EWB xChange Conference: Four Questions for Global Development

Lloyd Axworthy

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, speaking at the EWB xChange Conference in January 2016. Photo credit: @clarkjasone

One of the first things I look forward to in every new year is the latest installment of international development conferences hosted by Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to addressing global poverty through systems change. Every January, EWB convenes roughly 700 student and professional delegates from across Canada (and increasingly, around the world) to explore social justice issues and challenge conventional paradigms for global development. For me, each conference represents a valuable opportunity to take stock of the latest thinking and initiatives in the development field, and to push myself to think harder about the roles we play as citizens in a complex, ever-changing world.

The latest EWB conference, held earlier this month in Hamilton, Ontario, and dubbed “EWB xChange”, hosted exchanges between members of Canada’s civil society, government, academic, and private sector in addition to a delegation of social change leaders from sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, CARE Canada’s CEO Gillian Barth and former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy delivered powerful keynotes, while workshops on topics ranging from social entrepreneurship to our evolving understanding of sustainability also had an impact on how I think about global development.

As with any good discussion, I always leave EWB conferences with more questions than answers. So, to summarize some of the current discussions I was exposed to, and hopefully help spark a fruitful conversation on this blog, here are four of the most pressing questions that have lingered in my mind in the days after the conference:

1. How can gender equality be made a central part of development work?

Over the past two decades, gender equality has come at or near the forefront of international development discussions. In recent writings, gender has been used to highlight how men and women experience conflict differently, how women often play the most important role in improving agricultural productivity in developing countries, and the extra risks that women migrants face compared to their male counterparts. Gender equality is also explicitly enshrined as one of the United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals (#5).

But how can international development work be done in such a way that promotes gender equality? In her keynote speech, CARE Canada CEO Gillian Barth highlighted the pressing need for making gender a central part of all development work. She optimistically noted a recent study by the consultants McKinsey & Company, which estimated that a “realistic” scenario, in which each country adopted the best-case gender policies in their region by 2025, could boost the world gross domestic product by 26 percent. However, the way that international development is often conducted may serve to reinforce gender inequality. For example, in a world that’s increasingly marked by climate and migration disasters, a recent CARE project found that women and girls usually suffer from many more risks than men and boys in humanitarian relief. In Barth’s words, “Women are the last to leave a disaster area and the first to return – but women’s needs are often the last to be met by disaster relief.” In fact, this is so common that many of the women and girls fleeing humanitarian disasters in CARE’s study viewed a crowded refugee camp as more dangerous than the initial disaster zone, in light of the heightened risks of assault, HIV, and early pregnancy.

CARE village savings and loans

A CARE-supported village savings and loan group.

The humanitarian relief example is just one case of how well-intentioned development work may risk further entrenching gender power imbalances, if it’s not explicitly a part of the work. CARE has been making gender a central part of their work in several ways, such as setting up all-women savings and loans groups in the West African nation of Niger, which has allowed women to not only gain financial skills, but also break out of the isolation that their traditional homebound roles impose. Interestingly, gender-based development doesn’t always have to focus on women as change agents. Barth noted another program that targeted the high rate of sexual violence in the Balkans by focusing on changing the definition of manhood among young men, as they were found to actually have higher levels of sexual education than women in the region.

In 2016, Barth concluded, gender-based development must become business as usual. Yet,  the most effective way to do this is not always clear. She offered three guidelines for development practitioners: (1) Ensure that the monitoring data of a development project is disaggregated by gender, to see what the relative impact is on women and girls; (2) Be explicit about who needs to lead societal change to promote gender equality (it may be men); and (3) Train your own staff to better understand how development looks different for different genders.

2. Will the new Sustainable Development Goals lead to contradictions in pursuing global development?

In September 2015, the United Nations released a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), negotiated and approved by all member countries, to guide the world’s development efforts over the next 15 years. The SDGs replace the previous Millennium Development Goals, and represent several significant shifts from the previous development goals. For example, the SDGs embrace the concept of universality – i.e. that each country has responsibilities for achieving sustainable development, not just the traditionally poor countries. As well, the SDGs seek to incorporate a fuller understanding of what constitutes the “good life” beyond just material wealth, and therefore include goals around protecting the environment and promoting healthy lifestyles.

Because of these shifts, the SDGs have started to generate a lot of discussion around how they will change patterns of global development. Gillian Barth and Lloyd Axworthy both lauded their universality and holistic understanding of development in their keynotes, yet it’s unclear how all the goals can be achieved over the same time period, or if they even may be working at cross-purposes. Take India as an example. The South Asian country is now often cited  as the “next frontier” for development, as over 20 percent of its population, or 275 million people, live under $1.25 per day, and 250 million people don’t have access to electricity. Universal access to energy is one of the SDGs (#7), yet India plans on meeting much of that demand by significantly increasing the number of coal plants, more than doubling the amount of coal that the U.S. plans to take offline. That makes achieving SDG 13 – taking urgent action on climate change – quite difficult to achieve. Of course, much of the electricity gap in the country could be met by renewable energy, but that could require more time to figure out how to integrate new technology in a power system that was designed to burn coal.

india coal

Source: Reuters

Even the scenario painted in the McKinsey study cited above presents some contradictions. Gender equality is clearly an important part of the SDGs, but if global annual GDP was increased by 26 percent in today’s economy, that would almost surely have disastrous ramifications for the environmentally-focused SDGs (even as we hopefully develop opportunities for economic growth that are less environmentally damaging).

The development community hasn’t yet fully explored the potential tradeoffs and contradictions inherent in the SDGs, but at some point, it may be necessary to start laying out a clearer road map for how – and when – progress on each of the goals can proceed in the context of work on every other goal.

3. Who gets to be a “social entrepreneur”? What are the potential pitfalls of this model of development?

One of the most interesting discussions at EWB xChange was a critical look at the role of social entrepreneurship. This category of development has increased in popularity in recent years, and refers to businesses that attempt to fill a societal need through a for-profit model (as opposed to pure non-profit work, or official government assistance). If a need can be met through a profit-seeking venture, the thinking goes, that solution will likely be self-sustaining and not dependent on annual government or donor budgets. For example, a social entrepreneur might perceive an opportunity to improve agricultural productivity in a developing country through the use of modern technology, and serve as a low-cost lender of the technology to farmers who otherwise couldn’t afford to buy it on their own. This concept has especially gained traction in the business world, as it provides an opportunity to show how capitalism can lead to societal good through the application of start-up techniques and business practices.

EWB has invested in several social enterprises, or ventures, in the past 3-4 years, and indeed, there are several good reasons to do so. Besides the self-sustaining nature of successful enterprises, this model allows groups like EWB to maximize the impact of its resources – by investing a relatively small amount of initial seed money to get the venture going and attract other funders, the group can support several initiatives for the cost of fully funding a single non-profit project. Additionally, social enterprises tend to be more nimble to adapt and grow, an important advantage in developing country contexts, whereas government- and donor-funded projects usually involve more onerous monitoring and evaluation, and therefore move more slowly.

Yet, there are potential risks to this model of development. A very illuminating panel of four social entrepreneurs discussed the barriers to entry for social entrepreneurship. By definition, social entrepreneurs need access to capital, access to a mentoring and support network, and the freedom to take risks and be ok with not making money for an extended period of time. These are all potentially significant barriers for the global poor, and as a result, social entrepreneurs (and their approaches to societal problems) tend to come from relatively wealthy, powerful classes – at least compared to the societies in which they operate.

Another challenge is that entrepreneurs inherently seek to grow and profit by “disrupting” existing patterns and economies. That ultimately may be an overall benefit to society, but also risks hurting other individuals and groups who rely on the traditional economy, including local community businesses. (In the agricultural technology example, one could imagine a local village banker who could be put out of business by a new technology-lending enterprise.)  Again, it doesn’t negate the potential good of social enterprises, but the potential pitfalls of this model should be more closely examined – especially as international development becomes increasingly privatized.


4. We have supposedly become more sophisticated about development over the years, but are we truly moving the needle on global inequality?

Time and time again at EWB xChange, I heard examples of how the international development community has become smarter at addressing global poverty issues in a more sustainable manner. This is in contrast to a perceived “dark age” of development in the 1980s and early 1990s, where well-intentioned campaigns e.g. sponsoring an African child, or dumping free rice in undernourished populations turned out to be unsustainable, or even counterproductive to the development of local economies. CARE’s Gillian Barth spoke of her organization’s shift towards seeing all people as “agents of change, rather than subjects of change”. Former Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy noted the shift from seeing nation-states as masters of their own castles to the idea that the world community is responsible for protecting civilians from government harm. Even EWB itself often talks of its journey from building water wells in order to increase access to clean water (only to see them break down a few months later), to now working with community partners to develop a locally-run system for building, tracking, and maintaining water wells.

stock exchange

Credit: Flickr; thetaxhaven

These are all significant shifts that have reverberated throughout the development community, and should make development more effective, inclusive, and sustainable. Yet, by some measures, relatively little progress seems to have been made on global inequality throughout these years. A commonly-cited metric is called the GINI index, which measures how dispersed incomes are within a country; essentially, the higher the index, the more “unequal” a society is (on a scale from 0 to 100). By this measure, global income inequality has actually decreased slightly since the late 1980s, from 72 in 1988 to 67 in 2011. But even this modest drop may still be underestimating the current state of global inequality, as the index struggles to capture the total assets of the world’s super-rich, which are often sheltered in tax havens. Perhaps even more significantly, while the GINI index shows a slight decline across  countries over time, it has actually increased within many countries as middle classes “hollow out”.

This suggests that the international development community still has some learning to do in figuring out how to most effectively tackle issues of inequality – and even ensuring that its own work doesn’t contribute to greater inequality within countries. What will be the next paradigm required to truly tackle global inequality? The answer may involve broadening the concept of “development work” through a greater focus on advocating for government policies that better share the wealth generated by economic elites, or even more fundamental reform of economic markets. In any event, that would be an interesting subject for the next round of international development conferences.



2 thoughts on “EWB xChange Conference: Four Questions for Global Development

  1. Great and thought-provoking post, as usual. I absolutely agree these are up there among the most pressing questions in development right now. A couple of responses:
    On gender: 1) I find it so depressing when people use the ‘increasing GDP’ carrot to argue for women’s empowerment and gender equality – as if the intrinsic rights and justice arguments weren’t enough; 2) I think a major emerging issue in improving women’s rights, livelihoods, status and wellbeing is tackling their heavy and unequal burden of unpaid care work. (Note that this made it into SDG 5 as a target, although couched in some slightly evasive language).
    And on inequality – it has been really heartening to see such a huge upsurge in concern and outrage about inequality in recent years, and the inclusion of a stand-alone goal on reducing inequality in the SDGs is a real milestone. But the obvious solutions (e.g. redistribution, cracking down on tax havens) remain politically unpalatable in many contexts, even though these measures are also essential to find the resources to tackle poverty while also cutting carbon emissions, as we can’t rely on relentless GDP growth and stay within planetary boundaries. Absolutely the development community needs to embrace economic inequality as a ‘development issue’ – especially as evidence increasingly shows that anti-poverty measures are much more effective in more equal societies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kate for the insights! I think that’s a very good point that the rationale for gender equality promotion should be rights-based and not as a means to achieve other goals, e.g. increasing GDP. Obviously, I don’t think Gillian Barth thinks of gender equality in those terms when she brings up the McKinsey study, but I can see the danger in inadvertently reducing gender rights to an economic instrument when citing that example as a reason to promote equality.

      Regarding the recognition of unpaid care work, that would be a very transformative and important step! Are there any good examples of policy ideas (or perhaps even implemented policies) along those lines? I’m broadly familiar with the concept and magnitude of unrecognized work that is generally done by women, but less familiar with how governments can help gain proper recognition and pay for it.

      And thanks for the keen observation on the long fight against inequality. It does seem to be a tough nut to crack politically, though I wonder if we started reaching a tipping point with the financial crisis in 2008-2009. As a complete non-expert, it certainly seems like the discussion inequality and the societal, economic, and political risks it brings have started to enter the mainstream.


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