InterAction's Sam Worthington and the Outlook on Sustainable Development

by Kathleen Taylor

Sam Worthington, president and CEO of InterAction, delivered poignant remarks and anecdotes on the state of sustainable development at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).


On Wednesday, June 10, YPFP hosted an event at John Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies (SAIS) campus in Washington, DC. The event explored the future of sustainable development. The keynote speaker was Sam Worthington, the CEO and president of InterAction, an organization comprised of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Washington, DC that works to protect civil society and promote partnerships to address global poverty.

He has a distinguished career in the international development sector and was an excellent choice as a lecturer on such an interesting and dynamic field. Through his vast knowledge and significant practical experience, Mr. Worthington delivered an engaging talk on development and the prospects of success of the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of goals established by the United Nations that will build upon the Millennium Development Goals.

Mr. Worthington opened with an endearing anecdote about a trip he took to India in the early 1990s.  While there, he traveled with a Nigerian doctor and observed multiple projects throughout Southeast Asia. One of the core duties of these two men was weighing children as they were working on projects focused on minimizing the number of children who die each day from malnutrition. He met a little girl, who, like many of the children in this village, was malnourished. The little girl took him by the hand and led him to the roof of a building his organization had constructed as a place to store grain. Once on the roof, he saw piles of peanuts. The little girl bent down, picked up a handful, and offered them to Mr. Worthington. He nostalgically remembered this moment and said it had stuck with him throughout the years. This little girl, who barely had enough to eat herself, was concerned that her Western visitor might be hungry. What was so extraordinary about this heart-warming exchange was the degree of human compassion and that people look locally for help, especially to their neighbors.

This exchange with the little girl certainly had a profound impact on Mr. Worthington and influenced his thinking of international development. One such realization he had was that most development is ultimately local; it occurs at the family, community and neighborhood level. Mr. Worthington observed that good governance and the private sector are indispensable. However, alone, they are insufficient. The missing piece of the puzzle is that there must also be a vibrant civil society and enthusiastic civic engagement. Without civil society, justice and social change will not be accomplished with assistance only from the government and private sector. Thus, civil society is necessary because development works around a society’s ability to meet the needs of its people and communities.

Mr. Worthington suggested that the terms “First,” “Second,” and “Third World” were meaningless. He also stated that a lot of development issues are rooted in political will. He believes the world should be viewed in terms of emerging markets and “failed” or “fragile” states. Thus, the world’s extreme poor are divided in two: one half (emerging markets) where the government has the ability to alleviate much of the inequality, economic hardship, etc., and the other half (fragile or failed states) where the government does not have the capacity to invest in its own people. In the former, it is a matter of political will: Is solving the inequalities and injustices something the governments deem worthy and are willing to invest political capital in? In the latter, the societies are not able to survive shocks that occur in its society as the government is unable to provide for its citizens. Civil society and the role of NGOs should fill this open political space. This is where civil society and NGOs step in. In these conflict-ridden and war-torn areas, NGOs can assist in delivering the services that the government cannot provide.

Mr. Worthington offered a generally positive outlook to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to development generally. These goals will provide policy and funding until 2030, starting with a promise to fully and permanently end poverty. While the Millennium Development Goals were successful in some ways, more than 1 billion people still live on less than $1.25 a day, the definition of extreme poverty. More action needs to be taken. The SDGs seek to finish the goals that the MDGs set out to accomplish. Mr. Worthington views the SDGs in a positive light, calling them the best attempt to say, “It is within our power to eliminate poverty. He said while most people seem to have a more negative outlook on the world, the development community has never been in a better position to help the poor. He sees permanently eradicating poverty as no longer just a dream, but a reality.

Photo: World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr

Kathleen Taylor is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is based in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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