JacoWhen you’ve been working in development for a long time, you can easily become a little pessimistic about the state of the world. It could seem as if your actions are in vain especially when looking at all these developmental issues in their entirety. Yet, the old saying goes ‘you eat an elephant one bite at a time’ and there’s no question this is true for development as much as it is for devouring a massive beast.

It’s important to not over-simplify the challenges, or to consider the need for development and assistance as insurmountable, but a change in perspective can be surprisingly inspiring and empowering. The three talks in this post hope to help you review how you see development around the globe, challenge your most firmly held positions, and remind you that the world isn’t as broken as you think. Change is happening, and we need to celebrate it.

The Developing World is the Whole World

First let’s start with the idea of a divided world; the stance that on the one side there is the developed world, and on the other side the developing world. The developed world has technology, infrastructure, and wealth, the developing world has disease, poverty, and corruption. Yet, the term itself is entirely obscure, the product of an old-world colonialist view. How could you possibly compare countries such Rwanda, Uruguay, and Mongolia under the same parameters when they are so unbelievably diverse?

The truth is the world is much more complex than simply “developed” or “developing”, and still thinking in this way can be considered ignorant of the facts. Instead, we should remember that every nation on the planet, whether OECD member, or Sub-Saharan country, is continuously developing as technologies improve and economies diversify. In fact, most of the countries considered “developing” by the old mind-set have caught up to much of the “developed” world in areas such as life expectancy, literacy, and education.

Addressing this issue is the renowned Swedish statistician, Hans Rosling. In his talk ‘How not to be ignorant about the world’, Rosling uses global statistics collected and presented by Gapminder to show how our view is often outdated when compared to the facts.

The Great Saviours of the First World

As frustrating as the ‘developing world / developed world’ debate can be, an important factor that keeps this mind-set alive is the view that industrialised, wealthy nations know best about improving lives. Official developmental assistance, or foreign aid, from DAC countries, non-DAC countries, and the European Commission exceeded $160 billion in 2013, showing a tremendous amount of capital is flowing to recipients. Yet, there is still a lot of talk around the effectiveness of this aid, and whether assistance is happening in the right way.

For years developmental assistance has been a top-down approach, with many initiatives mimicking what worked in these industrialised nations a hundred years ago. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your position) the world has changed since then; the challenges have evolved, and the global context in which these challenges exist is significantly different.

So what works when we want to help someone, be they another person or another country? Simply put, it’s listening and collaborating. These two factors help us tap into existing resources where we’re helping, whether these resources are local knowledge or innovative approaches. Dr. Ernesto Sirolli’s talk ‘Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!‘ highlights the importance of humility in aid, and that we can only help if we respect the beneficiaries enough to truly empower them.

Innovations out of Necessity are Changing the World

Developmental assistance has also for a long time been a one-way process, with wealthier more industrialised nations the originators and poorer, less developed ones the recipients. This is understandable, considering the major head-start most of these industrialised nations had, but this too has been changing significantly. Innovations are springing up all over these previously-deemed “developing” nations, and they’re changing the way the whole world works regardless of how wealthy or poor a nation is.

The old adage goes “necessity is the mother of all invention”, and it is as true today as it was when the wheel was invented; today the most innovative models, concepts, and inventions are appearing in places with the greatest needs. Want to find innovative mobile solutions? Go to a place where there is very little infrastructure, like Kenya. Want to learn about innovative economic empowerment? Go to a place where a large volume of the population is not operating in the formal economy, like India. The point is, the most innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems are not coming only from countries that are well off, they are instead being created all over the planet by individuals and teams trying to make a difference, regardless of how “developed” they are.

In ‘You don’t need an app for that’ Toby Shapshak explores some of the most innovative solutions from Africa that have reshaped the way the world works.

Reshaping the Way We See the World

Whether it’s the idea of a ‘developed and developing’ world, or that the “first” world is the origin of the most important innovations, the important thing to take away is a need to change our view of ‘us and them’. As citizens of this global society, we have a responsibility to work together to improve life and livelihoods on equal, collaborative terms. The only way we can do this is to stop, collaborate and listen.