints typical of the traditional development sector.

Last year’s Hult Prize winners from McGill University have already launched their business, Aspire Food Group, focused on sustainable farming of edible insects.  This year’s regional finalists from the University of Pennsylvania are building their Sweet Bites business around a simple solution to oral disease and its complications with a specially-formulated gum.  Both projects encompass elements of job creation and income generation for local communities, while simultaneously addressing a critical development deficit.

At this year’s MIT IDEAS Challenge, top prize winners included GridForm, a rural planning software designed to facilitate the creation of a power microgrid and renewable energy generation. Eagle Health takes on the problem of diabetes management by leaving blood sugar measurement, and the associated costs and inconvenience, out of the equation. Proprietary software monitors other key data that is collected non-invasively by wearing a specially-designed and inexpensive ring.

Aspire Foods of McGill University wins the Hult Prize for their innovative food security solution. Photo: Mark von Holden

As a judge for the Hult Prize for the past three years, and for the MIT IDEAS Challenge for the first time this year, I had the chance to see firsthand the opportunities usually missed by the traditional development community. While the development sector makes great fanfare about potential innovation, the reality is that the donor-funded development system is not well-designed to innovate. It is currently configured to spit out relatively short-term projects based on oft-adjusted, narrow priorities. It cannot afford to take many risks, in some part due to the scrutiny and negative public perception being tackled by The Narrative Project.

While the traditional donors and implementers may be hindered by history,  politics, policy, and caution, they have a real advantage in size and presence. It is fair to say that most of the highly impactful and innovative programming in place today is seen in small-size projects limited to one or two geographies, and usually not funded by the traditional donors. Imagine how that picture could change if even a portion of USAID, DfID, World Bank, and private-foundation funding were dedicated to identifying such innovations, fostering their growth, and scaling their impact. Reinventing these agencies is admittedly a herculean undertaking. Yet, if their core purpose became making long-term, substantial, financial commitments to scale up what works, then finding the right words to describe this work would be easy, because we would finally be moving the needle on the biggest challenges facing the world today. The narrative would almost write itself.

Deirdre White

Deirdre White

Deirdre White is a globally recognized leader in building tri-sector partnerships to address the world’s most pressing challenges. As CEO of PYXERA Global, she has led the transformation of the organization to one that maximizes impact through strong and strategic partnerships.


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