The man so many thought would become the first gentleman of the United States, former President Bill Clinton, is fond of reminding us to focus on trendlines, not headlines. It’s sound advice, even if especially hard to follow these days. The analysis goes like this: headlines highlight terrorism, political conflict, every-man-for-himself corruption in business and government, and vacuous celebrity, consumerism and stereotypes. But look at the trendlines and you’ll see people getting healthier, societies turning freer and more inclusive, more kids going to school, and serious people — including many reading this now — rolling-up their sleeves to design social enterprises, advocacy campaigns and development initiatives that are improving lives.
It’s worth noting that we’re now closer to gender parity in education than at any time in modern history. Countries including Botswana, Nicaragua and Costa Rica have fully closed their enrollment gender gaps, and Nepal, Rwanda and Zimbabwe are 90 percent of the way there. Last year alone, Chad, Mozambique and Zambia launched plans to end child marriage, and Tanzania and Gambia outlawed the practice. While some countries have slid backwards politically, Myanmar elected its first civilian leader in five decades in a peaceful transfer of power. And world hunger is at its lowest point in 25 years.
Embedded in that analysis is a choice, a personal choice we must all make. It’s something I thought about over the holidays and I’ll come back to you with a question on this point in a moment.
But let’s not dismiss everything about those headlines. Amid the grim news, they also revealed deeper truths. Because in 2016 they showed more definitively than ever that the world is truly interconnected. News of a Tunisian street vendor self-immolating six years ago led to news of uprisings across the Arab world, including in Syria, which led to three years of news about refugees making the dangerous trek to Europe — which led last year to news of British voters choosing to leave the European Union and, at least in part, to news of American voters electing a candidate who promised strong borders, tough vetting of refugees and a law-and-order presidency. An oft-quoted axiom from a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is "all politics is local.” The headlines suggest it’s now the reverse: today, all politics is global.
For the global development community, this backlash to a more interconnected world has meant that the two single largest funders of our work — the U.S. and U.K. — will be led by inward-oriented conservative governments skeptical of international cooperation. As I write this, the world’s largest bilateral aid donor, USAID, has no nominee to lead it and not even a so-called landing team appointed to guide its transition, and DfID is led by longtime skeptic of foreign assistance, Priti Patel. Across Europe similar forces are at work. Many development leaders I meet these days look shellshocked.
But if we linger on the headlines a little longer, we also see some good news. 2016 saw the official declaration that malaria was eliminated in Sri Lanka, and the WHO announced malaria deaths are now down 60 percent since 2000 globally. Last year saw an unlikely, limping peace deal stumble across the finish line, ending a five decade civil war in Colombia and giving hope to over 1 million displaced people that they might yet make it home. This was also the year we awoke to learn that the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative — a philanthropic endeavor that will likely grow to the scale of the Gates Foundation — aims to end disease this century. The World Bank took a big step forward in supporting refugees with its new financing facility. And millions more people, including many women in poor societies, now have access to banking services via their cell phones, enabling them to borrow and save for education and health care investments.
Looking across our coverage in 2016, it’s clear to me that those trendlines I mentioned at the outset are real and happening now. At Devex World, our first global conference this past June, we heard from Hello Tractor, an Uber-like service bringing tractor-sharing to Nigerian smallholder farmers; we learned how even big corporations such as Cargill are becoming global development players in their own right, helping farmers improve their yields and sell to a global market; and we saw up close how NGOs such as PATH are saving lives with low-tech innovations, including one that uses a car battery and just a handful of salt to make chlorine that cleans drinking water.
You can see the same progression in the more than 82,000 job, grant, and tender opportunities we published in 2016 — 16 percent more opportunities than 2015. The diversity of funding organizations is growing: We published our first opportunities from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Tent Foundation. More than ever development agencies are seeking partners who understand how to build sustainable models that will outlive a project timeline. You can see the same currents in the fast-growing requests our recruitment team gets for talent that can operate in an increasingly data-driven, results-oriented global development community, and in the many new graduate programs for development professionals advertised on our pages.
Those trendlines point to one crucial thing: global development is working. We know this and have the data to prove it. Investing in healthier people and societies, in a cleaner more stable planet, in more open and inclusive democracies pays off. That’s why global development is a growing field, why billionaire philanthropists, crowdfunded social enterprises, major corporations, and emerging economic powers are all piling in. That’s why students and young professionals around the world are lining up for a career that makes an impact. So here’s the question: in an environment of political headwinds, of British tabloids questioning the fundamentals of what we do, should we duck our heads and go about our work quietly? Should we, as many in Washington, D.C., have suggested of late, try to fly under the radar of a new administration?
It’s something to think about as we take stock of all we accomplished in 2016 — all the thousands of NGOs large and small, the private sector initiatives, the government and donor agencies, the foundations and institutions that make up the Devex community. If you focus on the big picture, it’s clear that this community — made up of over 1 million professionals that we have the pleasure to serve at Devex — is on the right side of history. So, and this might sound strange coming from an editor-in-chief, ignore the headlines and take the time to recommit to the important work you do. If you haven’t already, take the time to join your community on Devex. And, now in 2017, remember that you have every reason to stand tall and to proudly and firmly make your case. We don’t duck. Happy holidays.
Raj Kumar is the founding president and editor-in-chief of Devex, the media platform for the global development community. A social entrepreneur and digital media executive, he chairs the Humanitarian Council of the World Economic Forum and is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative and the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community.
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