The literature on international development is generally pretty pessimistic, perhaps because the problems are so daunting and difficult to address, failures have such enormous consequences for poor people, and governments give this issue low priority. Recent books and articles have been particularly critical, as many writers have focused on the amount of money spent on development—some $2.7 trillion during the past forty years—with few results to show for the expenditures.
William Easterly’s the White Man’s Burden:Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and So Little Good blames the failure on utopian goals that are pursued through very complex top-down efforts that lack accountability. Lawrence Harrison’s the Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It From Itself argues that development fails for a lack of cultural changes that promote good governance, education, savings, and investments. Paul Collier’s the Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It suggests that the real crisis in development is the fifty or so nations, home to the billion poorest people of the world, that are caught up in a set of traps, such as civil war, dependence on the export of natural resources, and corrupt or ineffective government. Jeffrey Sach’s the End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time also focuses on the poorest one billion who live in areas that lack basic infrastructure, such as roads, electricity, and human capital from investments in health and education, that make it impossible for them to compete in labor markets.
While the diagnoses vary considerably, there is much agreement that there is an urgent need to better understand what works in development. What are the kinds of practical interventions that can make a difference in the lives of poor people, particularly the one billion who live on less than $1 a day and whose lives are cut short by malnutrition, poor health, infectious diseases, and violence? What can multilateral development institutions, foreign aid agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and individuals do to make a sustainable difference?
The BYU community is in a good position to make a significant contribution to answering these and related questions. Scholars across campus are engaged in a wide range of research projects aimed at, for example, understanding how poverty is defined in different cultures, what government policies most effectively promote economic growth, how the World Bank and other international aid agencies operate, how to promote good public health practices, how to increase yields from animals and crops, and a host of other issues.
“Suffering is increasing in the world today. People are hungry for something more beautiful, for something greater than people round about can give. There is a great hunger for God in the world today. Everywhere there is much suffering, but there is also great hunger for God and love for each other.”
Mother Teresa, Works of Love are Works of Peace, p. 163
Students from many disciplines are engaged in research projects and practical efforts to help reduce poverty, improve health and nutrition, and create opportunity. Engineering students are helping poor communities develop alternative energy sources, public health and nursing students work in clinics and health programs, business students teach micro-enterprise skills, sociology students help communities develop social capital and solve water shortage problems, animal and plant science students help farmers improve their productivity, and many others are involved in other projects. The International Field Studies program sends students around the world to pursue research projects and learn from local community groups and agencies operating in developing countries. The international development minor encourages students from a wide range of majors that share a common interest in and passion for development to bring their diverse skills together.
Over half a million women still die each year from treatable and preventable complications of pregnancy and childbirth. The odds that a woman will die from these causes in sub-Saharan Africa are 1 in 16 over the course of her lifetime, compared to 1 in 3,800 in the developed world.
Millennium Development Goals Report 2007 (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/pdf/mdg2007.pdf)
The Center for Economic Self-Reliance’s annual conference at BYU brings scholars and students together to learn about the latest research in development and how it can improve development practices, which is a great example of how to encourage development research and practice. How can we build on that innovative effort to bring academic and field research together in other fruitful ways, so research is informed more by practical experience and practical experience is more informed by research? How can we foster more productive research efforts that will be of greater use to government policy makers, NGOs, foundations, and others who are trying to figure out how to make development work?
Other universities have found that some kind of an institutional home for development helps facilitate these kinds of scholarly efforts. A development research institute at BYU could encourage scholars across campus to learn from each other, identify promising collaborative opportunities, facilitate funding for cross-cutting research, and help students locate and gain access to relevant research. As is true elsewhere, relatively few resources are available at BYU to help improve development theory and practice. That means we need to continually search for better ways of doing what we are doing to increase the likelihood that our efforts will make a difference to those around the world whose needs are so great.