The Fragility Within

As the problems that once divided the world into First, Second, and Third are held more and more in common, is it time for the global development community to overhaul its approach?


International development, as we have conceived it over the last several decades, may not be dead, but it is dying.

In past decades, it used to be common parlance to refer to parts of our planet as different “worlds.” There was the First World, the mostly capitalist, mostly Western countries of the developed world; there was the Second World, comprising mostly the industrialized communist nations; and there was the Third World, a term still heard occasionally in reference to developing countries. These worlds appeared, and in many ways were, analytically and culturally distinct. There were problems of developed countries and problems of developing countries — “their” problems and “our” problems. To address these problems, the global development community needed people with completely separate types of expertise and experience. Those of us working in the field talked, even much more recently, about development experts parachuting into societies, as if they were landing in space capsules.

That time is ending. Increasingly, societies worldwide face their own versions of the same problems, merely to different degrees. Developed and developing countries alike are struggling with disparities between the haves and have-nots, job growth that cannot keep up with population growth and technological change, and challenges of political, social, and economic inclusion. Today different “worlds” are as likely to be separated by city blocks or subway stops as by portions of the globe. It may be that the challenges of certain neighborhoods in Chicago or Paris are more similar to those in Karachi and Rio de Janeiro than those only a few miles away.

This change is occurring for a largely positive reason. According to a July 2015 Pew Research Center report on 111 countries, 783 million people were living on $10 to $20 per day in 2011, compared with 398 million in 2001 — an increase that nearly doubled the world’s middle-income population in just one decade. To be sure, too many people remain in poverty worldwide, and many of those who are now “middle income” are on the lower end of that spectrum, but the progress is significant nonetheless.

As the world’s middle-income population rises, international development agencies are turning their attention to “fragile states” — an increasingly small number of societies wracked by lawlessness, intense violence, and extreme poverty. The challenges of these states are both real and, as the current global refugee crisis illustrates, immense. This focus on fragile states and the human suffering they create is understandable. However, it risks diverting attention from another serious but less headline-grabbing problem: the fragility that exists within societies worldwide — the pockets of politically, socially, and economically marginalized groups that continue to fall further behind as others reap growth’s rewards.

The Charlie Hebdo shooting was horrific, but over the long term, the story may be as much about the alienation of Muslims living in Paris’s outer suburbs as it is about the attack itself. Nigeria may have been one of the world’s fastest-growing major economies last year and may have captured media attention for the global success of its Nollywood films — which accounted for almost 1.5 percent of Nigeria’s economy — but the challenge of economic, political, and social marginalization is intense even beyond the country’s poorer and predominantly Muslim northern provinces. In the United States, the media and public consciousness have long since moved on from the August 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and the April 2015 state of emergency in Baltimore (Iran! Caitlyn Jenner! Trump!), but the underlying economic and social conditions that produced those upheavals are still present today.

The problems that arise from these pockets of fragility challenge citizens everywhere to find new ways of thinking. How should we, as members of a global community, think about international development when there are as many differences within countries, and even within cities, as across them? How should the approach of developed countries change when developed countries themselves are struggling with many of the same issues as the countries they are trying to help? This has always been true to some extent, of course, but the gap between the type of problems experienced by developed countries on the one hand and developing countries on the other is narrowing.

A first step is to knock down barriers between domestic organizations focused on issues of economic and social justice and those focused on international development. Despite the fact that many of these organizations increasingly focus on the same types of problems (job creation, substance abuse, access to justice, social exclusion, and the like), there is a staggering lack of contact — let alone learning — among them. The situation is only reinforced by funding streams, staffing, organizational networks, and university curricula.

A second step is to focus more on peer-to-peer learning and partnerships across countries that are grappling with similar challenges of social inclusion, job creation, and injustice. Learning from peers is one of the most effective methods of enhancing the capabilities of those striving to advance social development. However, peer-to-peer exchange currently represents only a tiny percentage of foreign assistance budgets. Moreover, as emphasized by many in the development field (and reflected in a searing report by longtime development researcher Thomas Dichter), a focus on training from the “sage on the stage” over the “guide by the side” remains the go-to crutch of all too many international development activities. Given that three out of every five people in the world are projected to be living in cities by 2030, many of these peers will be in municipal governments rather than in the national governments that are the traditional home of development agencies. Associations of cities, mayors, and city managers may prove surprising but overlooked assets in this effort.

A third step is to focus international development more on human development and less on infrastructure like dams and roads that will increasingly be financed by the private sector or countries focused on advancing economic interests rather than a development agenda. As articulated in the 2014 Human Development Report published by the U.N. Development Programme, a focus on human development emphasizes the need to reduce disparities and build social cohesion, particularly through actions by both governments and civil society that reduce social violence and entrenched discrimination.

A fourth step is to focus on overcoming the economic, ethnic, racial, gender, geographic, and digital divides that drive marginalization. Doing so will require a much broader range of actors than traditional international development engages. These include private-sector employers, universities, technology companies, civil society organizations, and municipal and provincial governments. Increasingly, the role of foreign governments and other outsiders seeking to advance international development will be to use their investments as a catalyzing force to spur participation in ad hoc coalitions formed to address particular challenges. It will also require a renewed focus on civil society, which will be difficult given global crises and competing priorities. As a recent article by the independent international development publication Devex underscored, U.S. funding for democracy, rights, and governance programs has declined 38 percent since 2009. While some of that reduction can be attributed to funding adjustments for Iraq and Afghanistan, about 20 percent of the cutback has simply moved to other priorities at a time when budgeting for development is a zero-sum game.

A fifth and forward-looking step is to focus on youth. As FHI 360 CEO Patrick Fine and I pointed out in an earlier Foreign Policy article, international development spending tends to focus on young children rather than the world’s 1.2 billion youth ages 15 to 24, 87 percent of whom live in developing countries. However, youth who lack economic opportunities and feel socially and politically marginalized are both a threat to the future of societies across developing and developed countries and an undertapped resource and opportunity. They, more than any other social group, are the determinants of fragility — or resilience.

Most importantly, countries like the United States can redouble their efforts to address their own inner fragility — unemployment, social marginalization, and injustice. This is the right thing to do for their own citizens, their own economies, and their own consciences. In the United States, it will also allow the country to lead by example and live up to the most positive visions of America as a “city on a hill” and the most positive interpretations of American exceptionalism.

The biggest change that must occur is a change of mindset. This new mindset will require boldness of vision and action coupled with a new emphasis on humility, a renewed spirit of partnership, and a new willingness to learn as well as teach. The potential is to learn effective global strategies and develop collaborative new ways to address common problems together. This potential offers natural leadership roles for the United States — a nation that is among the most naturally self-critical, the most well-structured for self-correction and improvement, and the most ideologically suited for a focus on opportunity, inclusion, and human potential. The risk of not addressing the fragility within is nations continuing to decay internally, in similar ways, apart. The risk is allowing the seeds of the next crises to take root.

Image credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Kristin Lord is president and CEO of IREX, an international education and development nongovernmental organization, and co-chair of the Alliance for International Youth Development. The views expressed here are her own. Follow her on Twitter at @kristin_lord.

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