The next few years aren’t likely to be flush with foreign aid investments from the United States. Earlier this month, Republicans in the House released a bill that slashed funding for the World Bank in half, and President Trump’s budget also proposed radical cuts to U.S. foreign aid spending. At the same time, the European Union and its member states took a step forward by agreeing to a new development agenda that pledges to incorporate more innovative approaches for development financing. As the U.S. takes an isolationist turn, it is the EU’s moment to lead the charge towards the international community’s long-term Sustainable Development Goals.
Innovation in the global development space is important to take seriously, and a real opportunity exists for the EU. To be sure, every year, hundreds of billions of dollars are invested in efforts spent on projects that save lives, improve well-being, and help to put countries on more promising, peaceful paths. But we know that some international development work simply doesn’t “stick” as it might. We’ve all learned of projects in countries ranging from Haiti to Afghanistan that prove unsustainable, poorly matched with the needs and values of local people, or financially wasteful.
To complement effective approaches for delivering aid, the EU should consider elevating a strategy centered on developing local leadership capacity in communities grappling with complex, entrenched challenges. To be clear, the term leadership as we use it here doesn’t necessarily mean an individual positioned at the top of the hierarchy in government or business. Leadership is defined by actions that are oriented towards improving the well-being of the community, and it can come from anyone.
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Today, the dominant approach to foreign aid is largely focused on outside experts replicating research-based, data-driven interventions in communities, though often there is little evidence of these interventions’ impact across diverse contexts.
If we can identify effective ways to enable people from local communities to access the resources, support and opportunity they need to exercise leadership, and invest in helping them become familiar with the evidence about what’s working in other contexts, they can drive towards solutions to the social and economic challenges that fit their unique contexts.
Examples from around the world bring to life the potential of this approach.
Enseña Chile, an 8-year-old organization that recruits outstanding graduates to commit two years to teach in their marginalized communities, works to develop leadership among those alumni who complete the program along three tracks: School leadership, policymaking and social entrepreneurship. Groups of alumni have already founded path-breaking new schools, formed a policy working group to elevate educational goals important to disadvantaged communities, and launched a new teacher training program. Without the leadership pathway that Enseña Chile provides — including classroom experience, community immersion and professional development — it’s unlikely that these and other program alumni would have developed the skills and sense of purpose required to tackle entrenched social challenges that limit opportunity, educational equity, and economic growth.
Leadership development shouldn’t just start with young adults. If the world’s children are going to have the ability to thrive when they grow up, not to mention work to solve the incredible global challenges they’ll soon inherit, we need to start developing leaders much earlier.
Schools such as the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India, are developing students as empathetic, collaborative leaders. ALA identifies teens from all across Africa with leadership potential, an entrepreneurial spirit and a record of community service. After graduating, ALA supports these young leaders throughout their lives, through ongoing leadership development, helping them access internships and careers, and introducing them to high-impact networks that can support their efforts to create meaningful change.
The Riverside School starts developing student leadership from a very young age. Alongside studying traditional subjects, students are exposed to problems in their community and expected to work together to develop solutions. From talking with adults about the harms of child labor, to carrying out house-to-house recycling campaigns, to starting a program to teach parents who are illiterate to read and write, students at Riverside develop a deep sense of empathy and learn that they have the power to lead change in the world around them.
Without leadership pathways like these, thousands of changemakers might remain on the sidelines, their potential for leadership going untapped.
But because there are currently so few of these pathways, we’re depriving the world of countless future leaders who could help build a better future for themselves and all of us.
Done right, investments in local leaders almost certainly represent the largest opportunity we have to make sustainable progress at a significantly larger scale than we’re seeing today. The global development community should step up, and focus on finding and funding innovative new ways to develop many more of them.
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