Lending a helping hand to those less fortunate is always a popular topic this time of year. But how can we support marginalized communities in a way that allows them to thrive all year around? International economic development is a fabulous sector that aims to do grassroots work alongside vulnerable populations, but many of us think that only economists can carry out such projects. From the harvesting of raw materials to exporting and importing goods to managing vast capital and financial markets, all but the most advanced experts leave scratching their heads in confusion. Nevertheless, it is crucial (especially for the altruistic folks among us) to attempt to understand the reality of international economic development and how your actions can contribute to projects all around the globe. Keep in mind that many foreign aid programs and development firms operate with a bias that does not take into account the needs and desires of the local population; filling quotas and checking boxes does little to stimulate developing economies in the long-term. As we look deeper into the realm of international development work, we must begin to address the following questions:
Can any development project be truly sustainable?
Is sustained economic growth possible without exacerbating environmental burdens?
Can international organizations and institutions work alongside international stakeholders without an unfair exchange of goods and labor?
The answers we strive for as development workers all lie within the design of the projects themselves; too often sustainability is viewed as an outcome rather than a process of collective learning and careful planning. By first integrating into a society and collaborating with local professionals, those involved with development projects can more effectively reflect the geography, economy, politics, and unique cultural characteristics of the region in which they intend to work. The most crucial element to a successful project is that the community itself recognizes the short-term benefits and agrees to maintain their collective interest in seeing through the long-term vision. When the most vulnerable populations within a community have a stake in the outcome of a project, it has better odds of succeeding. In the same manner, contemporary development work has shifted its focus toward reducing poverty among those at the lowest socioeconomic level. The general thought behind a focus on poverty reduction as opposed to wealth generation is that those who are faced with the daily challenges associated with poverty have an input in precisely which projects can directly improve their quality of life; social welfare programs have the potential to contribute to macroeconomic stability and, in turn, economic growth.
Nevertheless, a program can only truly be sustainable if the structure allows for the community to be adequately trained to carry out the project autonomously. Solid development work must contain a robust organizational strengthening component, especially if those involved are working alongside a local entity such as a cooperative or association. As the project stakeholders are better able to fine tune their operations and make them even more effective, they gain a level of independence that can radiate outward throughout their community and their region. If the goal of international economic development is to train, prepare, and instill appropriate entrepreneurial skills in vulnerable populations, then the institutions that facilitate this development must equip the member of the community to manage each aspect of the project, no matter the scope. In the hope of uniting together to support those with few economically viable opportunities, we must make sure to keep their best interest in mind with every step of the program outline. Let’s collaborate to positively impact our world!