Kevin Short

Partnerships, Private Sector, Tech Dominate SID

With an international financial system teetering, the Horn of Africa marred by famine, and aid dollars jeopardized by domestic politics, the Society for International Development’s triennial World Congress held in Washington this weekend was in no short supply of substance or imperatives.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick brought these issues into focus during the Opening Keynote Address Friday morning. Zoellick spoke alongside Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson to an audience of hundreds of global thought-leaders, diplomats, and development professionals.

Mere minutes had passed before Zoellick offered sharp warnings about the United States’ flirtation with debt default, asserting that it represents not only “a financial calamity but an embarrassment for every American.” Not to be overshadowed by domestic discord, Zoellick turned his comments towards some of the recent developments in the international arena. Most notably, Zoellick touched on what he calls “democratizing development economics” – his term for the new transparency initiatives undergone by the Bank. The World Bank has sat on troves of underutilized data and statistics from the last 50 years, but now looks to counter its image of inaccessibility by publicizing the information and assisting civil society to utilize these figures.

“This is a transformative flattening of what was a hierarchical system,” Zoellick said.

Technology as an Equalizer

The SID World Congress highlighted a full spectrum of global development, with presentations running the gamut of public health, economic progress, environmental sustainability, and gender equity, among others. But each sector at SID placed a newfound emphasis on digital technology and its ability to alleviate suffering, connect populations, and advance diverse development goals.

Participants touted the successes of mobile phone banking across East Africa. The Arab Spring was repeatedly cited as evidence for the democratizing force of social media. The SID Washington Chapter awarded a young professional whose innovative use of video production and social media assisted USAID in achieving development goals in Palestine. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technologies mapped rural agriculture and illuminated food security issues. Memorable excerpts from the entire conference were only a hash-tag away, continuously relayed via #SIDWorldCongress on Twitter.

“Little innovations can blossom and connect populations,” said Susan Reichle assistant to the administrator for USAID’s Bureau of Policy, Planning and Learning.

Though rife with challenges, this digitalization of the development space showed that a new set of tech tools are available to maximize human potential and work toward the Millennium Development Goals.

The New Development Architecture

2011’s Congress also represented a much more diverse cross-section of development actors than historically included. The post-WWII-era aid agencies engaged with tech start-ups; contractors sipped coffee with academicians; diplomats mingled alongside nonprofit leaders. The fragmentation that oft plagues the development world was countered by this year’s dedication to partnerships: public-private partnerships, media-citizen partnerships, South-South partnerships (partnerships between and among the “Global South” countries), community-investor partnerships… all in an effort to coordinate action and integrate solutions.

“We are at a profoundly critical moment for development… [we’re] working more deliberately together and building analysis across the spectrum,” said Gayle Smith, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director at the National Security Council.

And never before has the private sector been in such a prominent position in the development agenda. From the open plenary speeches to the breakout panels, seemingly every speaker stressed the paramount importance of private sector development. “Inclusive growth” was at the epicenter of many presentations and speakers presented an array of interesting models, whether this meant social entrepreneurship, using government grants to facilitate private investment, assisting the SMEs of emerging economies, or formalizing land ownership rights.

“We need to take off the blinders and look at all types of investment,” said Elizabeth Littlefield, President and CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC).

The Deputy Prime Minister of Kenya, Musalia Mudavadi, spoke alongside Littlefield and also advocated for a pro-inclusive growth agenda.

“The private sector [wants]… a predictable, stable, coherent policy environment.”

Top-Down Prescription to an Ecosystem of Support

The collaborative spirit of the SID World Congress marks a fundamental shift from the original intents and purposes of “foreign aid.” Speakers were quick to acknowledge that the relationship between donor and recipient had been revolutionized by the emergence of the BRICs, more fluid capital flows, frugal Western agencies, IT capabilities, and a broader philosophical shift away from the “White Man’s Burden” paradigms of the past.

South-South and triangular cooperation were stressed as the new development archetypes. Yiping Zhou, director of the Special Unit for South-South Cooperation at UNDP, evoked a metaphor of “blood creation rather than blood infusion” to illustrate the trend. Rather than “infuse the blood” of Geneva, or Washington, or Wall Street ordered development plans, developing nations should “create blood,” that is, forge a unique, country-specific, locally-led growth path.

Following Zhou’s speech, SID Washington moderator Robert Berg chimed in with a tongue-in-cheek comment about the United States’ own circulatory system and its dependence on Chinese creditors.

“Well, at least the blood is staying in our body… for now,” Berg said.

The flow of development may chart a new course in the coming years, but the Society for International Development will be along for the ride, interpreting, moderating, and engaging all the way.

Education, Health Care, Technology