Global development’s past, present, and future

Global population illustration
Photo credit: Andrzej Wojcicki / Science Photo Library

Editor’s note: This is the last of six reflections by Ruth Levine, Director of the Global Development and Population Program, at the close of her eight-year term. The first post was “Closing the gap between social movements and policy change.” The second was “Strength in numbers: Taking a field-level view.” The third, fourth and fifth were “All happy grantees are alike: They focus on ideas, interactions, and important details,” “How can we drive change when we’re Menlo Parked?,” and “The Hewlett Foundation Way.” In this final essay, Ruth offers some thoughts about the nature of current and future global challenges—and how philanthropic and other types of institutions need to adapt. These are issues she will be working on starting in September at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

We all need new ways to be citizens of the world because the world is changing fast. As my eight-year term as the director of the Global Development and Population Program comes to an end next week, I am thinking about what is ahead for me personally, the team at Hewlett, and the many organizations whose good work around the world we have been privileged to support. It has me marveling about how much has changed in global development—and the idea of development itself—since the Hewlett Foundation was started in 1966, and how our current challenges are calling us to both reimagine and recommit.

My father’s generation

Fifty-three years ago in California’s Santa Clara Valley, William and Flora Hewlett and their son Walter planted the seeds of what has become one of the largest private foundations in the United States. Concerned about the wellbeing of women around the world and the health of the planet, the Hewlett Foundation started making grants to support international efforts to provide voluntary family planning services and to understand the impact of population growth on the environment. This was seen as one of the urgent issues of the day, and one for which American money and know-how could make an important and positive difference.

That same year, I was a young child living in a small college town at the foot of beautiful Mount Makiling in the Philippines. My father, a Cornell University professor, was doing fieldwork in rice paddies, alongside an international cadre of plant breeders, water engineers, and agronomists at the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture and the International Rice Research Institute; he was part of the Green Revolution. He and his colleagues, supported by U.S. federal agencies and private foundations, deployed technical expertise to increase yields of staple crops, like wheat, corn, and rice, so production would keep pace with rapidly growing populations in low-income countries. In the Philippines, a generation of Filipino agricultural scientists were trained to undertake world-class research with international experts who were developing “miracle rice.”  That rice increased the harvest by ten-fold, transformed the country’s economy, and was part of a world-wide expansion of food production.

Many of today’s dominant institutions in global development were born in the same era, against the backdrop of the Cold War. USAID and the Peace Corps were both created a few years earlier, in 1961; the International Development Association, the part of the World Bank designed to provide low-interest loans to poor countries, was established in 1960. The field of international development, attracting academics, engineers, doctors, nurses, teachers, and adventurers, exploded with new funding, optimism, and a sense of purpose: money, science, and know-how from the richest country on earth would ease the suffering of people in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, and in doing so would create alliances to serve both defense and commercial interests. We’ve got a lot of things figured out, the thinking went, so we can transfer our technologies to solve huge problems elsewhere; the solutions will benefit us all. We, who have “developed,” can bring along those who are “developing.” That spirit was reflected in the Hewlett Foundation’s grants to support work outside U.S. borders and in my father’s career-long international work.

My generation

During my own career in global development, which started in 1990, I’ve felt that model shake and bend. Technologies that solved some problems in dramatic fashion created other, more challenging ones. The Green Revolution prevented mass starvation but fostered input-intensive agriculture that brought financial hardship to many small farms. Intensified global trade, including the exploitation of inexpensive labor and natural resources, permitted hundreds of millions of people to escape poverty but also fostered greater gaps between rich and poor. Western models of democratic governance were adopted but foundered when overlaid on traditional social systems in contexts with weak institutional capacity. The fields with the strongest scientific basis—health and agriculture—extended lives and increased productivity, while fields constructed more by people than by nature, like education, struggled to replicate success. These are the types of challenges that emerged after the early optimism.

As idealism bumped up against reality, the institutions set up in the 1960s to transfer mainly U.S. and European knowledge and money to low- and middle-income countries labored to respond to contemporary challenges. Bilateral and multilateral aid agencies set up governance programs in which advisors from Western democracies coached counterparts in low- and middle-income countries, often through short “missions” or even shorter training workshops. The United Nations created an endless set of opportunities for governments to voice high-level commitments that variously privileged economic growth, infrastructure, human needs, or environmental sustainability—and then aid agencies deployed international non-governmental organizations to implement those commitments. Indicators were tracked; indices were built. Researchers from elite universities and the brain trusts within multilateral agencies tried to create generalizable knowledge about a wide array of questions: “What’s the right economic policy for ‘the Tanzania’s of the world’?”  “If we can create miracle rice with ten times the yield, can we create miracle classrooms with ten times the learning?” Some of these efforts succeeded—witness the remarkable reduction in global poverty and the increase in life expectancy. But many did not.  All of the organizations involved, and all of the people within those organizations, wrestled with the reality that the complexity of problems have outpaced the sophistication of solutions and, yes, “context matters.”

As a private philanthropy, the Hewlett Foundation has had more flexibility than most to adapt and try new approaches, exploring the special ways in which a foundation’s relatively small dollars could make a difference because we are not bound by the same interests that constrain official aid agencies. We don’t have U.S. contractors lobbying us to spend more at home, and we aren’t part of some larger foreign policy architecture.

All of us who are entrusted to use the foundation’s resources to improve conditions in low- and middle-income countries are trying to push or pull the field of development—or parts of it—in a future-oriented direction. Over the past eight years in the Global Development and Population Program, we’ve focused our work on two areas that, we believe, are central to social and economic progress: improving the status of women and advancing gender equality, and increasing the quality of governance. We can only play a small role in either of these huge agendas. To contribute to improving the status of women, we have continued to support access to a full range of reproductive health services that permit women to decide whether and when to bear children, but we have shifted away from a Northern-led agenda and toward strengthening women’s rights organizations and other advocates in low-income countries to pursue their own priorities. We have also worked toward the elimination of gender bias in what counts as “work” and “production,” and in policies related to taxation, employment, and social protection, particularly for female workers in the most precarious circumstances.

In the area of better governance, we’ve recognized that many governments in low- and middle-income countries lack both the incentives and the capacity to serve the needs of their citizens. So we’ve simultaneously focused on learning how citizens can use their collective voice to influence governments’ will to act, and on the use of evidence—particularly locally-relevant evidence—within the policy community so those actions make the best use of scarce resources. Increasingly, we’ve placed priority on contextually-relevant research undertaken by professionals working in their own countries, and supported organizations that are led and staffed by people working in their own communities. While we’ve continued to support many international NGOs and have admired much of what they have achieved, we’ve encouraged them to work in ways that don’t reproduce troubling power imbalances. We’ve also supported groups that are turning the traditional development paradigm upside down: Southern Voice is a network of think tank researchers from low- and middle-income countries who are coming together to offer empirically-based commentary on the Sustainable Development Goals. Global Press is training local journalists as a direct challenge to the very notion of the “foreign correspondent.” The African Center for the Study of the United States at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa is doing some much needed intellectual jujitsu.

These are important ways in which the Hewlett Foundation’s work has evolved, and even these modest efforts have taken time and brainpower. But I’ve got to admit that it’s not enough to meet the current challenges, and I’m guessing my colleagues would agree. Along with pretty much everyone else who works to solve big problems, we are facing questions that are more fundamental than, “Gee, how do we tackle this hard problem in the developing world?” or “Should we give more grants to in-country NGOs?” As a human race and a planet, we cannot afford to ignore our global interconnectedness or pretend that social and economic development follows a straight line. In our language, concepts, and actions we have to reimagine “global development” so that we can tackle the profound, and even existential, problems of today and tomorrow.

My daughter’s generation

What are the problems of today and tomorrow and what institutional changes are needed from philanthropic and other actors? There are many ways to think about this, but let me try out some ideas I’ve been playing with and hope to explore in more depth in the coming year.

First, there are the problems that affect us all and can be solved only through cross-border negotiation and cooperation. The climate crisis is the first to come to mind, but this category also includes migration, human trafficking, data privacy and access, illicit financial flows, and other global public goods (and bads).

Solving these problems, many of which are both urgent and politically divisive, depends on functional multilateral organizations, along with networks in the public, nonprofit, corporate, and academic sectors that are committed to transnational cooperation. As a global community, we already have in place key multilateral organizations, particularly under the umbrella of the United Nations, but they lack the resources and the legitimacy of governance to carry out their ambitious agendas. We also have important networks, such as the ones that have been developed for investigating illicit financial flows, but far more effort is needed to make sure that they are inclusive of participants from all parts of the world, and that those from low- and middle-income countries engage on an equal footing with those from high-income countries. In this work, we have to recognize the contribution of locally-generated knowledge and the power of organizing by members of communities that are most affected.

Second, there are the problems that many (or even all) countries experience within their own borders and that limit the realization of human capability. Here are issues like trust in the public sector, inequity in educational opportunities and outcomes, the gender wage and economic opportunity gap, political polarization, and oppression of racial and ethnic minorities. These may not be transnational problems in the sense of the climate crisis, but they are common problems, appearing in one form or another in all societies and certainly made more acute by the global flows of capital and ideological influences.

It is the global flow of ideas that we need. There are vast unrealized opportunities for learning about innovations in one place that could inform and inspire progress in another. We need to create learning communities around particular challenges that include people who are most affected by failing systems, researchers working in their own contexts using a range of methods, policy advocates, and practitioners. Think, for instance, about the benefits of connecting people focused on the challenge of quality child care in different parts of the world. From São Paulo to Seoul to San Francisco, low-income (and many other) workers have only bad choices when it comes to finding care for their children. (If you haven’t faced a version of this problem in your own family, consider yourself very lucky.) Yet models in Montevideo, Liverpool, and Nairobi offer lessons about how a combination of public and private action can serve young children, their parents, and pay caregivers well. We need to reconceptualize global knowledge to make the most of diverse experiences and connect knowledge to people who can use it.

Third are the problems created by weak institutions, particularly those in states affected by conflict, that spread at least to neighbors and potentially further. Today, we need look no further than Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for an example, or to the horrors unfolding in Venezuela. Multilateral organizations again need to be strengthened in their legitimacy, enforcement power, technical capacity, and financial wherewithal to be able to respond. We need new financing instruments to be able to act quickly and at a scale commensurate with the risk. We need full engagement from political powers in the affected regions, so that “solutions” are not dropped in from outside in ways that are perceived as suspect. And we need to foster the positive use of social networks to detect problems early, and to spread factual information that will be believed by people whose governments are not prepared to serve them.

There are millions of young people from all over the world who want to work toward a brighter, more connected future. The question is whether the institutions of 50-plus years ago are able to channel that energy and ideas in ways that correspond to what’s needed for the next 50 years.

Working on these sorts of challenges, in new and fit-for-purpose organizations, is what the next generation entering the field of global development want, need, and are able to do. My daughter is an undergraduate in college who cares passionately about global citizenship, and is heading off for a summer internship at an aid agency. Like me, and like my father before me, she wants to make a positive contribution to the lives and livelihoods of people who live in countries with less material wealth than we have in the United States; she also knows there are plenty of problems right here at home, and she sees the ways in which we are connected worldwide through commerce, migration, media, and the environment. She is not alone. There are millions of young people from all over the world who want to work toward a brighter, more connected future. Their energy and ideas are powerful. The question is whether the institutions of 50-plus years ago are able to channel that energy and ideas in ways that correspond to what’s needed for the next 50 years.

Responding to these new needs and opportunities is not a tweak in the wording of an international NGO’s mission statement, or a change in the org chart of the World Bank; this is a reimagining of the project of global development, and the creation of, and support for, entities that can take it on. It’s an incredibly exciting—if disruptive and risky—agenda that is particularly well suited to contributions from philanthropies.

As the Hewlett Foundation’s international work evolves in the years ahead, whether in the Global Development and Population Program, the Environment Program, the Education Program, or other areas, I am hopeful that this foundation can be among the leaders in exploring new ways to do this vital work, placing each action within a genuinely global context and embracing the habits of mutual respect. We have a good head start because we have been supporting organizations that are experimenting with new ways of working. But there’s a long (and exciting) way to go.

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