Connectivity Is Key for Development

September 25, 2009

Last week I was in Serbia, helping the AmCham launch its inaugural corporate social responsibility conference.  This week I was in New York, catching a flavor of the Clinton Global Initiative and the UN General Assembly.  Next week we host our 2009 Global Corporate Citizenship Conference: Focus on Emerging Market Development.   Naturally global CSR issues have been very much front and center, and one of the dominant themes of recent days has been how to make them manageable.  How do we “think globally, but act locally?”

I strongly believe that one of the keys to the future of global development is connectivity.  I was happy to share with the Serbians some of the practices American companies were implementing to help local communities get through the economic crisis. 

Hard to believe that ten years ago, NATO was bombing Serbia, and Americans were definitely not on their most favored nation list.  And yet now, the American Chamber has over 180 members, and I was able to spend two days sharing with them lessons learned from over 5,000 miles away.

Again, at the Clinton Global Initiative, I had the honor to sit with three NGO leaders working on women’s empowerment issues in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Egypt.  I had never heard of their organizations before (nor had they ever heard of us before), but we spent time together learning about each other, why their issues mattered, and how we might be able to help each other.

A little later, on Tuesday evening, someone asked me about my formative experience in international development, and I shared the story of being in Lima, Peru in the 1980s.  Not every currency is measured in dollars you see, and in Lima, progress was measured in bricks.  The oldest shanty towns featured rows of two story houses made of bricks.  Go a little further out, and they became one story houses, and then a little further, as far as the eye could see, you would see huts made of thatch with bigger or smaller piles of bricks in front of them.

Under the influence of the great Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, I came to see poverty as the absence of opportunity.  These were people who fled the complete isolation of their rural villages in the Alta Huallaga valley or the deserts around Arequipa for the relative connectivity of being in the big city.  Water, electricity, transportation, communication, these were all the avenues for new and better circumstances.  The massive wave of urbanism that is sweeping emerging markets today, can be attributed at least in part, for this desire for connectivity.

Now people are saying that broadband is now the “fourth infrastructure.” At CGI and in private meetings, development and business leaders are increasingly saying how important internet connectivity is for health care and education, particularly in rural areas.

Reaching the “last mile” and wiring increasingly remote parts of the world not only enables people to survive in their traditional homes, it brings the world and opportunity to them. 

What’s good at the individual level is also good at the organizational and institutional level.  None of us have all of the answers.  Government agencies, non-profit organizations, chambers of commerce, individual businesses all have their distinct competencies and their blind spots.  Connecting into a network, and connecting networks to each other expands our capabilities and our vision.  Connectivity enables us to raise awareness about issues, develop strategies, mobilize resources, and increase accountability.

We are going to publish a report next week about how the top 10 international development agencies are increasing their efforts to connect with each other and with the private sector, and we are going to push to identify concrete, actionable projects at the 2009 Global Corporate Citizenship Conference that we can get behind and implement.  I hope that connectivity is part of this discussion, because I see it as such a fundamental building block for economic and social progress moving forward. 

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