You are (not) here: something we try not to lose sight of. (Image Credit: Hewlett Foundation, adapted from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY SA 3.0)

In the halls of the Hewlett Foundation, you hear people talking about places: how hard it is for artists to find affordable performance space in the Bay Area; the importance of protecting wilderness in the Western United States from commercial development. You hear people talking about policy: debates about the causes and consequences of climate change; why there’s reason to hope that Congress will become genuinely functional again one day. And you hear an awful lot about the intersection between place and policy: the ways each state is implementing (or backing away from) the Common Core education standards; the state-level restrictions on the provision of abortion services. In other words, you get a flavor of the complex work my colleagues do every day to improve life in the United States, at this particular moment in the country’s economic, political, and social history. It’s both inspiring and informative to those of us who spend our time working on problems 10,000 miles away from home.

Before joining the Hewlett Foundation in 2011, I spent my professional life working in organizations with “development” in their names (or at least their missions): the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Center for Global Development, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank. That’s the case for most of the program officers in the Global Development and Population Program.

In those work places, the air is thick with the peculiar jargon of international development: community capacity building, demand-driven, on-the-ground, low-hanging fruit, tackling the root causes of poverty (especially for women). Professionals progress through careers as they master a technocratic agenda and tally up the countries they’ve visited. With sweeping statements, people compare the social and economic trajectories of countries with peers at similar levels of incomes—“the Tanzanias of the world”—rather than invoking each country’s unique national history. Experts can rattle off average development indicators for rural and urban households, but are unable to name all three of the largest cities in the last country they worked in. Policy reforms are measured in five-year increments—the lifecycle of a project—with results observed at the national level, rather than in election cycles where gains are manifested unevenly across populations—region by region, district by district.

This is a caricature, of course, and there are impressive counter-examples. But there’s far more truth to it than fiction. And while international institutions and non-governmental organizations have facilitated many gains in social and economic well-being, they are profoundly limited by their outsider status. Fundamentally, they are poorly positioned to directly undertake the hard, long struggle of advancing political and social reforms in countries around the world. That’s the hard work of local reformers in civil society and public service—people with a stake in their own countries’ futures.

So the trick is to figure out how we, as outsiders with a global perspective, can effectively support that hard work. We’ve found some ways. We can, for example, work toward the establishment of global norms for public sector transparency; we can support data collection and research that helps inform advocates and activists about where their country stands relative to others; we can foster exchange of tactical knowledge across borders. Importantly, we can provide funds directly or through intermediaries to organizations where people are working for social change in their own countries.

Those are a few of the things we can do. What we cannot do is define the right in-country policy agendas—or know the most effective, appropriate ways to pursue them. And if we ever start to forget that, we’ll watch our colleagues work on the many gnarly challenges we face here at home in the United States, and we’ll be reminded of how differently we have to do our jobs.