No country has escaped the setbacks caused by the pandemic, but the impact on low- and middle-income countries is proving far worse. Tens of millions of people are being forced back into extreme poverty. With the disruption of supply chains, transnational corporations are rethinking investments in clothing and other light manufacturing — sectors that have traditionally acted as a key rung up the development ladder.
The impact could last for many years. Women who live in rural areas of low-income countries are particularly marginalized and often lack access to education and livelihoods. While international development organizations have made in-roads in this area, the devastation wrought by the pandemic will take many years to repair. Girls in low-income countries were just starting to make progress in obtaining an education in isolated, traditional societies. Much of that education is being delayed or ending as children enter the workforce to try to help their families.
Yet there is hope. We know what works to enable sustainable development and help people lift themselves from poverty. That is not to say it is easy. Far from it. There are structural, political and business factors that prevent the investment and other initiatives necessary to catalyze lasting change, but the knowledge is there. As the Biden administration works to build a post-pandemic environment that stabilizes America’s global status, here are lessons it can apply to international development.
American leadership is important. Both directly and indirectly, the U.S. has led and sustained the global economic development agenda for the past 70 years. There have been notable successes, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). This initiative is nearly two decades old. Many are unaware it is still the centerpiece of the effort to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS around the world. PEPFAR has saved more than 20 million lives and prevented millions of HIV infections in more than 50 countries. This multi-billion program also has enabled millions of people to continue to work and contribute to their communities, helping promote economic growth, food security and poverty reduction. Since much of the $85 billion spent to date was invested in building health care capacity and infrastructure, this far-sighted program continues to play a major role in driving sustainable economic development even beyond the health sector.
The U.S. can once again mobilize the public and private sectors to help poor communities help themselves as COVID-19 transitions from an acute to a chronic concern. Long after the virus has been contained, the evermore intense effects of climate change will continue to harm communities and entire countries. Low- and middle-income countries are still largely agricultural. Drought, floods and other extreme weather events destroy economic capacity and force people to flee their homes, often to other countries also affected by climate change. Preparing for and managing virus outbreaks must remain a priority, but simultaneously, managing and mitigating climate change must stay high on the agenda.
Public and private development organizations must integrate resilience to climate change in all decisions and programs. This includes food production, water, sanitation and health care. International assistance needs to help communities implement agricultural techniques that not only increase output but protect the environment and build resilience to climate change-related disasters. These agricultural techniques and disaster risk reduction strategies are already in use around the world but need to be scaled up and disseminated in hard-to-reach communities.
More globalization. At its base, globalization is the integration of economic activity around the world. It has its downsides — in some cases exacerbating environmental degradation and economic and social inequality. Nevertheless, the sharing of ideas, goods, services and capital has resulted in the largest reduction in poverty in history.
Low-income countries need more investment — especially in sustainable agriculture and clean energy — more new ideas and more help building institutions based on the rule of law and accountability to citizens. These investments not only reduce poverty and raise living standards. They also mitigate the “push factors” that lead to out-migration.
We and our local partners have been implementing savings and credit programs in remote, isolated rural communities that do not have access to banks. Farmers contribute small amounts each month and take out small loans at low or no interest. They invest in greenhouses, better seeds and other methods to increase agricultural output, start small businesses, pay children’s school fees and more. Profits are reinvested in the savings and credit group, enabling others to take loans to increase agricultural output and profit and expand to other participants. In Kenya, savings and credit groups have accumulated enough capital to qualify for registration as cooperative banks. In Guatemala and Haiti, farmers who participate in these programs remain in their communities and encourage others to do the same. Increased access to capital — from within and without — is the necessary component to sustainable development.
Long-term commitment. The U.S. and other high-income countries have faced significant challenges over the past two decades that have shaken faith in institutions and dimmed their attraction on the global stage. Nevertheless, the U.S. and its democratic allies will continue to hold up and promote individual rights, limited and accountable government, rule of law, multiculturalism and the other values that undergird our societies.
In practice, this means helping communities and countries build on what is already working in their particular contexts and helping to develop capacities of community members. Training needs to focus on both technical and leadership skills and must prioritize women and youths. Unless the whole community is working together and women have access to savings and credit, the changes will not be sustainable. Insuring sustainable change takes time.
We work with communities for a minimum of eight years, sometimes extending to 10 years. This long-term strategy is the only way to ensure that human capital investment in these communities will be sustained and they will develop the capacity to improve on their own. Real change built on improved knowledge and skills, capital accumulation and integration with government policies is difficult if not impossible to measure through short-term metrics. Rather, long-term assessments of improvements in income, health, education, social inclusion and empowerment, governance and other factors will add up to a better way of life. That takes time.
Women and girls are key. It took time to get there, but now it is widely accepted that women are central to the development process. Take the example of Laxmi B.K., who lives in the rural village of Sindhupalchok in Nepal. Laxmi is a member of the Dalit (“untouchable”) community.
A few years ago, Laxmi was invited to a community-based training. She immediately saw the possibilities to change her life and wanted to learn and do more. So Laxmi joined a savings and credit group and took every class on offer — water management, vermi composting, making organic pesticides, basic bookkeeping, women’s health and more. After the training sessions, Laxmi planted a kitchen garden — vegetables such as chilis, tomatoes, cowpeas, beans, onions and broad leaf. With encouragement from her community group, Laxmi transitioned to the commercial level, buying additional land and investing in better implements to increase output and productivity. Now Laxmi earns hundreds of dollars a month from her vegetable sales. She no longer simply “grows vegetables” in her kitchen garden. Laxmi runs a profitable business.
After assuming leadership of it, Laxmi registered her community development group with the municipal and tax offices. The group is now able to apply for publicly available health care and other funds. Laxmi’s success has changed her relationship with her spouse, other men in her village and members of other castes. They now support her leadership efforts that bring public resources to her village.
There are millions of Laxmis in low-income countries. They just need the kind of opportunities and support that lead to this kind of success story.
The modern global order has been through some tough times. The current period of pandemic, economic stress, extreme weather events and surging authoritarianism may be the toughest in a century. That only means it is time to work that much harder — and smarter — to continue the tremendous improvements in living standards and freedom achieved over the past 70 years. It is time to recommit to globalization and investing in proven global solutions.
Kate Schecter is the president and CEO of World Neighbors, based in Oklahoma City.
This article originally appeared on oklahoman.com on November 8, 2021