Two events have the potential to radically affect how the world tackles extreme poverty and climate change in 2015. On September 25, United Nations Member States will gather to adopt the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a summit in New York City. In December, the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) will attempt to sign long-overdue, universally binding agreements on the climate in Paris. We have been here before: this will be the 21st year of the COP meetings and the SDGs are set to take over after 15 years of development work driven by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In the boardrooms in New York and Washington, the voices of those at the “last mile” – a term in development jargon that refers to poorest of the poor – remained largely silent.
After decades of top-down development driven by technocrats, I can’t help but think that 2015 holds great promise of big changes in development design. In a world where technology has redefined shared economies, flattened the media landscape and mainstreamed the crowd-sourcing of solutions, it seems that the time is right for development to follow suit and stop being top heavy both in theory and in practice. But, in order for it to get there, we – at the last mile – have to contribute our voices to the discussion.
Five years ago, a summit was held in New York to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the MDGs. Under-represented were the most important voices in the MDG discussion: the poor the MDGs were meant to rescue from the eight indicators of extreme poverty. Instead, they were represented primarily in stark and alarming numbers and percentages.
As a Ugandan, I was deeply concerned by our lack of visibility in these discussions around poverty eradication. I set out to show the world that the voices at the last mile mattered in the advancement of global development. Along with friends, I launched Villages in Action, a first of its kind conference held in Kikuube in north-western Uganda. Kikuube is a typical global South village at the very end of the last mile without a glimpse of infrastructure: dirt roads, no electricity other than a few privately-owned generators and solar lamps, the nearest hospital 20 miles away and an elementary school starved of resources.
The conference, which was live-streamed internationally, gave the residents of Kikuube an opportunity to share their development concerns with development practitioners, policy-makers and other interested parties around the world.
This experience was eye-opening in several ways. While Kikuube may be at the last mile, there certainly was not a lack of ideas and energy. The community discovered the importance of working together; teachers and parents discussed the challenges of keeping their children in school, the brick makers and carpenters connected the increase of commercial farming to the growth in their businesses, who, in turn, internalized the impact of unchecked commercial farming on disappearing forests in the community. What stood out to me was the fact that 10 years after the launch of the MDGs, no one in the community had ever heard of them, nor did they know what their roles were in achieving those goals.
One of the great outcomes of the original MDG targets was the increase in private sector partnerships which led to ubiquitous access to information and communications technologies. Just 15 years ago, only 4.5m Africans had access to the internet, making it impossible for our voices to contribute to any global conversations. Today, over 300m Africans have access to the internet and almost a billion mobile subscriptions will belong to Africans by the end of the year. This increase in connectivity is what made Villages in Action possible.
The Rio+20 climate Conference in 2012 agreed on a Future We Want outcome document that mandated an “inclusive and transparent” consultative process in the development of the new SDGs that was “open to all stakeholders”. This move towards inclusiveness is reflected in current development rhetoric which talks about “bottom up” models of development and greater collaboration and partnership.
For example, the World Bank recently challenged developers around the world to create innovative applications using an array of data sets made available through the World Bank’s own Open Data initiative. Many of the featured applications were engineered by African developers. The engineers took complex datasets and created apps that could, for example, inform Kikuube residents how their community was performing against the MDGs.
Ahead of the COP17 meetings in Durban, African youth across the continent did what many thought was near impossible at the time. They sent over 1000 photo and video testimonies of how they were affected by climate change through an initiative I worked for called Connect4Climate.
The UN also launched My World 2015, a online platform to crowdsource the “next global agenda” from around the world. Contributors can select the six most important issues that matter to them and their families. The platform notes which country the contribution is coming from.
The inclusive development model is being promoted by a new global grassroots movement dubbed Action/2015, which is being launched this month and is championed by luminaries such as Malala Yousafzai, Mo Ibrahim and Angelique Kidjo, and backed by organisations like Civicus ONE and Villages in Action.
This radical new model is within reach, but we must rise to the challenge and participate. It is up to all of us – from developers in urban centres to those at the literal last mile in Kikuube – to use the connectivity we now have to contribute our intelligence to these listening platforms. We are no longer invisible recipients, but active participants in a global effort to reduce extreme poverty and the effects of climate change by 2030. This shouldn’t just be a theoretical change where more international organizations work at the last mile, but rather the poor speaking for themselves, and setting the agenda.
TMS Ruge is a Ugandan development activist, organizer and entrepreneur.
This piece was first published on Financial Times’ Beyond Brics blog.