Why USAID’s David Ferguson thinks we can end extreme poverty

We can’t solve 21st century problems with 20th century approaches, according to the head of the Center for Global innovation.

ferguson usaid mit tata center

Roughly ten percent of the world’s population still subsists on less than two dollars a day – a dismal statistic, but a dramatic improvement on the numbers from thirty years ago, when nearly half the people on earth lived in extreme poverty.

USAID’s David Ferguson, director of the innovation center at the U.S. Global Development Lab, now says we have a chance to eradicate extreme poverty completely. During an appearance at MIT on Monday, Nov. 16th, as part of the Tata Center Speaker Series, Ferguson said, “We’ve seen the trajectory in China and India that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and we think that will continue. We have the capability. We can do this. What we need is the will, and that comes from all of us.”

Ferguson is leading an effort within USAID to bring development work into the 21st century, moving beyond the traditional aid model of calling for proposals and accepting bids. “Our job is to push the boundaries on the kinds of things that can be done, and to generate outcomes that are orders of magnitude better in terms of effectiveness.”

The case of the wedding dress maker vs. Ebola

Even though USAID is the “biggest, baddest aid agency on the planet,” as Ferguson put it, they also can’t “fund their way to success.” To solve the world’s toughest challenges of poverty, disease, and disenfranchisement, he believes they’re going to need to leverage talent and ideas from all corners of the globe and nourish the best of them from conception to deployment.

“We’re not going to electrify Africa using 20th century technology. It’s just not going to happen that way. It will happen through disruption. Impact is the objective of all of this. We’re trying to end a billion people living in extreme poverty.”

One example of a major contribution from an unlikely source came in the effort to redesign hazard suits for Ebola health workers in Africa. The U.S. Global Development Lab held a design competition and awarded the funding to a team from Johns Hopkins University. But the secret to their success wasn’t solely biomedical engineering expertise: The Johns Hopkins suit was heavily influenced by input from a wedding dress designer who heard about the project and came forward with ideas to improve functionality, comfort, and safety.

This supported Ferguson’s belief that no stone should be left unturned in the search for solutions to difficult problems. “Let’s get more people in the game,” he said. “Let’s not assume that the wedding dress designer doesn’t have anything to offer.”

Development through data

The U.S. Global Development Lab provides funding to creative thinkers of all kinds who can make a compelling case for why their solution could have large impact, but they put a premium on data and evidence supporting the effectiveness and scalability of a project.

He gave the example of an effort to chlorinate drinking water in Malawi, where water-borne illness was a serious problem. In this case, technology was not the problem; dispensing chlorine is easy. But adoption–actually getting the affected villagers to use it–proved a challenge. They tried handing the chlorine out for free, making it available at a corner store, selling it cheaply, and nothing took hold. Finally, they set up a dispenser next to the water source, allowing villagers to put chlorine in their jerry can at the same time they filled it from the well, and suddenly people began to use it. The results of these trials were used to scale the program into other regions and even neighboring countries.

Ferguson admits that it’s a long, laborious process to usher in large-scale change, but says there are strategies to avoid becoming overwhelmed. “Development is always a systems problem, but you cannot attack a systems problem at the systems level. You have to break down the problem and look at how you might tackle one part of it, then come back up to the system level and adjust.”

Ultimately, he sounded a hopeful note that even the most entrenched poverty issues could be overcome.

“Development problems are frequently described as intractable problems. I don’t believe that they are intractable. If we approach them effectively, we can solve them.”