Daniel Speckhard on Sustainable Development Goal #1: Are we making progress toward ending extreme poverty?

  • John Rivera
  • Dec 6, 2019

Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health President & CEO Daniel Speckhard took part in a Dec. 3 panel on Sustainable Development Goal #1: No Poverty, sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The panel, part of a series focusing on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, considered the progress being made toward the objective of ending extreme poverty by 2030, measured as people living under $1.25 a day.

The panel was moderated by William F. Runde, a CSIS senior vice president and director of the Project on Prosperity and Development, and included Gloria D. Steele, Acting Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Asia, U.S. Agency for International Development; Senior Director for Global Government Affairs, Walmart Stores, Inc; and Richard Bissell, a non-resident senior advisor at CSIS.

Watch the entire panel on Sustainable Development Goal #1: No Poverty

In his comments, Speckhard described how Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health are taking bold steps to increase its impact around the world in working to eliminate extreme poverty, including the merger between the two organizations and its acquisition of Charlie Goldsmith Associates. He also describes his vision of the most effective approach NGOs must take going forward to increase effectiveness and build trust in the communities where they work. Here is an edited transcript of his remarks.

You’ve been doing some interesting things at Lutheran World Relief rethinking the business model of a faith-based development NGO.  I’d love for you to talk a little bit about what you’ve been doing at Lutheran world Relief and how does Lutheran World Relief think about SDG #1?

I think the key for us in our journey has been to really understand what self-sustaining development means. How can you have an interaction that helps support communities and families, but that will have a lasting impact? In the past, our focus for the rural extreme poor was on increasing crop productivity, providing a little bit of financing to get better inputs and so forth, and leaving it to the market to help support their incomes. We found that we need a holistic approach, for a couple of reasons. First of all, because in those rural areas, there really isn’t a well-developed market, so they’re often at the reliance of one particular trader and there’s a monopolistic tendency going on. Second, there’s not enough economic activity to support the next generation of the family. The reality is the next generation of farmers’ children is not staying on those coffee farms. And so for us, we decided we needed to take a much more holistic view of how we do development, beyond just rural agricultural development, to all the different elements that are composed of that.

On recent developments at Lutheran World Relief and IMA World Health

We created a for-profit subsidiary, Ground Up Investing. We wanted to be for-profit to ensure that it’s self-sustaining and building in the right kinds of business models. And it owns things like Mountain Harvest in Uganda, a coffee company that has changed the terms of trade for coffee farmers. Second, we’ve done a merger and put together Lutheran World Relief with IMA World Health because we felt we needed to have a much stronger health component to our holistic development. These families cannot be successful in escaping poverty if they don’t have solutions to the health challenges that can knock  a family off of any success they’ve had on the income front. Just several months ago acquired a technology company in the UK in the education sector because we felt a key component of success is going to be building in transparency, both for ourselves and what we’re doing in impacts, but also for local communities and governments to see how money is being spent. Because on this poverty issue, there’s a big lack of trust about whether money going to development or aid, even at the local level, is actually going for those purposes. And they need to be able to see where money is going, what the results are, how it’s being distributed.

On the need for transformational change in the development sector

We ask these communities to be involved in transformational change, and yet we’re very reluctant to do that ourselves. We’re very used to doing it the old way and we’re comfortable doing it a little bit more the old way or a little bit less the old way, and changing a little bit at the edges. We’re asking communities to fundamentally revolutionize the way they’re doing everything to be successful and yet we’re not ready to do that. So I’m really trying to push our sector to make sure we are really thinking outside the box and merging [organizations] not because somebody’s bankrupt, but merging because it makes the most sense, or acquiring a subsidiary from a different country that has technological skills because we need to leapfrog, rather than doing this in an incremental way.

On the lack of trust in local communities and the need to build relationships

When we say we fail it’s oftentimes because we view our work as a project. We failed in our project to solve these problems. For me, development and this whole goal  (SDG #1) is not about a project to end poverty. It’s about relationships and relations and getting those things right. It’s the relationships inside communities, it’s the relationships between communities and the private sector, it’s the relationships between communities and their governments, it’s the relationship between peoples and between tribes. When you start getting those pieces right, then you can have development. And when you ignore all those things and have a bunch of deliverables and say we’re going to deliver this amount of increased productivity or something else, it doesn’t work.

So for me, that’s why nonprofits are a key component in this. I think they have a particular, special role because they carry a lot of social trust in these environments. In a place like Africa, anywhere from 10 to 70 percent of health services are provided by the faith community. They understand why you are there because people have become very skeptical about where the money is going.  That’s why I said we need to be more transparent about how money is spent. Because they don’t view this money as coming to them anymore. So for me, that social trust is key.

On the need to address security in development

When I joined this organization five years ago, what I noticed right away was that extreme poverty was going to be centered more and more in the fragile, failed states. And so what I’ve been doing with our nonprofit is ensuring that we’re building the capacity to work in conflict-ridden, difficult, extreme and hostile environments, because that’s where [the extremely poor] are going to be. So the tool kit is going to have to change considerably if we’re really serious about ending extreme poverty in those places. And that comes back to my five years at NATO and my two years in Iraq, which is that security is also a key component of this. You cannot end extreme poverty unless you’re looking at it in a much more complex, holistic sense, not just in terms of health, development, income enterprises, but also security in these spaces.

On the moral imperative to end poverty

What I love about the next generation when I hear about their captivation with the environment and solving our environmental challenges is they see this as existential to our human race and they put us all together in one group. And I think that’s what you need to be thinking about here, and that’s what happens in the church pew. For a moment there on Sunday, they stop thinking about categories and where we are and where the borders end and think about humanity – which is where most religions put us, not just Christianity. We are connected. And a sign of the United States’ ability to lead in this world is if we’re the kind of country that cares for somebody at the very edge of extreme poverty, where day to day you don’t know if children are going to live. If we can’t have that kind of compassion in this world, what does it mean about compassion for our own community? It’s a sign that your own internal societal system is going to start breaking down. Because if you can’t care for that child living in famine in Yemen, the reality is you’ll pretty soon be able to block out the fact that some people in a difference state or too far away from you in the United States are having trouble.

On the “democratization of development”

One of the big pieces, beside the technological piece that we’re using in our projects, is the democratization of development. I think the cell phone is going to be the piece that is going to allow us not to have to send a monitoring and evaluation person out into the field and visit three of the 50 villages and decide whether the project’s been a success or not. There’s going to be access to data in ways there hasn’t been before. This company that we acquired (Charlie Goldsmith Associates) was working in South Sudan with DFID money. They have increased the number of kids going to school from 800,000 to 1.8 million in a really tough environment like South Sudan using Nokia phones, with teachers reporting who’s in attendance each day at the school, populating that data back to the Ministry of Education to let them know where the schools are being used, to allow you to put resources into those places and to then check on things. Having data showing up in real time allows us to start checking and allows us to build trust back into the aid business with these very poor communities.


John Rivera, Dec 6, 2019 email