3 Challenges for International Development

IDC_LogoRecently, I attended the Harvard International Development Conference at the Harvard Kennedy School, which was ironically titled “The End of Development.” The keynote speakers were inspiring, the crowd was eager to change the world, and the message was clear: International Development is at the beginning of a new era. It must adapt to new expectations, advancing technologies, a new generation of leaders, and a new set of goals.

Much of the discussion revolved around the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The reality is, while we’ve progressed on some of these goals, to say that we are done could not be further from the truth. For example, over the past 20 years the first goal of reducing extreme poverty has been met1, but does not belittle the fact that there are still poverty stricken areas of the world and continued work to be done to serve these communities.


There are issues that come with meeting the remaining MDGs, as well as for establishing the post-2015 development framework. Our takeaways from the conference highlighted challenges and opportunities around three major topics: Big Data, Participatory Planning, and Climate Change.

Big Data

Utilizing data was a theme that surfaced in several of the sessions with one specific panel dedicated to discussing Big Data. However, before one can consider how to utilize this data, it was evident that there were larger questions, even to the level of “What is Big Data?” While the panels and related discussions were fruitful, there were definitely more questions than answers at the end of the day.

In a world where analytics shape many other sectors there is a huge amount of information to potentially compile, contemplate, and leverage for International Development. How do you ask the right questions, review the right statistics, get access to the right sources, honor privacy, and make the best use of the information? How do you know that your target community is reflected in these statistics? How do you gather information specific to your development goals, and how will you know if you’re successful? These are all questions we ask as we review the various projects and potential application areas. We all know that data is valuable and that we have more now than we’ve ever had before, the key is finding the best way to use it.

Participatory Planning

Amina Mohammed, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Post-2015 Development Planning, told a very moving story which many will not soon forget. She noted that one village was provided with clean water, but they would not drink it. They would wash their dishes and their clothes with it, but they would continue to drink the “red water” because they were scared of the change and of the “government’s water.”

Community-Driven Development – an action plan  involving the people, putting them “at the table” of decision makers.

This really hits home for me and why I’m somewhat adverse to the word “change.” We all want to “change the world”, but while visiting rural villages I see smiling families who know no other way of living and who are grateful for what they have already available. They may not know clean water is necessary for improved health. They may not want our changes for something they don’t understand.

What we need is Community-Driven Development – an action plan that involves the people and puts them “at the table” of decision makers. This will help not only improve understanding and communication, but also provide trust and greater adoption of these missions.

Climate Change

A few keynote speakers echoed one another when they said that the world’s continuing climate challenges will more drastically affect those who have the least impact on the change and can do little to improve the situation. How will climate change alter the course of development? It’s no doubt that decreased rainfall will affect rural farming communities who have no other source of food. A climb in temperatures will cause suffering in areas where air conditioning or even proper shelter are a not an everyday luxury.

There was a great deal of optimism on what “can be done”, but also some sober realities that as humans, and given our nature and past mistakes, we may not make the necessary changes to “do better”. What “can be done” and what “will be done” may differ greatly in regards to the threats of climate change.


1 – The Millennium Development Goals Report, Page 6. http://bit.ly/11ZuLmF

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