Why we shouldn't be working ourselves out of a job

Secondary school students at the Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda. FHI 360 CEO Patrick Fine explains why now is the time to recognize that human development challenges will exist as long as there are humans. Photo by: Stephen Luke / CC BY

Recently, I heard the head of a nonprofit organization that works in Africa declare that the goal of his organization is to work itself out of a job.

“With your support now,” he assured the audience, “in just a few years, our help won’t be needed.”

This is an old adage among development workers and one that is especially popular with some funders, such as the U.S. Congress, who think of foreign assistance as global philanthropy to provide a short-term hand up — not a hand out.

With this view goes the belief that if we just do a good job, then prosperous, well-governed communities will quickly take root and eliminate the need for further assistance. After all, that’s what happened in South Korea. Unfortunately, success in one country does not predict success in another, and all the evidence on social and economic development tells us we still have a long row to hoe.

If you date the modern era of international development to the emergence of the post-World War II world order and the end of European colonialism in the late 1950s, then we’ve been trying to work ourselves out of a job for more than 60 years.

Maybe it’s time to accept that ending extreme poverty by promoting inclusive political and economic institutions, rule of law and respect for human rights is not simply a matter of following the correct blueprint, finding the right solution or technology, or building enough capacity so “they can do it themselves.”

Changing economic and sociocultural norms and behaviors, especially those that govern power relationships among different groups in a society, cannot be reduced to a set of discrete tasks (in health, education, business development, civil society strengthening, etc.) that, once completed, will stand like a stone wall against the tides of change. Human history is full of examples of societies that flourished and then regressed or collapsed as a result of natural disaster, external conflict or internal upheaval.

Moreover, in a world where the pace of change requires constant adaptation and lifelong learning, the whole notion of sustainable development as an anchor concept in the development lexicon becomes an oxymoron. Quite literally, in a world of constant change, our work is never done.

“If you date the modern era of international development to the emergence of the post-World War II world order and the end of European colonialism in the late 1950s, then we’ve been trying to work ourselves out of a job for more than 60 years.”

— Patrick Fine, chief executive officer at FHI 360

Sixty-plus years of development has produced tremendous progress in decreasing poverty and raising living standards: Fewer people are starving; more children are in school; infant and child mortality has been cut in half; the toll from plagues such as malaria, polio and HIV and AIDS has been reduced; and perhaps most significantly of all, women and girls have more opportunities in more societies than ever before. But, in spite of these achievements — and to a significant extent because of them — the scale and complexity of the development challenges we face is growing, not fading. The interconnected nature of our globalized world now compels us to help those in need, both as a moral imperative and out of base self-interest.

It is time to recognize that human development challenges will exist as long as there are humans. Nor are these challenges confined to low-income countries. The United States, one of the most affluent and technologically advanced societies in history, devotes tremendous resources to fighting poverty and injustice, building inclusive institutions and helping communities cope with rapid social and economic change. At FHI 360, our work in the United States is every bit as demanding as it is anywhere else in the world. We need to dispense with the fiction that “developed” countries have the answers and our task is simply to export them.

Instead of searching for illusive solutions to finish the job so we can disengage, we should be building resilient institutions that can take on the increasingly complex and sophisticated challenges brought on by population growth, climate change and disruptive technologies that have accelerated the pace of change beyond anything we have ever experienced or imagined.

I see several key ingredients to building a shared future of more prosperous, stable societies:

1. Partnerships for global engagement.

Solving the complex problems confronting us requires transferring ideas, information and methods across public, private and nonprofit organizations around the world. We need to build trust among national and international organizations and promote genuine partnerships where knowledge flows in both directions. This is essential to the concept of universality in the SDGs, which recognizes that human development challenges are not confined to lower-income countries and donor nations are not the exclusive source of effective solutions.

2. Co-creating solutions.

The idea of engaging communities and stakeholders in finding solutions and fashioning programs that affect them is an old one. Paulo Freire’s advocacy for participatory research and action in the 1970s is an early example of co-creation. But there is a big difference. Today we have a vastly expanded inventory of experience and tools and methods for co-creation, many drawn from the commercial IT revolution that has transformed how we live our lives.

Co-creation requires new flexible funding mechanisms that build in rapid feedback loops from participants and allow for adapting program work plans and activities to incorporate local content and relevant, real-time information.

3. Knowledge sharing.

We must eschew the notion that the transfer of resources, knowledge and technology across borders, and the partnerships that enable the dissemination of innovation, means creating dependency. Rather, such exchanges — including sharing and jointly analyzing our successes and failures, expanding access to digital tools, building capacity to use new tools and methods, and coming together to share ideas and build trust — are the foundation stones for resilient, thriving communities of practice and for creating platforms for continuous adaption and learning.

Building resilience is a long-term endeavor that requires ongoing commitment. It is not an end state. At FHI 360, we are not trying to work ourselves out of a job, because we understand that whether we are helping our partners respond to pandemic health threats, eliminate extreme poverty or uphold basic rights, tackling the complex challenges of human development requires strong, capable, global, civil society actors.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Patrick Fine

    Patrick Fine is the chief executive officer of FHI 360. Prior to joining the organization, he served as the vice president for compact operations at the Millennium Challenge Corp. He was also the senior vice president of the Global Learning Group at the Academy for Educational Development from 2006 to 2010.