Designing for Impact Take II

Lisa Jordan, Executive Director of the Bernard van Leer Foundation

By Lisa Jordan, Executive Director, 5 October 2012

I sometimes feel you can learn the most about the world by talking to cab drivers. At least they seem to be the ones on my travels that cut to the core of issues. On my last trip a cab driver said to me, 'I should not be driving a cab in New York City.' He is right. He is from the Niger Delta in Nigeria. And he drives a cab because at home in the Delta there is nothing but gas flares, polluted water and war, fuelled by oil deposits. Basically, no future for him or his children. He blames his government, but oil is poison no matter where it is found. I suspect if he went to Louisiana he would find it just like home.

After nine days of poverty discussions in New York, first within the Clinton Global Initiative, then with the new head of the World Bank, and subsequently with 47 international education philanthropists, the chat with the cabbie was both sobering and illustrative. Nine days of hoopla over innovative products that increase farmer’s yields, which feed starving children, that allow the hearing impaired to hear and deliver vaccines in hard to reach places. Nine days of cooperative agreements amongst foundations to get the evidence right, to develop learning metrics, to cooperate in order to increase impact. Nine days of innovation, evidence and empowerment – most especially for women and girls.

Yet also nine days of very little conversation about corruption in governments, usury rates in the micro-finance field, markets that favour the middlemen, violence fuelled by resources, and land grabs. These underlying issues were barely mentioned, let alone tackled. The atmosphere in New York was one of such overwhelming optimistim that you could almost forget that the poorest in our world are unlikely to be able to buy their way out of poverty (because they are poor!); that markets require good governance to work; that corruption is a big reason why women and girls are continually subjugated to exclusion; that the poor lack access to vital goods because governments are not interested in serving the poor; that violence and fear cripple that capacity of children to learn and because of that the intergenerational poverty cycle is perpetuated.

One ride in a taxi, one small conversation with a guy who is driving a cab, and all those cool apps, the baby incubators which keeps premature babies alive for only $30 dollars, the peanut-butter putty with a full nutritional punch for the starving, the hand pump that increases yields all seemed like products. These innovations to fight poverty are fantastic. But they all require an ecosystem, otherwise known as a market, in which certain things are predictable. Markets need three things: regulation, good governance; and, not in the least, a strong civil society to keep both market and governments working for everyone, not just the lucky few. The main problem in places like the Niger Delta is not the lack of opportunity for the poor, or the absence of products that makes it possible for people to hear, see or increase their yields. The main problems are oppression and exploitation of natural resources. These problems cannot be fixed at the retail level. This poverty is by design.

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