The Grand Challenge of Disability and Development

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people….We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” John F. Kennedy announced at Rice University on September 12th, 1962. And we did- America landed on the moon that same decade on July 20th, 1969. That is the original “moonshot thinking”, or the idea that we must tackle ambitious, impossible projects in order to create change.

“Grand Challenges” encapsulates moonshot thinking, although the term itself is credited to David Hilbert, who laid out 23 mathematical questions at the International Mathematical Congress in Paris in 1900.  Those original Grand Challenges detailed “technically complex societal problems that have stubbornly defied solution” (as defined by Lewis Branscomb) and challenged a cross-section of experts to work together on solutions.  While traditionally focusing on science and technology, Branscomb and others instead favor larger societally-focused projects. Their vision of the Grand Challenges conceptual framework has been embraced by USAID, the White House, and the UN. Examples of programs oriented on the Grand Challenges framework include the USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s partnership on Ensuring Effective Health Supply Chain as well as other USAID projects like Scaling Off Grid Energy, Combating Zika and Future Threats, and All Children Reading.

The Grand Challenge is Sustainable Development Goals and its preceding Millennium Development Goals. The Sustainable Development Goals are a 15 year plan to tackle Grand Challenges across 17 different issue areas established in 2015. This look at systemic challenges worldwide creates an alternative mindset to development. In fact, they have become key in defining how we think about program effectiveness by giving targets and indicators to meet. These goals provide a unifying framework for state and nonstate actors worldwide to enact progress.

The SDGs made the UN framework more inclusive by including the grand challenge of disability and development with eleven explicit references to persons with disabilities. This is important because it will guide behavior by states. This has been furthered by high level work such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2006 that shifted conceptual thinking from disabilities as a medical condition to a human right, which creates opportunities and higher equity for the traditionally marginalized 15% of every country’s population. This is an important step towards to true equality. While public policy focused on the inclusion of disabled persons may not spark the same initial general interest level as landing on the moon, it is surely a moonshot idea to radically shift how we think, talk, and create policy for this excluded group. This opens a window for a population whose potential contributions to society have been dismissed.

Development and The Poverty Trap

“Why Nation’s Fail” discusses mechanisms of “inclusive economic institutions” that allow developed countries to continue to be wealthy. Acemoglu and Robinson state these wealthy, western world countries create incentives for citizens to be innovative, provide secure education and strong infrastructure, and create laws that benefit the entirety of the population. These facets parallel the ideas within Sen’s, “Development of Freedom,” chapters of discussing democracy, famine, and women and social change. In contrast, all authors talk about undeveloped countries and the ways in which they struggle to achieve development and westernized ideals. Although I agree that many underdeveloped countries want democracy, less political upheaval, and famine, it is paramount to understand the ways in which these countries have fallen into the vicious cycle of exclusion.

Sen’s chapter on famine and other crises strongly reminds me of the nutritional poverty trap that many under developing countries face in the wake of development. Sen explains that famine and malnourishment is due to the working of the state’s economy and society as a whole, and thus the ability to acquire food has to be earned. The nutritional poverty trap states that because the poor are too malnourished, they are unable to work productively, which results in scarcity in income and production. In turn, this lack of production works to continue the malnourishment within these populations. Ordinarily, calories are too cheap within nations for causal of poverty. But famines, natural disasters and lack of proper waste management can yield to nutritional poverty. This has long-standing impacts on one’s health, causing for an overall economy to weaken, making it even more difficult to fight famines.

Acemoglu and Robinson explain that issues of politics and economics influence a countries development. Continuing with various poverty trap theories, the geographical poverty trap explains the ways in which the environment can hinder a country’s ability to develop. Geographic characteristics are unchangeable and thus heavily influence available resources for production, technology, income and overall poverty. Even with proper investments, geographic can hinder households ability to increase wages and growth. Furthermore, geographical locations can hinder strong infrastructure. Environments that are prone to drought, floods, and natural disasters are unable to provide a continuous strong infrastructure that will enable societies to be innovative. One could argue mass migration from these high-risk areas, however, within underdeveloped countries the movement to urbanized, developed cities lead to the creation of the periphery in areas. Informal settlements, slums, and improper housing forms, ultimately sustain and create poverty in new areas.

Although underdeveloped countries desire development and innovation within their states, they face several setbacks that perpetuate their poverty and underdevelopment. I believe that poverty trap theories give valuable insight into the ways in which these countries fall into vicious cycles.

Including Slums in Inclusive Cities: What ADB Got Right

While slums are often not thought of when people talk about cities, they are growing in size and population especially as more and more populations move from rural to urban environments. Some slum populations in India have grown so large that they can influence elections. Sustainable Development Goal 11 focuses on “Making cities inclusive, resilient, safe, and sustainable” and if we are to implement goal 11, then slums must be included and thought of as well. Including slums in sustainable development is often met with many barriers. Local governments do not want to acknowledge slums or provide them with services because they want the slums to disappear and think providing benefits such as water and sanitation will encourage the slum-dwellers to stay. Slums are also illegal settlements so there are other barriers to providing them with services such as schools and health clinics because they are technically not supposed to exist.

The habitat III conference’s new urban agenda commits itself to trying to end stigma surrounding slum-dwellers, making informal settlements more resilient, and upgradings slums. This is certainly a step in the right direction but I was more impressed with the concrete examples of slum rehabilitation the Asian Development Bank described in their document Inclusive Cities. Slum rehabilitation often doesn’t work out as planned because the project leaders don’t ask the residents what their needs are and don’t understand the attachment residents have to their homes, or interrupt their livelihoods. The phrase “Nothing about us without us” is credited to the disabled community but the ADB took that mindset to heart when constructing their slum rehabilitation programs. The ADB provided surveys and asked residents what their needs were. These surveys informed project developers what residents wanted and with this information they were able to provide some low cost sanitation, women’s support groups, schools, and clinics. The ADB was able to work with local governments and encourage them to recognize the slums and see them as a boon for the local economy. The reason ADB’s programs were successful was that they took into consideration what the residents wanted and the systemic problems that were preventing them from achieving their needs.

Including slum-dwellers in the conversation about inclusive cities is a concrete way of advancing SDG 11 because they are able to offer a more direct perspective of what would make their settlements inclusive, sustainable, and equitable.

New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda is pushing the idea that sustainable development and urbanization go hand in hand. There are many parts of development and urbanization that The New Urban Agenda focuses on which attain both of these simultaneously while promoting social agendas as well. Through poverty alleviation, inclusive economies, and environmental sustainability initiatives, The New Urban Agenda pushes for many benefits from cities themselves. Those listed include

  1. Adequate housing with accessible food, water, sanitation, and jobs
  2. Participatory communities in order to meet all needs
  3. Gender equality by ensuring numbers 1 and 2
  4. Meet social challenges in a way that is sustainable and inclusive
  5. Act as a center for the development at hand with administrative services
  6. Plan for age and gender mobility obstacles to link this population with people, places, goods, services, and economic opportunities
  7. Implement a disaster risk reduction and relief program as well as mitigate and adapt to climate change
  8. “Protect, conserve, restore, and promote” the environment within and around the city in order to minimize environmental impact and make a move to responsible production and production methods

All eight of these are included in the Outcome document of Habitat III as the vision of future cities. While these are all things every city should strive for, it is still a non-binding agreement with minimal accountability. As shown in the indicators under Sustainable Development Goal 11, the goals and indicators are clearly stated but do not mention clear measurements to strive for.

For example, 11.A aims to “support positive economic, social, and environmental links between urban, per-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning.” The indicator for this is 11.A.1, stated as “proportion of population living in cities that implement urban and regional development plans integrating population projections and resource needs, by size of city.” There are two large issues with this: a lack of measurement and not accounting for measures taken outside of cities. First, the lack of measurement relates back to the issues seen with the Millennium Development Goals. Without a set goal, these could be achieved in a minor way but have minimal impact. Second, while the goal is for urbanization, there will undoubtedly be interaction between rural and urban areas. Whether this is merely a trade of goods or includes people traveling regularly between the two, many of the urban plans should be applied to rural areas as well in order to have a fuller impact.

Inclusive Cities and Inclusive Governance

According to the World Bank, in 2016 54% of the world population lived in cities. The urban population is expected to grow at the rate of 1.84% per year between 2015 and 2020. Persons with disabilities, which take up about 15% of world population, are also part of the growing urban population. This is why many international policy initiatives are starting to include access to cities for persons with disabilities in their development agenda. For example, in Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals, there are direct references to “persons with disabilities” in terms of access to public spaces and transport systems. These policy initiatives that include persons with disabilities are indeed a sign of progress for the field of international development. But not all policy initiatives have made the same progress. For example, in “Inclusive Cities” published by the Asian Development Bank in 2011, although it states that one of the goals is to improve “urban environmental infrastructure development… to serve the poor and the vulnerable,” persons with disabilities are not directly included in “the vulnerable.” “Slums” seem to be the keyword connected to “the vulnerable” and not “persons of disabilities”. It is important that we reflect on why there are such differences between policy initiatives and how we can ensure inclusion of persons with disabilities in future initiatives.

One important factor that leads to omission of persons with disabilities in policy initiatives is that persons with disabilities don’t have access to the discussion table. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are able to have direct references to persons with disabilities because those who are affected by the goals participated in the process of policy-making and made an impact on the final document. Inclusion of major groups and other stakeholders should be regarded as a requirement for future international convention. Some may argue that there are too many physical and logistical difficulties to try to include diverse groups, especially persons with disabilities whose ability to travel is limited. Luckily, there are some tools invented to solve these issues. The Disability Inclusive Development (DID) Policy Collaboratory developed by the Institute on Disability and Public Policy is a tool that will allow persons with disabilities to participated in governance processes at all levels virtually. Governance institutions at different levels can only build truly inclusive cities by including representatives of all urban dwellers. With technological advances, persons of disabilities will have more and more opportunities to voice their opinions and make an impact on policies that will affect them.

Three Concepts

When considering a development project, the way in which things are measured and worded has a large effect on the project mechanisms and outcomes. The three concepts outlined by Andy Sumner and Michael Tribe in International Development Studies: Theories and Methods in Research and Practice are Development as a long term process of structural societal transformation, Development as a short-to-medium term outcome of desirable targets, and Development as a dominant discourse of western modernity. All three of these are presented as separate entities with different processes and outcomes. Despite this, one would hope that all three could be used in a way to make a cohesive form of development.

Development as a long term process has been attributed to academia as it is not practiced as often as it is spoken about. While the rhetoric of development has a clear impact on the way people think and how they wish to act through it, it is true that the idealistic ways in which long term development is projected does not easily lend itself to implementation.

Development as a short-to-medium term process is more measured than the long term processes desired by academics. There are performance goals and indicators that allow for this measurement to be documented within the development community and understood by funding groups and International Organizations. While this approach is able to tangibly accomplish more than long term processes, it typically only scratches the surface of the issue and has the ability to leave an even larger issue than before.

Development as a dominant discourse of Western modernity is a concept that criticizes the two aforementioned concepts. As a whole, it argues that the development being done may not benefit the communities reached in the correct ways. For example, a development scheme may detract from a community’s ability to engage in a cultural event. Considering the development community takes Western models and applies them elsewhere, this has some validity. It creates a superiority complex that continues to drive down those in receipt of development. Even with this, there are not many solutions offered that have been taken seriously.

Because all three of these have their positives and their drawbacks, they can play of each other to learn new techniques and measurement methods. Along with the third concept of development, the people being benefited can have input and truly benefit from the projects being implemented.

Molehills into Mountains: How smaller issues compound into Grand Challenges

When people discuss “grand challenges” facing our world today, defined often as “technically complex societal problems that have stubbornly defied solution” (Branscomb). While organizations such as USAID have several “grand challenges” which define their organizational priorities, global climate change is seen as the quintessential “Grand Challenge”; other environmental issues such as urbanization and deforestation also often take the fore. But just as the solutions for grand challenges require a vast and complex network, the challenges themselves also possess a network of further causes and effects, which can magnify understood problems into issues equally deserving of the moniker “Grand Challenge”.

To give an example, urban flooding has been extensively studied and understood; cities would plan for a variable amount of rain which would need to be drained away in quick order. Yet, as we have seen most recently in the Houston, Texas urban area, climate change and increasing urbanization have both exacerbated the potential of flooding events. Increasing sea-level temperatures, particularly within the Gulf of Mexico, strengthen hurricanes, elevating the frequency of exceptional weather events to form a new statistical norm.

The alarming frequency of “hundred-year” storms is not the only factor in worsening floods. The devastation of coastal cities multiplies as cities in flood-prone areas develop over lakes, parks, and other natural formations which might absorb some floodwater. Without these natural drains, more neighborhoods become inundated by higher levels of flooding, worsening the issue even beyond what the increased intensity of storms would do alone.

The use of “grand challenge” in numerous fields is a fairly recent development, designed to evoke ideas of heroism and struggle in what might otherwise be mundane or overtly technical tasks. The factors surrounding grand challenges are not a simple knot which can be undone with a singular “silver bullet” solution, but a Gordian knot which can only be untangled with great effort and knowledge. Even as one challenge’s solution is sought, however, we cannot lose sight of other challenges woven into the same rope.

Grand Challenges and International Development

Tom Kalil accurately describes Grand Challenges as, “ambitious yet achievable goals that capture the public’s imagination and that require innovation and breakthroughs in science and technology to achieve.” This notion of Grand Challenges coincides with our classroom conversation of “moonshot thinking.” Moonshot thinking also creates ambitious but achievable goals that answers, “not what should we do” but “what can we do.” In my opinion, moonshot thinking lead to the creation of the largest grand challenges in International Development, specifically the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As a result, the world has developed clear, time sensitive action plans in order to achieve their lofty goals.

USAID’s The Grand Challenges for Development initiative cites two quintessential beliefs of international development. They are: (1), Science and technology, when applied appropriately, can have trans-formative effects and (2), Engaging the world in the quest for solutions is critical to instigating breakthrough progress. The second belief of engagement strongly mirrors the idea of moonshot thinking as well. The SDGs work to engage the world to tackle challenges. Within each goal, they highlight its significance, along with previous progress. Additionally, each goal expresses targets and indicators in order to track and assess future progress of each goal. Through this, the SDGs’ Grand Challenges become attainable.

Furthermore, USAID’s Grand Challenges for Development tackle global issues by utilizing non-traditional practices such as businesses, sciences, and researchers. This provides USAID with a critical lens that constantly assess the success of partnerships, grants and the applicability of science and technology. As a result, mechanisms used within these grand challenges can evolve throughout their timeframe and work to better achieve their set targets.

Grand Challenges bridge the gap between technology and society. As USAID’s Grand Challenges for Development state, science and technology have the ability to transform communities. For instance, David Pescovitz notes that technology can spur economic growth and the creation of jobs that require strong collaboration across institutions. Through this, society becomes stronger as they can work together to foster development that best suits their community. As a result, communities become stronger, the necessary steps of grand challenges become clearer, and the goals become achievable.

Community Moonshot thinking, or as Kalil states, “the captur[ing] of public imagination” catalyze Grand Challenges. They push partnerships, technological innovation, and collaboration because they all work towards a common goal. Global Grand Challenges are ever present facets of International Development, and will continue to evolve.

Towards Inclusive Development

As stated by Andy Sumner and Michael Tribe in their book International Development Studies, there are three different definitions of development. It can either be a long-term process of structural transformation, a short-to-medium term outcome of targets, or a Western discourse. In Armatya Sen’s well-regarded book Development as Freedom, development is expansion of the five freedoms listed by him. Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson propose in their book Why Nations Fail that development entails inclusive political and economic institutions. These are some theoretical understandings of development. Some of these theories overlap and complement with each other while others disagree with one another. An easier way to understand development for the general public is to observe the global reality. In the beginning of their book, Acemoglu and Robinson depict the drastic difference in all aspects of life between the US side of Nogales and the Mexican side of Nogales. The vast disparity is hard to neglect and is also the cause behind many global crises.

In my opinion, the origin of the field of development is embedded with many historical problems, such as the legacy of colonialism. As Acemoglu and Robinson have argued in their book, different colonial experiences lead to different political and economic institutions that shape the societies in various ways. Without colonialism and the exploitation and human abuses that it has brought upon societies, our world today would have looked quite different. It is unfortunate that the world system today is perpetuating the same power dynamics as colonialism, with the former metropoles in the powerful situation to provide aid to former colonies. This prevents international development from becoming more inclusive. Whether it’s development as a long-term structural change, as short-term outcomes, as five freedoms, or as inclusive political and economic institutions, the mainstream development discourse indeed reflects Western countries as ideal models, and grant these countries the legitimacy to tie development aid with conditionality. This is not to say that the experience and practices of more developed countries do not have anything to offer or that all donor countries are post-colonial. I am simply suggesting that we should also value the perspectives from the developing world on the matter of their own development. In order for development practices to become more inclusive, development theories have to first include more ideas. The alternative path to development offered by developing countries such as Russia, China and Brazil, is seen as a threat by many Western governments because of ideological differences and competition over spheres of influence. In a multi-polar world, this inevitable collision opens up room for choices in development and helps make development more inclusive by incorporating different and even conflicting ideas. Development theories and practices today should reflect the multi-polar international society and should include more actors from the developing world.

Moonshot Thinking in Economics: Grameen Bank

Throughout the discipline of economics, scholars study models of perfectly functioning markets and what these markets would look like if all of the right conditions were met. It is a fascinating discipline which shows what a perfect world could look like, but the difficult reality of things is that often these models represent unrealistic expectations based on human behavior, availability of resources, and allocation of land, capital, and labor. We do not live in a perfect world where capitalism is a well-oiled machine that works perfectly for all people, or where everyone in the world embraces a single communist ideology. No, we live in a very diverse world with people from different backgrounds who have different interests, beliefs, norms, and values. This diversity is a fundamental element of our existence that makes our world more beautiful, but also more complex, and this is something that is often left out of economics.

When the Grameen Bank in India was founded in 1983, it was met with a lot of criticism because people expected it to function the same way any other bank functions, by loaning money with high interests and making a profit. People held the Grameen Bank to the standards of what people already knew, without thinking that they could ever operate differently. Instead of operating for profit, the Grameen Bank is a rare institution that offers microfinancing opportunities to poor communities by loaning them money to expand their operations, but offering very low interest rates that give the customers flexibility and reduces the pressure of paying back the loans. This model of operations is extremely risky from the perspective of a bank that runs on making a profit, because society leads us to believe that poor people are a liability when it comes to managing money. The Grameen Bank didn’t see poor people as a liability, but more as an opportunity to give back to the community and allow rural areas to develop and grow.

Not only is the Grameen Bank the first microfinancing institution of its kind, but it is also the first that favors women entrepreneurs and empowers women to become business managers and participate more actively in societies where they were often oppressed. According to statistics by the bank, around 95% of the women that took out loans from the bank consistently managed to pay back their debts and the interest, showing a high rate of success.

Why is this bank an example of moonshot thinking in my opinion? No one ever believed that there could be a “Bank of the Poor” and people never believed that a banking system could have the effect of reducing rural poverty and protecting social capital whilst also empowering women in local communities. The Bank was met with much opposition from people that believed that it was merely exploiting the poor and believed that the bank just put poor people into more debt that previously, or people criticized the bank for overstepping and intervening in the role of the government in providing poverty alleviation strategies, but it is undeniable that this Bank has brought a new way of looking at poverty alleviation and has generated a new conversation looking specifically at how this could potentially provide solutions for people not just in India, but around the world as well.