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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reaching The Millennium Development Goals

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Bono, the lead singer for the band U2, has spoken up. Oxford professor, Paul Collier, has shared his wisdom. Perhaps now is the time for a former Third World project manager to say something about the Millennium Development Goals.

To begin humbly, I am not a rock star or a college professor, I am a business owner, manager, and a commercial photographer. Cumulatively, I worked for six years on overseas aid projects in some very poor places. There are many people with more experience, more degrees, and more fame already talking about how wealthy nations can reach out and lift up the poorest people. Whenever possible, I listen carefully to the suggestions made by these people. However I also look closely at the existing processes already in place. In addition, I look at what is not happening, at the wasted opportunities that litter the landscape in all parts of the world.

To those unfamiliar with the effort, the Millennium Development Goals are eight concrete goals for international development. These goals are:
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality
5. Improve maternal health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
8. Develop a global partnership for development

I am not going to address each one individually, I think most of them are pretty easy for the average person to understand.

What I am going to offer are some very concrete suggestions for achieving these goals that all nations can implement quickly.

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PUT PEOPLE IN ALL NATIONS BACK TO WORK
When I look closely at the community where I live now, in the United States, I see many intelligent, educated, and strong people being paid to doing nothing. Some are recently unemployed as a result of the recent economic downturn. Others are going to jobs at businesses that are, frankly, not doing much business. Others are in so-called "early retirement." Some of the them are technically disabled, but that is only because they are unable to perform their prior jobs, they can and do want to get back in the work force in some capacity.

When I talk to these people about their situations not a one of them wants to continue sitting at home watching television. They are tired of filling the bird feeders, reading the newspapers, or waiting for a customer to come sit at their tables. They all want to get back to work, real work. As I understand it, there are millions of people in this same situation, in wealthy, developed nations all over the planet.

In the meantime there are millions of people waking early each morning in impoverished nations with no work and few possibilities for employment.

WHERE ARE THE ROADBLOCKS?

What is preventing us from pairing up these two massive groups of idle humans?

When I first volunteered to work on a USDA farming project in Puerto Rico in the late 1970s I requested an application, completed the application, and received an assignment, in less than six weeks. I was on-site less than two months after expressing an interest in working overseas. In the mid-1980s I applied and interviewed to manage a project in Bihar, India and was at the project site in less than a month. It took about two months for the background check and reference checks that landed me in Haiti several years after that.

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I recently looked into the possibility of serving as a project manager in the Peace Corps or possibly the United Nations. The chances that those organizations could have me serving on a project in less than 8 months were zero. The application process alone was nearly beyond comprehension and I am a college-educated business professional, complete with references and plenty of verifiable skills and experience. Since I last served overseas, bureaucracy and fear has almost completely strangled the application process for those willing to manage projects in the Third World.

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(click photo to learn more about Haiti)

I realize that governments and private aid organizations have grown wary of sending people from Western nations into areas of dire poverty and disease. I understand that, just like the hiring process for most major corporations and governments, lawyers have introduced hundreds of safeguards and rules to keep out the risky people. However, all these organizations also have the benefit of advanced computer systems, telecommunications, and the Internet to use to scope out potential applications. Disease prevention, vaccinations, and methods of personal hygiene have never been more advanced than they are now. Training programs are computer-based or held in state-of-the-art facilities and should be used to accelerate the process of putting "boots on the ground."

We need to accelerate the process of putting qualified people in place.

At every project site where I worked I was usually the lone overseas aid worker. I was taught that the most effective way to introduce lasting change in a community was to involve the young and talented people already living in that community. My budgets were extremely slim, I was taught to educate the wealthier people in the places where I served. When made aware of the situations their countrymen face, many people that can afford to help will do so. Yes, there are some wealthy people in Haiti and India, and even Africa, so I understand. There are also people from those nations working in other parts of the world. We need to enlist their aid with better communication about the specific needs.

ESTABLISH LARGER FORUMS FOR KNOWLEDGE SHARING

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It was not especially hard for me to get primary schools going, to get a new pump installed at the local well. It was a little tougher to conduct the public health surveys and establish a medical clinic. It was not hard to begin adult education training but it was tougher to introduce new ways of farming or get workshops built. In each case I combined my own experience with answers that smart people provided by phone, mail, and later, e-mail.

Many of the under-employed, unemployed, and disabled people I mentioned in the beginning of this essay could serve overseas without even leaving home. College professors and smart business people could contribute from the comfort of their existing offices, just by answering important questions from the people serving overseas. These collaborations on the knowledge required for aid projects might well lead to collaborations on trade initiatives. It certainly is easier to do business with people you have interacted with in the past rather than with strangers. That would provide a lasting benefit for people in all nations.

Professor Paul Collier hit the nail on the head when he stated that the Millennium Development Goals are "devoid of strategy." Bono declared that there is too much emphasis on aid and not enough focus on trade. My experience and the people I served taught me that poor people really do not want a hand-out, they want to go back to work. They would rather have a role in society than a bowl full of cooked food. They would rather have the self-respect that goes with plying a trade than that denigrating feeling that comes from standing in a line.

If the people in-charge of bringing about the Millennium Development Goals and the existing aid organizations could see past the immediate, obvious needs, for just a moment, to envision what a long-term solution might look like, more effective, lasting solutions might quickly be put in place. Of course there needs to be security established prior to real economic progress. Barriers to honest agricultural trade must be torn down. Trade in commodities like oil and minerals must be linked with local economic progress. Angola is a better example of what oil wealth can accomplish than Nigeria. Zambia certainly shines over Zimbabwe. Agricultural improvements including reforestation in rural India are certainly accomplishing more than what is going on in Haiti. This is where a real live knowledge-sharing forum, complete with living conduits to distribute this knowledge on the ground, would be most valuable.

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PART OF THE SOLUTION

I fully realize my suggestions here represent only a kernel of the ultimate solution. There is nothing in this world I would rather do than work closely with other people who really want to see the Millennium Development Goals reached. However I doubt the bureaucracy and other roadblocks preventing myself and others from making meaningful contributions are about to go away anytime soon. In the meantime millions of people will starve, die of curable diseases, or sit idle in their shanty towns. Other people willing to help implement solutions sit in fine townhouses reading about this situation but are unable to step in and help. All for lack of a solid bridge, electronic or brick, between the two.

Thomas H. Williams, Annapolis, Maryland
tom@thwphotos.com

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