Tag Archives: Sustainable development

The key to reducing poverty is… fewer armchair experts

Certain sectors seem to attract more armchair experts than others. We all think we know what is needed to fix the Australian Cricket Team’s woes. Sack the selectors and cut down the playing schedule to eliminate burnout. Bring back Warney.

We all think we know what is needed to produce better classrooms for our children. We need to reduce class numbers, get the teachers back to teaching basics, study more of the classics in their original form, not after they have been put through a blender by Baz Luhrman.

Development is no different. I recently took a flight from Singapore to Cambodia, and had a lovely, chatty couple in their 50s sit next to me. They were instantly interested in hearing about my work in disability in Cambodia. After asking the usual questions about what I do, they  told me that they were active donors in Cambodia.

They had a local guy who found good, sustainable projects for them to fund. Of course, good and sustainable are entirely subjective.

“We believe that the key to getting people out of poverty is giving the chance to start their own business,” he said to me earnestly. “You need to let them tap into their inner entrepreneur. We don’t believe in providing welfare, because it makes people lazy. We think that starting small businesses are key for poor people.”

I feel like MLK Jr may disagree.

As such, the couple only gave to projects that supported this ideal. For instance, they bought a tuk-tuk for a driver, so that he could earn a living for himself and his family. They provided funds for a soy bean drink machine, imported from Singapore of course, so that another family could sell drinks in their village.

For the next 20 minutes, I listened without interrupting as they explained their views on what constitutes good development, and how the projects they had funded were creating a sustainable future in Cambodia. At the end of this spiel, they turned to face me front on and ask, “So, in your work in Cambodia, what do you see as the major challenges you face?”

I paused for a moment, and replied: “One of the biggest problems we face is donors from outside Cambodia, who have no experience in development, let alone in Cambodia, dictating what they think constitutes good development, rather than listening to what people in Cambodia actually want. It forces the NGO to change their activities to suit the needs of the donors, and ignore the needs of people.”

(I’ll be the first to admit that this is a somewhat pompous response, but really, I had bitten my tongue for 20 whole minutes!)

In a recent interview, Founder and CEO of Global Poverty Project, Hugh Evans, was asked by MSNBC journalists about what Americans could do that would “translate into action” for people living in extreme poverty. For example, the suit-clad men in MSNBC’s studio wondered, should WE teach THEM “better techniques in terms of harvesting rice and grain”? I think Hugh handled this absurd question very well, though his visceral reaction was pretty obvious.

What food did they serve Hugh in the MSNBC green room?

We have great conversations about development online and offline. Although we need to consciously make effort to escape the bubble of developmentcentrism, we are always exploring how to get development right.

Many of us are working in development, consumed by it, and are constantly reflecting on it. Even these people are constantly searching and debating about how to get development right, without a clear answer. If this is the case, what makes those in the general public so sure that they know the answers?

How many times have you heard the phrase “I think the key to getting people out of poverty is X”? You can replace X with education, small business, focusing on women and girls, used yoga mats.

You would be very hard pressed to find anyone saying something similar about other sectors.

Thank you, Wikipedia.

Yet, similar opinions in relation to poverty abound.

It is pretty common knowledge in the development sector that overheads are in no way a good measure of an organisation’s effectiveness. Yet, as many of as aware from numerous conversations, people in the general public don’t seem to realise this. How many times have you heard the opinion “I give to so and so charity because they use volunteers and most of the money goes to the people who need it?”

Why is there such a gap between conversations within our development bubble, and those outside?

I’m going to put forward one possible reason, though I am very interested to hear what others think in the comments section below.

One reason could be marketing. There is often a huge gap between how NGOs market themselves and how the programs themselves work. As long as NGOs continue to propagate the myth that overheads matter, in a bid to get more donations, the public is going to believe them. This could be why, in terms of overheads, the conversation is lagging far behind.

We’ve spoken before on WhyDev about the race-to-the-bottom tactics that NGOs can use to get funding, and how this can ultimately affect the scope of work that program staff are able to do. This is another example of how negative fundraising tactics can hurt development – by stifling knowledge of good development in the public.

What do you think? Why do many people opine baselessly about the key to ending poverty? Why do conversations around development lag so far behind in the public sphere?

Postscript: A few people have asked, here and elsewhere, how the couple responded to my response. The couple had a glazed look over their eyes, then the food service came, then the man started snoring. End of story.

The roadmap to ending extreme poverty by 2030: a street directory or GPS?


To much fanfare, the roadmap to end extreme poverty by 2030 was released Thursday. The high-level panel (HLP, one letter short of HELP) is co-chaired by David Cameron with the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian president, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian president. The forceful and well-oiled verb ‘eradicate’ was used to describe how extreme poverty would be ended. It would be eradicated. It is an interesting choice of verb and one which we never tire of using. Eradicate. The original Latin meaning to ‘uproot’. So, we want to ‘uproot’ poverty and do what with it? How are we going to uproot extreme poverty?

12 goals. 54 targets. 15 years.

‘Sustainability’ is mentioned a lot  (in fact, 25 times). ‘Sustainable’ is mentioned a whooping 186 times. The phrase ‘sustainable development’, 99 times. Ok, so once extreme poverty is uprooted, the seeds that fall back to the ground will not find root. They will not grow again. This time, it’s sustainable.

And yes, this time it is different. I am sure much more qualified and knowledgeable people will comment, troll and discuss this report (indeed, some already have such as Andy Sumner and Alex Cobham here, and Claire Melamed here). And yes, there are plenty of eye-rolling statements and narratives, such as when you read that the panel discussed “the daily reality of life on the margins of survival” (p.15). In London. Or, the new and oft-repeated catchphrase of the report to “leave no one behind”. And, speaking about a “global ethic”, which apparently is financial in philosophy as the panel proceed to list off a cost-benefit analysis of development interventions.

I just want to touch on a few features and then speak more specifically about the education sub-directory in the roadmap.

The X factor

Although the goals are universal, the targets are not all universal. “Almost all targets should be set at the national level or even local level, to account for different starting points and contexts” (p.41). Rather than stating that there should be universal access and completion of pre-primary education, Goal 3(a) states that there should be an “Increase by x% the proportion of children able to access and complete pre-primary education”. According to the panel, they have gone to great lengths not to be prescriptive but to illustrate examples.

Furthermore, indicators will be disaggregated by income, gender, location, age, people living with disabilities and relevant social group. This is landmark. But, it is also a huge ask of the current and future state of data collection, validation, analysing and synthesising capacities of many national governments, both in terms of district, regional and national-level data.


The basic framework for the goals is the old acronym that we all learn: SMART. Specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. They are SMART goals. Or are they? The panel acknowledge the risks of a single agenda, ranging from “unworkably utopian” to “overloaded” to “business as usual”. Despite the acknowledgement, the panel does not satisfactorily address these risks in the report.

Much like the ‘risks and assumptions’ written for a LogFrame, they are just there because they have to be. The panel states that the “best way of managing these risks is to make sure that the post-2015 development agenda includes clear priorities for action that the international community can rally behind” (p.26). This just sounds like business as usual (aka MDGs) and doesn’t actually address the risks identified.

Goal 3

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There are three ideas that standout in the education sub-directory of the roadmap, otherwise known as Goal 3:

  • Pre-primary schooling. After much evidence clearly demonstrating the impact, pre-primary schooling gets a look in. Also known as ‘early childhood education’ or ‘early childhood development (ECD)’, this is a cross-cutting issue of the roadmap and will begin to feature prominently in development initiatives and interventions. However, there is a lot to be learned from the MDGs in regards to ensuring equitable and effective access to schooling. It will be more than a matter of just building pre-primary schools, recruiting teachers and producing textbooks. The inclusion of secondary schooling in this goal was a preordained due to the MDGs focus on primary schooling.
  • Standards. The move towards standards is one already being played out in OECD countries both at the secondary and tertiary levels of education. Here, both B and C look to promote and achieve ‘quality’ by measuring students against standards and outcomes. While it focuses on accountability and measuring students’ performance and learning outcomes, a standards agenda can often come into contest with inclusion-driven agendas.
  • Get a job! In another boost to the life-long learning agenda and concept, D recognises the need for vocational and technical education for ALL, and not just education for children. Also known as vocational and educational training (VET), it has a long, storied and debated history in regards to its role in public education, the national economy and political and educational discourse and agendas. It is often framed around the notion of providing alternative, low-skilled career and workforce pathways to young adults who do not succeed in the traditional education system. Its inclusion here is perhaps in response to rising youth unemployment rates and the lack of alternatives for young people who are unable to ‘succeed’ in the traditional education system.

Within this goal, there are also a number of glaring issues and questions that only academia will probably address, think about and write on. The issues mainly reflect broader and deeper issues of power and Discourse.

  • Who decides what standards and which standards? A few key phrases stand out: “completes primary education able to read, write and count well enough to meet minimum standards”. What constitutes ‘well enough’? Well enough for what, for whom? To do what? Who will decide what the minimum standards are? How will these standards be monitored, appraised and renewed? Will all children be tested against the same standards, regardless of circumstance? Where does creativity, music, art, drama and other non-science subjects fit into the curriculum and standards? How will a standards agenda co-exist with a focus on inclusion?
  • Who decides what skills and which skills? With jobs and skills featuring prominently, it is stated that we need to “Increase the number of young and adult women and men with the skills…needed for work by x%”. What skills are those? Are they the skills needed to work jobs that do not currently exist but will exist in the future economy? Who will decide what skills to address? Are they traditional skills?
  • “regardless of circumstance”. This is a nice, convenient phrase, expressed as a means to addressing (or at least referencing) inequality and inequity. It captures a child in northern Ghana who has a disability, lives with his grandfather in a rural area and is not attending school. It also captures a young girl in northern Vietnam, who was married at the age of 12 and no longer attends school. Or a young refugee from Burma still living in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border. It is a clumsy phrase and perhaps dismissive of the role circumstance (read: inequality) plays. It is not just a matter of regarding circumstance as regardless. This phrase does not capture inequality and inequity. Remember, it is mostly the political, social, economic and cultural circumstances of children and their families that keep them from accessing, attending and completing schooling. Throw in the broader circumstances at community, national, regional and global levels, and more needs to be said and addressed than just ‘regardless of circumstance’.

There are many things to admire about this report and the roadmap is describes. Its scope. Its ambition. It is just down-right tenacious in the vision it puts forward. At the same time, it raises a lot of questions and does not put to bed many prior concerns with a single, global agenda formed by an elite few. While the panel’s roadmap is not a GPS for ending extreme poverty, it does offer the vision and the conditions for doing so. In effect, it is a street directory, which individuals, communities, organisations and governments can use to find the best path forward towards meeting many of the goals and ending extreme poverty.