In Jijiga, Ethiopia, Mercy Corps helps women expand their milk businesses, improving the incomes for hundreds of pastoralists and their families. Photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps
What is the point of development? In these turbulent times, and with aid budgets under ever-greater scrutiny, it is a valid and important question. Throughout much of the twentieth century, the answer would have been simply to grow the economies of poor countries. Later on there was a more specific focus on reducing poverty. But traditionally, the idea of increasing freedom and opportunity was not a central aim. That was seen more as a luxury to be enjoyed once 'development' had been achieved.
Nearly 20 years ago Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, turned that on its head. In his 1998 book 'Development as Freedom' he said that the expansion of freedom is not some sort of optional extra, but rather 'both the primary end and the principal means' of development. Sen called for the removal of conditions that make people 'unfree'. Only when we have freed people from political tyranny, lack of opportunity and crippling poverty can we claim to have achieved development. He was right.
Twenty years on, these ideas are perhaps more powerful now than ever. Over those two decades, globalisation has created a world of extraordinary opportunity. Never in its history has the human race had such access to technologies, infrastructure, healthcare and education. Never before have we been more prosperous: extreme poverty cut in half since the 1990s, child and maternal mortality dramatically reduced and the global economy growing consistently.
And yet two billion people are still trapped in places where the opportunities of the 21st century are inaccessible - deep pockets of poverty and conflict, fragility and instability. Those two billion include young people in Somalia with no political voice, farmers in Nigeria with no means to diversify their incomes, and businesspeople in Iraq or Syria whose livelihoods have been destroyed by war. Those two billion people live in a world of unprecedented opportunity, and yet opportunity is not available to them.
Displaced civilians flee the conflict between the Iraqi army and the Islamic State on the eastern edges of Mosul city in November 2016. Photo: Cengiz Yar for Mercy Corps
In the extraordinary turbulence of our times it is tempting to think that providing opportunity for all is simply beyond our reach. The challenges stacked against us include refugee numbers on a scale not seen since the Second World War, record levels of migration, unprecedented urbanisation, resource depletion, political radicalism and climate change. In that context, why should freedom and opportunity be the focus of development?
But for Mercy Corps, the extreme contrast between what is possible for many of us and the reality of life for so many others - an inequity of opportunity - is one of the key obstacles to development. More than just poverty or inequality it is about the inability of billions of people to realise their aspirations in a world where there should be opportunity for everyone. In the modern world there should be endless possibilities; but they are unavailable to people without access to opportunity.
And increasingly, thanks to information technology, those people are all too aware of the opportunities and choices being denied them. That stokes anger, driving conflict and violence that affects all of us. Of course economic growth and poverty reduction are enormously important, but reducing this inequity of opportunity, increasing freedom of choice, and expanding individual agency should be a central point of development.
Crucially, we know that even in the most fragile of places enormous opportunities exist, if only they can be realised. Technology is providing a means for refugees in Uganda to receive remittances from around the world, building resilience in fragile places. Women are protecting their families from drought using community savings and loans in Ethiopia. Small businesses are building urban community resilience in India. Micro-insurance is allowing people to plan for their futures even in risk-prone countries like Haiti.
A South Sudanese refugee family registers for vaccinations at the Bidibidi settlement in Yumbe, Uganda. Photo: Javier Alvarez/Mercy Corps
But it is clear that although these opportunities exist, there is a very long way to go before they are made available to everyone, particularly in fragile places. So if a central aim of development should be to extend opportunity everywhere, what is the role for professional development organisations like my own?
I believe that increasingly, development NGOs will play a role as catalysts, helping to bring others together to realise opportunities even in the most difficult of places. We can take the initial risks to prove the viability of a business model. We can make introductions between community organisations and corporations, or between civil society and technology developers. We can build bridges, hold conversations and map out common ground between different groups with shared interests. We can become opportunity brokers.
If we do, and if others in the private sector, governments and civil society focus intensely on opportunity, then twenty years after Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize we may at last be on the road to ending 'unfreedom' and achieving development for all.