USAID’s Alex Thier on Ending Extreme Poverty

USAID’s Alex Thier on Ending Extreme Poverty

By Abhik Pramanik

Alex ThierOn October 20, the Blum Center for Developing Economies hosted a talk by Alex Thier, head of the Policy, Planning, and Learning Bureau at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Entitled “Ending Extreme Poverty: What UC Berkeley Can Do,” Thier’s talk centered around the Post-2015 Development Agenda, USAID’s role in the development community, and the need for bilateral and multilateral donors to partner with innovative entrepreneurs to make a difference.

Thier reminded the packed hall that today roughly 1 billion people, or 18 percent of the world population, live in extreme poverty, which the World Bank defines as earning or consuming less than a $1.25 day. Although these numbers may seem alarmingly large, extreme poverty rates are actually down from more than 40 percent in 1990. This reduction represents a fulfillment of Millennium Development Goal 1: to halve the rate of extreme poverty by 2015.

With the imminent expiration of the Millennium Development Goals, the international community is now debating development goals for the next 15 years. Yet one objective is clear: almost every bilateral and multilateral organization, including the World Bank, USAID, the European Union, and the African Union, has set a target of bringing the number of people living in extreme poverty to zero by 2030.

Thier argued that the elimination of extreme poverty is a distinct possibility. While some scholars have talked about severe poverty as inevitable, the remarkable economic movement over the past two decades—which saw 700 million people lifted out of extreme poverty—proves otherwise. Moreover, the political will to tackle the problem seems to be growing. In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama declared that the U.S. would band together with its allies and partner to end extreme poverty by 2030. Additionally, both USAID and the World Bank have changed their mission statements within the past year to commit to ending extreme poverty.

Though naysayers still exist, Thier said he believes that the outcome ultimately rests on choices—at the individual, village, institutional, and country level to fight for economic development. He noted that the biggest obstacles to ending extreme poverty are fragile institutions and weak governance. Citing the examples of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, and the Republic of Korea, he summarized how each country took a divergent path since enduring various weaknesses in the 1960s.

Due to rapid industrialization, foreign capital investment, and intensive manufacturing, South Korea is now a high-income country, with a higher life expectancy than the U.S., and it has created its own agency for international development. The DRC, on the other hand, has experienced botched governmental policies leading to debt crises and a bloody civil conflict that has raged for decades. As a result, citizens of the DRC are currently among the world’s poorest. In another example, Botswana has experienced years of high growth followed by sharp economic downturns and even sharper rebounds because of its over-reliance on extractive industries. The lack of economic diversification has hindered Botswana’s development, but the country is still much better off than the DRC. Thier said he believes that the key distinction among these nations’ economic growth is their level of good governance and effective institutional capacity.

As a result of these insights, USAID recently adopted a “New Model of Development,” which centers on leveraging local ownership, engaging in public-private partnerships, scaling up innovative ideas, and using cutting-edge technology to deliver measurable results. To illustrate how this works, Thier talked about two USAID programs: Feed the Future and Power Africa. The former, started in 2009 in response to the global spike in food prices, works with local farmers to increase their crop quality and yields. The initiative currently runs in 19 countries and already has improved nutrition for 12 million children and pushed 7 million farmers out of extreme poverty. Power Africa was launched in 2013 to help the 400 million Africans who currently lack access to electricity. It aims to double the number of people with access to electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa through the use of innovative financial tools and by applying the lessons learned from the Feed the Future initiative. Within a year, Power Africa has leveraged $25 billion in capital with more than half coming from African nations and the private sector.

Thier ended his talk with a plea to the next generation of problem solvers. He said he hoped UC Berkeley students would heed his call to develop new ideas and technologies to help make development assistance more effective, so that by 2030 extreme poverty could be eliminated. Some of this work is being done by the Blum Center’s Development Impact Lab (DIL), which received a $20 million grant from USAID in 2012 to help transform the way universities source, design, evaluate, and scale up technologies that have a potential to alleviate extreme poverty. Currently, 90 DIL innovations are being tested and scaled in 30 countries, involving more than 500 interdisciplinary students, and over 400 industry, government, and social sector experts.

Generation Innovation: Jessica Praphath on the Realities of Direct Service Work

Generation Innovation: Jessica Praphath on the Realities of Direct Service Work

By Sybil Lewis

Jessica PraphathMany students graduate from Cal intent on making an impact in the world. The reality of direct service work, however, can cause even the most committed to feel discouraged and to question what meaningful and financially sustainable work looks like—challenges that Jessica Praphath, a Cal alumna, faced while working on poverty alleviation in her hometown of Stockton, California.

Stockton was hit hard by the 2007 financial crisis. In 2008, foreclosures soared to 9.5 percent and housing prices fell by 39 percent. In July 2012, it became the largest American city to file for bankruptcy protection.

Praphath, whose parents immigrated from Thailand, grew up in “pockets of poverty” in the predominantly Southeast Asian communities around Stockton, and returned there a week after graduating from UC Berkeley in 2013, determined to work on public health and community issues at the grassroots level. She could have stayed in the more affluent cities of the Bay Area, but after minoring in Global Poverty & Practice (GPP), she said she decided her vocation was to better “understand the systemization of poverty and how I and my community fit into that system.”

Praphath’s first job out of Cal was at a resource center of the Community Partnership for Families of San Joaquin, where she completed her GPP practice experience. There, she was in charge of establishing a virtual education program for students in low-performing schools in south Stockton. But when you “work in a nonprofit in Stockton you wear 25 different hats,” she said. She soon became involved with the nonprofit’s umbrella program, Neighborhood University, providing online parenting and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Praphath worked countless hours to provide ESL, one of the community’s highest demands. Although the first few weeks of classes started off with about 40 people, over time the numbers slowly faded. Eventually, the classes were cancelled due to low attendance. Praphath said she was disappointed to “work so hard and then watch the project fail.”

The failure felt personal. Yet she also knew that the class’s low attendance might have something to do with the culture of welfare in south Stockton. Many people were distrustful of organized social assistance, in part because Stockton’s district lines had been redrawn so that most of the post-crash development money went to renovating downtown rather than to helping low-income south Stockton. Residents became accustomed to social workers using data about their lives to collect grant money that eventually went elsewhere.

Praphath said she discovered that one of biggest problems in development work is to empower a community that has been exploited or ignored. Another challenge is the lack of funding for community members and those who want to work with them. Praphath’s $13 hourly wage did not cover her monthly bills, which include payments on almost $20,000 in student loans. The Community Partnership for Families of San Joaquin also wasn’t able to provide her health benefits or employ her full-time, even though she was putting in 40 to 50 hours per week.

After months of exhausting work and financial difficulties, Praphath reluctantly left the family center for a job at the Health Education Department of Community Medical Centers, a federally qualified health center in Stockton. Yet two months into the job, she said she felt something was missing—the one-on-one interactions with people, the community aspect.

To fill this gap, she volunteered for the Reinvent Stockton Coalition, a community-based initiative spearheaded by Stockton City Councilman Michael Tubbs. Praphath said the coalition has made her rethink what works in community development.  “I graduated from Cal thinking that meaningful work was measured by how many people you can get in a program,” she said. “But in the field, it’s not about that. Being effective is not about 40 people attending your ESL class or health workshop. It’s about whether you can change people’s lives.”

Looking back, Praphath said she thinks attendance of the family center’s ESL classes dropped partly because beneficiaries were not involved in shaping the classes. She is a believer in the participatory development of social programs. Yet she realizes this is easier said than done, especially when there is a “disconnect between professional and college-educated people and community members.”

At Community Medical Centers job, she sits on a bimonthly public health task force that brings together representatives from nonprofits, foundations, and government organizations to discuss plans for public health initiatives. Praphath believes in the mission of the taskforce and sees a strong desire to enforce change, but she notes that a fundamental piece is missing: a community representative. The same was true for the initial planning meetings of Reinvent Stockton. When she looked around the table during those first meetings, all she saw were dedicated people who went to good universities and, like her, returned to Stockton to help improve it.

Praphath has since played a vital part in the Reinvent Stockton coalition’s expansion to south Stockton community members. They helped write two assessment surveys, which mapped Stockton’s “community strength index,” focusing on issues such as education, public safety, housing, economic development, and health. And in July 2014, the coalition launched its first community assessment survey, from which community members and volunteers collected more than 800 surveys.

Praphath, who is collecting follow-up surveys, recalled an emotional phone conversation with a south Stockton resident named Regina about crime and policing. Regina told Praphath that her son had recently been shot and that distrust of the police was high. “I talked to Regina for 56 minutes and 8 seconds,” she said. “I know the exact time because I remember getting off the phone and feeling like it was one of those experiences where you feel so connected to another human being and it helps you understand your purpose and why you are doing what you are doing. All the stress goes away and it all makes sense.”

Praphath said when she first returned to Stockton with her UC Berkeley degree, some people expected her to have all the answers. She made it clear that she was there to learn. “When I meet community members, I let them do a lot of the talking,” she said. “This way, I am seen not as someone who is trying to push knowledge or test out my education, but as someone with a genuine interest in what they have to say.”

A year later, she has come to believe that community members are the ones with the answers. They are the experts—the “think tanks” as she puts it.

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