Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
The U.S. election results are in, but ugly political divisions still confront us. Vaccines to vanquish COVID-19 are on the horizon, but we’re not quite there yet. And we know the economic, social, and political toll of this pandemic will ripple far into the future. No wonder Americans are exhausted and confused about what is happening in our country, and tempted to shut out the rest of the world.
And yet, this moment calls for the trait that has always kept humans fighting for social change: optimism. Maybe that sounds like a strange concept to advance right now. But from the perspective of my long experience in global health and development for PATH, the World Health Organization, and the Gates Foundation, the post-pandemic rebuild will offer unprecedented opportunities for more people, and a greater diversity of people, to get involved with global development. And to do that with a new social activism approach.
What makes me optimistic? Rather than obsessing over grim headlines, I focus more on key trend lines: the surge of people climbing out of dire poverty; the increase in worldwide literacy; the sharp decline in maternal and infant deaths. Those numbers, even now, look pretty great. And as we move into this next decade of the 21st century, it’s worth noting some macro-trends beneath the surface that can be harnessed for good. Consider:
Pyramid to diamond. The global economy has changed dramatically in the past few decades, and that shift is accelerating. Traditionally depicted as a pyramid with wealthy countries at the apex and a wide base of the desperately poor, the world’s economy is fast morphing into a squat diamond as hundreds of thousands of people move into the middle class every day. This change portends greater capacities for human, family, and community development across much of world, and it should fundamentally alter our approach as activists. Greater economic wherewithal will create more room for entrepreneurs to provide new products and services to this growing group of consumers. It also means that we must broaden our focus to encompass struggling communities everywhere, not only in poor countries.
Communities are the customers. A shifting pyramid means we need to stop viewing developing nations as passive beneficiaries of aid. Instead, we must listen to and elevate struggling communities that exist within each—including middle- and high-income countries. This change will necessitate working more closely with local groups, responding to their demands for agency and self-determination. Ultimately, it will force global development workers to be more like activists, to think about their “customers” differently, with an increased focus on community-centered solutions and a dismantling of the colonial-era architecture that has traditionally framed global development.
Equity. The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements are not passing trends. They signal a shift in fundamental beliefs toward leveling the field for people of all genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and physical abilities. How global development workers, social entrepreneurs, and activists engage with communities to ensure full inclusion and participation will shape the agenda. This will give rise not only to new policies and strategies for advancing health, education, and economic goals, but also to new leaders within the field.
Digital disruption. New data tools and the digital revolution will continue to accelerate social development across every sector, from health to agriculture, financial services to education. These powerful technologies, properly harnessed, could supercharge prospects for well-being among many more people. Of course, they also bring challenging questions around privacy, ethics, bias, and misinformation, which must be managed. But, overall, digital and data tools will unlock powerful new prospects for human well-being.
The surprisingly sexy middle. The key to improving millions of lives long term lies less in inventing new formulas and tools than in adapting proven innovations for use at scale. In many cases, we already have the technologies to make a difference, but they sit unused on laboratory shelves. In the coming decade, more activists from every sector—public, private, and social—should aim their talents toward building out those ideas and bringing them to everyday people.
I explore these five concepts in my book, Undercurrents: Channeling Outrage to Spark Practical Activism (Wiley, 2020). One of my favorite examples from it highlights the work of Keller Rinaudo, who co-founded the social enterprise Zipline. Trained in engineering and robotics, Rinaudo invented a system for using battery-powered drones to deliver medical supplies to remote locations. His company, Zipline, is a for-profit firm created in 2014 with social impact in mind. Already, it is serving the health-supply needs of an entire country, Rwanda, with projects underway in the rural U.S. too. This kind of entrepreneurial activism makes me optimistic. It uses technology, scaling know-how, and the growing economic power of a once-struggling nation to help people live healthier lives. And its founder, Rinaudo, is only 33.
For all of these reasons, now is no time to hide from issues within our own country or the rest of the globe. Rather, this is the time to build on the powerful undercurrents empowering more of us to keep bending the arc of human endeavor toward social justice. This is the moment to put cynicism on the shelf and find encouragement in the lessons of history that show, again and again, the ability of people to lift new solutions out of chaos.
Steve Davis is the author of Undercurrents: Channeling Outrage to Spark Practical Activism. He lectures at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and is a senior China strategy advisor and interim director for the China Country Office for the Gates Foundation. He serves as co-chair of the World Health Organization’s Digital Health Technical Advisory Group and is a Distinguished Fellow, World Economic Forum. He is the former president & CEO of PATH, a leading global health innovation organization; former Director of Social Innovation at McKinsey & Company; and former CEO of Corbis.