Remarks by Assistant Administrator Nancy Lindborg for the Minnesota International NGO Network’s International Development Exchange and Action (IDEA) Summit

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Getting to the Finish Line on Extreme Poverty


Good morning --

And thank you to the Minnesota International NGO Network (MINN) for organizing this important summit. And special thanks to the event sponsors Land O’Lakes, the University of St. Thomas, the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the American Refugee Committee, the McKnight Foundation, and Minnesota Trade Foundation for making it possible. Most of all - many thanks to all of you--for being here today, for the work you do, for your passion and commitment to make a difference in the world.

It’s great to be back home in Minnesota. I grew up not far from here so I was delighted to have a chance to come back for this event. I've noticed that in my 20 years of doing this kind of work, Minnesotans seem over-represented in the relief and development world -- whether with the many excellent groups represented here, or other organizations. I used to joke it was a very effective way to escape long cold winters. But joking aside, there really is a deep sense of service and social justice here in Minnesota that propels so many into this world.

So it is an honor to be here with everyone today. Three years ago I joined USAID, where I serve as the Assistant Administration for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance—or as my father says, the longest darn title he hopes I’ll ever have. But I spent the majority of my career with NGOs and have an enormous appreciation for the ability of NGOs to adapt quickly, to understand community level dynamics and to spot opportunities, and to innovate solutions.

I love the idea of an Ideas Summit. This is an important time in the development world to take stock and consider key pathways forward, especially as we approach 2015, review progress against the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and consider how to tackle the next set of goals. And without question, there has been tremendous progress over the last several decades.

Significant Progress to Date

According to the World Bank, in 1980, roughly half the population in the developing world lived in extreme poverty; that number is 1 in 5 today. The MDG target of reducing extreme poverty rates by half was met five years ahead of the 2015 deadline. Maternal mortality rates have been nearly halved since 1990. The number of children who die before the age of five is half of what it was in 1990. And we are in reach of meeting the MDG target of cutting world hunger in half by 2015.

There has also been a revolution underway in the development world, with a burst of new creative partnerships, bringing government, NGOs and the private sector together in ways that bring new ideas, new technologies, new investment, and greater scale to help solve stubborn problems.

At USAID we have been seized with the challenge of transforming the agency into a modern development enterprise. Under the leadership of USAID Administrator Raj Shah, we have put partnership, technology and innovation at the heart of how we do business. We are renovating systems and increasing our ability to gather evidence and understand results. 

USAID recognizes that transformative ideas can come from anywhere, so in the last three years, we have launched five Grand Challenges for Development to generate game-changing ideas from all potential sources -- in maternal and child health; childhood literacy; clean energy; water; and open government. Our first Grand Challenge—called Saving Lives at Birth—attracted more than 600 ideas to help mothers give birth safely in remote or impoverished settings. One of those applicants was a young graduate in bioengineering who had designed a simple, affordable alternative to an expensive machine that helps resuscitate newborns suffering from respiratory failure. With a USAID grant, that device is now saving lives in Malawi for one fortieth of the cost.

I know the break-out sessions later today will examine creative approaches and ideas and catalyze continued thinking about how to tackle these core issues. It is these new ideas, these partnerships and very importantly, the injections of private sector investment that will continue to lift up millions and drive economic growth in vast swaths of the world.


So that’s the optimistic perspective. And I know everyone in this room is an optimist or you wouldn’t keep doing this kind of work and get out of bed every morning. But against this backdrop of good news, we see that some of the largest populations in extreme poverty today live in fragile states, which also have the worst prospects for future improvement.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, roughly half of those living on less than $1.25 per day in 2015 will be in fragile states, including population giants like Nigeria and Pakistan. The vast majority of countries worldwide facing the steepest threats from climate change are also fragile or conflict-affected.  And all too often we see development gains lost in areas of recurrent crisis and natural disasters, especially with the escalating impact of climate change and ever faster cycles of droughts and floods -- like the recent drought in the drylands of the Horn of the Africa or the Sahel.

In his last State of the Union address, President Obama announced the United States’ commitment to work with our allies to eliminate extreme poverty in the next 20 years; the World Bank has come out with a similar commitment. And there is a growing consensus that we can do this. We can eliminate extreme poverty.

So wiih 1.2 billion people around the world currently living on less than $1.25 a day, half of them in fragile, conflict-affected countries where private investment is reluctant to go, many in countries buffeted by repeated shocks of drought, floods and earthquakes, what will it take?

So today, I want to outline today three approaches, three big ideas in the spirit of today’s summit, that will be critical for targeting extreme poverty in the next two decades.

Consolidating Gains and Building Resilience of the Most Vulnerable

First is the idea of building resilience. We had a collective wake-up call in 2011 when the worst drought in 60 years in the Horn of Africa resulted in 13.3 million people pushed to the limit and requiring emergency assistance. We saw human suffering on a massive scale.

I visited the region a number of times during that response, including a visit to Garissa in the Kenyan drylands -- a part of the country where lack of investment was so pervasive that roads literally stopped where the drylands began. I met one woman whose husband had lost all his livestock. She had just walked six hours to bring her three severely malnourished children to the hospital; leaving her other six children at a relative’s house. People in Garissa considered Kenya another country and families had few clinics or schools available.

USAID and the rest of the international community mobilized for a massive humanitarian response.  But with the reality of climate change, we are already seeing these kind of shocks coming more intensely and more frequently. And we know that when shocks hit—droughts, floods, locusts, conflict—it is inevitably the most vulnerable populations that are the hardest hit, often without the chance to recover before new shocks strike.

The outcome is a cycle of crisis that millions cannot escape, resulting in great hardship, great costs, and the loss of hard-won development gains. These recurrent shocks are driving the same vulnerable communities into crisis again and again. The global community has spent $90 billion over the last ten years on humanitarian assistance in just nine countries; countries that have repeated humanitarian crises year after year.

For Kenya, the costs were felt in more than just the drylands. The World Bank estimates that the drought resulted in a loss of $13.2 billion to the Kenyan economy in 2011-2012. This had an impact on poverty reduction in a country in which 16.18 million people live on less than $1.25 a day.

In the last 30 years, the Bank estimates that one out of every three dollars spent on development is lost as a result of disasters and crisis.

These are losses that none of us can afford to sustain—and globally, they are setting us back.

So USAID pledged to get ahead of these shocks; to need to work across our relief and development programming to build the kind of resilience that helps people escape from poverty and be able to  adapt, mitigate and manage the risks that will inevitably come. 

This is where we came face to face with the many stovepipes of excellence built over the years.  Like the medical profession, international development has become increasingly specialized, with our health experts, our ag experts and education experts working separately and often in fact in separate places.  In Kenya before the drought, all our humanitarian programs were in the northeast of Kenya, while our development programs were in the productive south.   

So with our resilience programs we are looking at systemic solutions—think Mayo Clinic—that bring together our relief and development partners—across sectors and, very importantly,  in lockstep with our international development partners to support country-led plans.

Country-led is an important part of the equation. Often the most important change in fostering resilience is a new policy that the government needs to enact—allowing better seed production, or grain reserve use, or trade policy.  And we are seeing countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Niger and Burkina Faso take seriously the need to develop resilience plans that address these policy changes and invest in communities often considered more marginal, less productive.  Kenya committed to funding 40 percent of its new resilience plan for the drylands—and we are seeing real change over the last two years in places that have historically been neglected and marginalized. 

USAID is committed to getting ahead of the disasters that occur repeatedly in areas of chronic poverty and to moving our actions upstream, with a common focus on resilience.  USAID has become a global leader in resilience, working closely with the other international development partners, and we are developing jointly agreed upon metrics for understanding results.  Many of you in the NGO world have been critical partners in this effort, bringing forward ideas and innovations. You have been critical partners, providing the research evidence to show, for example, that in emergency response, it may be more important to save livestock—so herders have a livelihood and milk for their children—than to truck in food. That we can use market mechanisms for distributing food to vulnerable families that also support small businesses and local farmers.   

Through new resilience investments in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, USAID aims to directly benefit over 11 million people. And although resilience programming is still in its early stages, we are already starting to see the impact.

With a new water technology in Ethiopia, nearly 140,000 people now have improved access to water with the goal of benefitting one million people in the next two years. In Kenya, the development of Community Development Action Plans is helping more than 70 communities become more self-reliant, and more resilient to the region’s recurrent drought. In six countries across the Horn of Africa, USAID support is helping vets tackle nine diseases that specifically hinder regional livestock trade.

Coming together to shape and support this kind of programming that helps the most vulnerable communities build resilience is vital to ensure that our work helps these communities rise and move forward, not just stay afloat.

Zeroing in on Fragility

The second critical idea: zero in on fragility.

With fragile states measurably lagging on progress toward the MDGs, we can’t make progress toward eradicating extreme poverty by focusing our efforts on sure wins elsewhere. We need to tackle fragility head on and shift from a focus on investing only in growth.

Most importantly, as we just saw here in the U.S. with the shutdown, government matters. When a society cannot count on elected leaders to deliver everyday services, basic needs go unmet.  When states can't control their borders, smugglers and extremists take hold, subverting markets and terrorizing communities. We saw this in Somalia and in Mali; we see it creeping into northern Nigeria.

The 2011 drought affected millions across the Horn of Africa, but it was only in Somalia—with no central government for 22 years, armed terrorists, and decades of lawlessness—that famine was declared. Without an accountable, legitimate government, the rest of our investments are at risk—whether in health or agriculture or education. Conflict is the most pernicious disease in the system, and it will roll back precious development gains.

Since 2011, USAID has played a leading role in partnering with the international community and a group of 19 self-identified “conflict affected and fragile states” to support a new framework for helping these countries climb out of stubborn conflict and dead-end poverty.

Called the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, this approach calls on local government officials, international donors, and civil society to work together to advance legitimate politics, security, justice, economic foundations, and revenues and services. Based on research by the World Bank, this approach recognizes that security, development, and governance are deeply intertwined.  Most importantly, this New Deal is driven by the fragile states themselves and provides a framework of mutual accountability and a method for creating an agreed upon roadmap for the way forward.  Because we can't want peace and stability more than the country itself.

It is still very early days, but I was in Brussels just last month where the international community joined Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in endorsing a New Deal compact for Somalia focused on moving all stakeholders toward these shared goals of governance, jobs, justice and services. There is still a very long and very bumpy road ahead, but, I am confident that the New Deal represents the very best chance for peace and prosperity in Somalia in two decades.

We know that, over the past 20 years, those countries that made strides against fragility and toward a stronger state-society relationship were about twice as likely to make headway against extreme poverty.

Taken together, the Resilience Agenda and the New Deal offer new frameworks for collective action that are country-led and systemic in approach.   

Inclusion: Making All Voices Count

And they share a recognition that, fundamentally, we need a fierce focus on supporting accountable, legitimate, inclusive governments. 

So, the third and final big idea is inclusion.

Without the involvement of civil society, women, youth, of LGBT and disabled communities, of people who are marginalized because of their ethnicity or religion, we cannot end extreme poverty.  Growing youth populations around the world are plugged into global networks; they see what is happening around the world, yet they see the lack of opportunities in their hometowns—in West Africa they call themselves "window lickers."  We see in the Middle East how the outrage and fatigue at being left out has fueled nearly three years of rolling conflict and unrest. Syria is global tragedy, where we are in danger of a lost generation as we enter the third year of no school.  In just two years of conflict, Syria has lost 35 years of development gains according to a recent UN report. 

In too many countries around the world, women continue to bear responsibility for full families but lack the rights and the protection to be full citizens. In the field of international development, there is no longer any question that the advancement of women, attention to gender issues and an inclusive approach is not only vital to protecting fundamental human rights, but also to meeting our overall development goals. Last year, the World Bank’s World Development report noted that when women can’t participate in the labor force, are precluded from certain occupations by law, or excluded from management, GDP growth in a country can suffer by up to two percent. The FAO recently found that women’s lack of access to resources and opportunities is a key factor behind the underperformance of agriculture worldwide – and that closing this gap could reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by 12–17 percent. The evidence base is clear: we cannot get there if we leave women behind.

This is also true for building greater peace and security worldwide. Over the last week, the internet has been abuzz with stories about the women senators, including Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, who finally got Congress to an agreement to end the 16-day shutdown. Women’s leadership is just as vital to moving post-conflict societies forward. Yet in too many countries around the world, we just don’t see women in positions of power, at the negotiating table, represented in the parliament, the judiciary, or in the security sector. The simple result is that issues vital for progress--trafficking in persons, reproductive health care, girls’ education and accountability for past abuses--continue to get lost in the shuffle.

There is still a stubborn notion in post-conflict transitions, developing countries, and even here in the United States, that women, youth, civil society, marginalized populations, even the private sector – that they can all be consulted later. Participatory democracy requires bringing all voices to the table with equal weight. Inclusion is essential to legitimate, sustainable, peaceful, prosperous societies –and that goes for any region anywhere in the world.

The Post-2015 Millennium Development Goals and our Moment of Opportunity

The problems we face—from extreme poverty to extreme climate to extreme ideology—are solvable, but solving them requires meaningful contributions from all parts of society with some clear guideposts for what can make the greatest difference.

With the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals now taking shape, we have the opportunity to formalize our collective commitment to tackling the key areas that will make or break our ability to stomp out extreme poverty and achieve inclusive growth for all.

Importantly, the report of the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda calls climate change the single trend that will determine whether or not we can deliver on our ambitions. This reality requires a concerted effort from all of us to protect precious gains from this escalating threat and to double down on our commitment to supporting the ability of local, regional, and national governments to make a meaningful difference for their people.

Building resilience for the most vulnerable and tackling fragility must be clear components of that equation.


So let me conclude with just a few key recommendations for all of us to embrace as we go forward:

First, whatever it is you do well: be sure to aggregate and scale. Too often, incredible innovation and great ideas that NGOs pioneer at the community level stay localized. NGOs can multiply their results with a focus on partnerships and seeking out those platforms that enable them to aggregate and scale results.

Second, evidence matters: we need to give more attention to baselines, to building out and turning to the evidence that can help steer the most effective investments and shape the most meaningful approaches.

Finally, and I can’t say it enough, inclusive, accountable democratic government is at the heart. All too often I hear criticism of NGOs, that they build parallel systems, that they siphon away capacity from local actors and capabilities. I have seen just the opposite but I urge you to look at how your actions can augment the ability to local institutions to thrive and build the long-term resilience and sustain development of communities.

As we look ahead, to truly reach our goals—to put ourselves out of business as I know most of us share as an organizational goal —we need our development efforts to result in accountable, legitimate, inclusive democracies that can ultimately sustain substantial investments in health, education and agriculture, that can protect fundamental human rights, and give their citizens a voice in their own future.

To eradicate extreme poverty in the next 20 years and fulfill the commitment made by President Obama, together, we need to focus on the heart of the problem. We need to build the resilience of the most vulnerable to ensure their firm footing on the pathway to development. We need to partner with fragile states on vital peace building and state building goals. And we need to bring everyone to the table.

We have the frameworks, we have the partnerships, we have new technology opening doors every day. We have made the commitment to do something we now know is possible.  Progress over the last twenty years has been mind blowing, so I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together over the next twenty years.

And I sincerely look forward to working with all of you to make it happen.

Thank you.