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A Conversation with World Learning CEO, Development Expert, & Trustee Donald Steinberg

September 10, 2014

DonaldSteinbergIn Asia editor Alma Freeman sat down last month with The Asia Foundation’s new trustee, Donald Steinberg, president and CEO of World Learning, and former deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, White House Deputy Press Secretary, and U.S. ambassador to Angola. Steinberg, who has over 35 years of experience with government and nongovernmental organizations, discussed the biggest shifts in international development, the emergence of new donors, and why eliminating extreme poverty is an achievable goal for the next two decades.

What do you think are the biggest shifts in international development?

The single biggest shift is that the international community is more confident that we know how to encourage sustainable economic growth, but at the same time, we are more collaborative and humble. We recognize that development is not donor-driven anymore – it relies upon host countries taking control of their own development drives. We now know that successful development also involves the private sector putting resources into investment and social responsibility, and that it involves foundations and civil society organizations. The notion that the U.S government aid agency or any other aid agency dictates the terms is gone forever, and that’s a good thing. When you involve local partners you get ground truth, you get a sense of ownership, and you can avoid the mistakes we’ve made too frequently in the past.

There is also greater recognition that international development doesn’t just mean sustained economic growth, but needs to be reflected in growth that matters to people, growth that creates jobs, growth that results in better distributed wealth and improves people’s housing, healthcare, and education. I also think we’ve redefined who our partners and beneficiaries are. In the past, we cared about getting a certain per capita growth each year. Now we are more focused on reaching out to draw on the contributions and meet the needs of historically marginalized groups like women, people with disabilities, the LGBT community, and indigenous populations. We are in an era where local populations aren’t just beneficiaries, but are also planners and implementers.

Within this context, where are we going in terms of new, non-traditional donors like China and India?

The extent to which countries like China, India, Korea, Mexico, and Brazil are now engaged in development is very encouraging. They bring credibility and knowledge based on their own development efforts of how modern sustainable development actually occurs. They talk the same language with their partners in developing countries, and increasingly they’ve recognized that the global development community needs to work together. A moment that redefined what development is all about was the Busan Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2011, when China and India came forward and joined an international consensus around development. Following up on that, the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, including the meeting that recently took place in Mexico, again brought those countries under the tent.

The days where we would simply say that China’s foreign assistance is inconsistent with human rights are largely past. China is taking a more sophisticated approach, in part influenced by developments in Sudan. There, the Chinese saw that blindly supporting a government that does not have the best interest of the population at heart can backfire. China recognizes that solid economic growth that is well distributed and based on civil society engagement is in fact the way to go. I’m very intrigued with the new White Paper on foreign assistance that the Chinese just realized, because I think it officially reflects some of these attitudes. I’m also pleased that there are partnerships developing between established aid agencies and these new actors, such as USAID cooperation with India to address food security in Africa.

Issues of inequality are enormous in many Asian countries, and in some cases, this has contributed to a rise in protests, some violent.

Again, the key is making development matter for the population and not just achieving high GDP growth rates. For example, Egypt had a 6-8 percent growth rate for decades, but didn’t create jobs for its bulging population, nor did they achieve great improvements in health, housing, and education. Growth was badly distributed and subject to corruption and the result was that there was a social revolution. I think the leadership in China and India is very aware of that. At the same time, it’s important to recognize how much our collective efforts have achieved: from 1981 to 2008, some 800 million people globally were brought out of extreme poverty. This is a tremendous development.

There have been some exciting elections this year in India, Afghanistan, and Indonesia, where social media has played a big role in engaging voters and increasing transparency. What are your thoughts on this?

Having the capacity to prevent rumors and misinformation from undermining electoral processes is essential. I was involved in the process to end the civil war in Angola in the 1990s. The first step in the peace process in 1992 was to hold an election. Both the government and rebel movement mistrusted the electoral process but we did not have the mechanisms like quick counts to monitor as we do today. The initial counts from the urban centers that came in showed the government winning with 65 percent of the vote. The head of the rebel movement announced that it was a fraudulent election and civil war reemerged that last another two years and cost tens of thousands of lives. The final results actually showed that neither candidate won 50 percent, which would have meant a runoff. But because we didn’t have the social media and electoral technology that allowed us to do quick counts, civil war remerged.

I look at Indonesia now where there are more quick polls, more monitors in the field, and where an election expert has to be a technological wiz today. The work that organizations like The Asia Foundation and IFES are doing around the world is changing the way elections take place.

While the trend toward open data is on the rise, some governments are simultaneously closing in on civil society. What are your concerns here?

This is a tremendous challenge, and it’s not just in Asia. We are seeing governments all over the world cracking down on civil society, and it’s paradoxical because at the same time we are witnessing an explosion of social media, access to the internet, and the democratization of development. There are now 6.5 billion cellphones in the hands of citizens worldwide. There’s just no way that this can be turned back. So these governments that are attempting to close civil society space are on the wrong side of history and fighting a rear-guard action. In many cases, there are simply creating more instability when they could be driving the energy and commitment of civil society into productive channels. And I can assure you this isn’t a question of imposing Western values or beliefs on other countries. A cell phone is a culturally neutral instrument. The concepts of openness and citizen participation are not alien to Asia; they have in fact helped build strong, stable societies throughout the continent.

What are your thoughts on the growing youth population across the developing world?

There are two ways to look at this. We can speak of a “youth bulge,” which brings the image of a massive number of unemployed youth who see no way to contribute to their societies, who are frustrated, volatile, and subject to the siren songs of warlords, terrorists, crime kingpins, and human traffickers. I prefer to speak of a “demographic dividend” for societies with youthful population, in that you have a higher percentage of the society in the age groups of maximum productivity. Throughout Asia, the young demographics have been the result of substantial growth in production. The problem is that they need jobs, they need training, and they need a sense of ownership and commitment to their societies.

This ties into the work we do at World Learning, where our goal is to empower a new generation of global citizens to build peace, prosperity inclusion, and responsive institutions through education, exchange, and development. Our programs provides high school students with opportunities to travel abroad, college undergraduates to gain cross-cultural knowledge and understanding, and graduates students learn about sustainable development, peacebuilding, project management, and international education. It involves empowering individuals to contribute to their societies, and helping institutions to take full advantage of the talents that these people bring.

Going back to where our conversation began, we’re in a period of the most fundamental advances in development in human history. Working together, we have reduced infant mortality to the lowest rate it has ever been. Today, 7 million children die because of preventable diseases around the world, which is awful. When I started in this field it was twice that amount. Twenty years from today, if we do it right, that could be no more extreme poverty in the world. President Obama and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim have both pledged their full efforts to eliminate extreme poverty within the next two decades. Such a global mission can give purpose to people’s lives, it can give hopefulness. The goal is ambitious, audacious, aspirational, and achievable. Google has reportedly put aside money to build a museum of poverty in 2035 because they believe think that the only place where you’ll see poverty in 20 years is in a museum.


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InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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