What does it take to have a sustainable global impact? World Learning President and CEO Donald Steinberg posed that question to nearly 100 people at the organization’s Global Advisory Council dinner held at the S&R Foundation’s Halcyon House in Washington, DC. The event brought together members of the council, World Learning trustees and staff, social entrepreneurs from S&R’s Halcyon Incubator program, and other organizational partners.
The evening featured lively table conversations on issues of sustainability and a panel discussion with Sanam Anderlini, co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network; Betty Bigombe, senior Director for Fragility, Conflict, and Violence the World Bank; Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service; and Ken Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute.
In his welcome speech Steinberg said that while many people are pessimistic about the state of the world given the terrible news they hear every day about the Ebola, ISIS, Boko Haram and the like, there are actually many reasons to be optimistic. In the past 20 years more than 700 million people have been lifted out of poverty, the number of people with access to clean water has doubled, and child and infant mortality rates have been cut in half.
He said World Learning continues to play a role in improving lives around the world by training a new generation of global citizens through its education, exchange, and development programs. Steinberg cited the Education Consortium for the Advancement of STEM in Egypt, which he recently visited. The program established two model science, technology, engineering, and math high schools that focus on experiential learning and give students opportunities to work on finding solutions to some of the major issues facing their country, such as urbanization and resource management.
After dinner Steinberg moderated the panel, during which panelists discussed current development efforts and how they could be improved to have a more sustainable impact. The central themes of the conversation revolved around inclusive and integrated approaches to development.
The panelists all agreed on the importance of involving people in the beneficiary communities when designing and implementing development projects in order to address their actual needs and make changes that work for them. Messinger noted the recent push by many organizations to curb the spread of malaria by distributing mosquito bed nets, especially in Africa. However many people ended up using the nets for fishing instead, which has created its own set of problems.
“Sustainable change, requires consultation, it requires responsiveness to community needs, it requires respectful interventions,” Messinger said.
One key component of this, which all of the panelists mentioned, is to increase women’s participation in society and advance their leadership opportunities, especially in government. Increased participation of women in government has been linked to a number of societal benefits including improvements in education and health as well as lower levels of corruption.
“There is clear evidence that with women, better policies that are friendly to the community are formulated,” Bigombe said of women’s roles as elected officials.
She said that while “huge progress” has been made in this area in the past few decades, much more still needs to be done to ensure women’s involvement. Wollack agreed and said political parties in many countries need to reform their processes in order to provide opportunities for women to be elected to office.
In addition to addressing societal concerns, Anderlini noted that women are also “early warners” of escalating conflict. She said their experience and knowledge should be included in peace processes to provide information about the situation on the ground and develop solutions to the based on actual community needs.
Anderlini also stressed the need to find holistic approaches to combat issues like violence and extremism in order to resolve the root causes of the societal strife.
“If you talk to the people on the ground it’s about education, it’s about dignity, it’s about jobs, it’s about really basic stuff,” she said.
Wollack echoed Anderlini’s comments by saying that development needs to involve both economic and political empowerment in order to be effective.
“The desire to put food on the table and the desire to have a political voice are not mutually exclusive, but they are mutually reinforcing,” he said, adding that unless they respond to the demands of the people, governments and their development objectives are likely to fail.
The evening ended with remarks from World Learning’s board chair Tom Hiatt, who took the panelists message on collective action to heart. He noted that while the problems of the world are big and can sometimes seem overwhelming, the event was a reminder that “each one of us has the power to make a difference and that particularly by working together our power and our leverage are magnified.”