The hype that surrounded the launch of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) in 2000 has faded, muted by a mixed bag of success and failure. Much of the optimism that galvanized philanthropists to “save” the world’s bottom billion has evaporated as global inequality continues to hinder economic growth. Today, 1.2 billion people still survive on less than $1.25 per day with the poorest quintile holding only 2% of the world’s income share. Maternal mortality, disparities in educational opportunities, and food insecurity continue to plague poor and middle-income countries.
Yet the development sector continues to promote the same, tired strategies. At every summit I attend, policymakers spend hours debating only to come the same conclusions—something isn’t working. What that something is, however, is heavily debated. More foreign aid, less foreign aid, debt forgiveness, structural adjustment programs…and the list of magic bullets goes on.
Listening to these debates, I cannot help but feel that we have lost sight of the realities of poverty on the ground, of just how many challenges a child-headed household faces living in South Sudan or Bangladesh. Instead, we have become fixated on quantifying impact, defining success in outputs, and maximizing returns on investments. Reading spreadsheets and number crunching how many bed nets organizations have distributed has clouded our vision, obscuring a reality that I am certain we all understand.
Poverty is an inherently multifaceted, context-specific problem. A migrant worker’s experience in India is fundamentally different from that of an HIV-positive grandmother’s struggle to provide for six orphans in South Africa. The economic environment, social infrastructure, and resources of both households translate into unique obstacles that perpetuate the poverty trap. Lifting their children out of this cycle of disenfranchisement is not scalable in the same way that building schools is or handing out water straw filters. At least not in the way the industry has defined scale—reaching x number of beneficiaries over the course of y across z regions.
To truly change a region’s trajectory, we have to step back and find the balance between re-humanizing the industry and quantifying success. We have to adjust our approaches to the complexity of development and accept more fluid definitions of scale. Only then can we begin to re-evaluate what models and programs can be scaled up.
When I first founded Ubuntu Education Fund in 1999 with Malizole “Banks” Gwaxula, we were fixated on a number: 40,000. We believed that funding, legitimacy, and recognition could only come from “saving” that many beneficiaries. All of our initial programs in the townships of Port Elizabeth, South Africa were outreach- and output-oriented. We built libraries and computer labs, distributed school supplies, and taught HIV prevention courses in classrooms in hopes of reaching this arbitrary target.
But as the months passed, I watched students with new textbooks and pencils fall behind in the classroom, too hungry to focus on their studies. I met grandmothers who couldn’t provide for the orphans they were left to care for when their own children died from HIV/AIDS and spoke with families living in insecure, vulnerable shacks. During this first year after founding Ubuntu, I never experienced an “aha” moment; rather, Banks and I slowly realized that our initiatives were only addressing facets of poverty. We began to stop measuring our success by the number of programs launched or beneficiaries served.
The Ubuntu Model evolved from this realization—that focusing on outputs and employing a narrow definition of scale oversimplified the complexity of the poverty in our townships. While this particular approach did produce high numbers, it failed to generate sustainable change. Distributing 1,000 cups of soup may, for instance, help hungry children for a day, but this strategy will never eradicate a household’s pervasive food insecurity.
Instead, we decided to build a strategy rooted four guiding tenets: impact through long-term, focused investments, individualized care, community-specific programming, and a commitment to staff development. Operating at society’s most basic unit, the family, Ubuntu provides orphaned and vulnerable children with everything that our parents tried to give us growing up.
It’s working. An independent study found that Ubuntu students are now more than twice as likely to grade from high school as their peers and, for every $1 that we invest in them, they will earn $8.70 in real earnings over the course of their lives. Yet, although Ubuntu’s overarching model is applicable around the world, our programs may only produce lasting change in Port Elizabeth.
We have to accept that raising children and helping families access upward social mobility cannot be simplified into a formula that can be replicated across contexts. This doesn’t mean that we can’t achieve the MDGs. We should be excited; we should move forward. We just need to channel this momentum not towards scaling up exhausted strategies but towards achieving outcomes—ensuring that a sex worker’s daughter doesn’t have to follow her mother’s footsteps or that child born in an impoverished township can grow up to be a university graduate.