Global Washington: What do we mean by development? | 

On the first day of Global Washington‘s annual meeting, being held through Tuesday on the Microsoft campus, one of the primary challenges facing many participants is “development.”

The word, that is — what it means and how to know if you’re actually doing it.

“It has a lot of different meanings depending on who you’re talking to,” said Bill Clapp, a co-founder of Global Washington and one of the region’s leading philanthropists especially active in the anti-poverty strategy known as microfinance.

(Microfinance has also had a bit of an identity crisis as an anti-poverty scheme lately. Some, like the Grameen Foundation, are trying to set standards for measuring social impact.)

“What we mean by development is social development,” said Clapp. By that, he means they are focused on the kind of development that actually improves the health and welfare of people.

One of the goals of the Global Washington meeting this year is to bring together the traditional non-profit organizations that are fighting poverty or improving health and engage with businesses typically focused on the bottom line. At last year’s conference, only one business showed up. We live in a global world with a global economy, Clapp says, and business should play a central role in making it a better world.

“This year, we have had more businesses coming and speaking,” said Bookda Gheiser, executive director of Global Washington. “I think there’s a much stronger sense of community.”

There’s no question that Seattle and this region is rapidly gaining a community identity, and an industry of sorts, as an international nexus of organizations and people devoted to reducing global poverty, disease, injustices and other problems that fall under the rubric of development. Here’s a video from one such local organization, Agros International:

On Tuesday, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will host an international meeting, the Global Savings Forum, focused on helping people in poor communities worldwide use cell phones and other innovative means to engage in savings — a critical component to helping people help get themselves out of poverty.

“The problem with all this is when we think that just doing good is good enough,” said Dean Karlan, an economist at Yale University who spoke on this Monday at the Global Washington meeting. Nobody would ever say such a thing out loud, Karlan says, yet many “development” programs are being run without much evidence of social good.

“People just think they’re good because they look like good things to do,” he says. “We’re at the point now where we need more than just good intentions.”

Phrases like “corporate social responsibility” and “socially responsible investing” are popular things to say or claim to be doing these days, Karlan said. But if you take a hard look at a lot of these claims, it’s clear that some companies are basically just selling to poor people and calling it good.

“If that’s all we needed to do, we could say the tobacco and alcohol companies are the greatest tools in the fight against poverty,” Karlan said.

Like Clapp, he says what’s needed is a much clearer definition of what we mean by development and a harder-edged yardstick for assessing social impact. We can do that pretty well in health care and even in education today, Karlan says, but we have a long way to go in terms of defining, measuring and evaluating “social development.”