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The Great Generalists

Fall 2009 Features

The Great Generalists

The 21st century will see a most delicate dance between the new technical specialists and the non-technicians who must master them

The biggest headline to emerge from the July G8 summit in Italy was a landmark commitment of US $20 billion over three years to support smallholder farmers in the world’s poorest countries. The announcement marked a breakthrough in reason for the global system. It is analogous in historical terms to Kofi Annan’s 2001 launch of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, when approximately 1.3 million sub-Saharan Africans were dying of AIDS every year, and only 10,000 people in the region were receiving treatment.

Beneath the large font typically dedicated to dollar numbers starting with the letter b, a popular G8 sub-story recounted President Obama’s personalized intervention during the leaders’ meeting, where he cited the ongoing strains of poverty still felt by his own relatives in Kenya. The room was undoubtedly held captive by the legitimacy of a voice that speaks from personal knowledge, and one that blazed a unique path across so many barriers to reach a pinnacle of political power. On the heels of a global food crisis during which world leaders repeatedly bumbled and fumbled, Obama’s timely leadership helped a global initiative cross a major goal line. This followed a prolonged international campaign among experts and advocates who worked relentlessly to put the critical policy pieces in place over a number of years.

Impoverished farm families face no greater priority than access to food. Fortunately, there is remarkable new momentum for treating problem ‘causes’ – especially Africa’s uniquely low food production – rather than symptoms, notably multibillion-dollar food aid budget shortfalls at the World Food Program. However, such global breakthroughs remain the exception rather than the rule at high-level summits. Why? One reason is that leaders’ summits capture the outcomes of less visible movements with long gestation periods. As global problems emerge, professional networks toil across science, business, government and public advocacy to mobilize insights for diagnosis and garner support for scaled action. For urgencies affecting populations living far outside of the G8, full-blown coalitions typically take shape over a period of five years or more – in the best cases – and political attention only comes once problems are spinning out of control.

Another reason is that, even today, in 2009, G8 leaders lack the exposure and expertise needed to tackle core global tasks. Only President Obama was apparently in a position to describe his practical human connections with communities in the world’s poorest regions. There were no reports of other leaders recounting their own work in Africa, or of the impoverished farmers they know, or their own experiences of problem-solving for disease control, water management or building infrastructure in the poorest countries. Indeed, none of these leaders’ official résumés lists professional experience in the low-income parts of Africa, Asia or Latin America. (Even Obama himself has spent very little time in Africa.) These leaders are only asked to tackle global issues because of influence rooted in their countries’ resources – not because of their particular expertise or representative legitimacy.

President Obama is himself an instructive case. Even though his upbringing was certifiably intercontinental, his professional life has been spent entirely in the US, focussed almost exclusively on domestic issues. He cut his working teeth as a professor of the American constitution and a community-level activist. This is not a criticism – far from it, as the President has some of the most globally-minded instincts on the planet. But it is an example of the broader mismatch between political leaders’ professional backgrounds and emerging global responsibilities.

It has been a misnomer to call the G8 leaders ‘world leaders,’ with the current exception of Obama, who has a huge global following. Most of his counterparts are straightforwardly leaders of countries that happen to be wealthy. These leaders represent less than one-sixth of the world’s population, and have little background or training to navigate the issues that affect the 2.6 billion people who live on less than US $2 per day – much less the 1.4 billion people who live below the US $1.25-a-day line of extreme poverty. In truth, most of what the G8 emphasizes as ‘global issues,’ like the international financial system, are those of self-interest, rather than the interests of the world’s majority.

To be sure, these leaders are capable of driving progress. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was the most forceful and committed G8 leader on issues of African development and the Millennium Development Goals for several years before Obama took office. He has helped the UK provide much of the most robust global leadership in this area, bolstered by strong public interest in the issues and a relatively deep bench of civil service expertise. But even Brown is trained in UK-focussed economics, and his public arguments on Africa draw from logic and moral force, rather than practical experience or expertise in the region.

And while President George W. Bush was globally unpopular, his AIDS and malaria initiatives were pivotal in helping to turn the tide on key global challenges, even if these initiatives were modest in comparison with overall US capacity. They also helped turn the US policy supertanker in a positive direction after it hit its all-time low of international support in 1997 under President Bill Clinton.

For their part, Canadian leaders have been substantially absent on the global issues of poverty, environment and development that are so crucial to large swathes of humanity. Their neglect has been a bipartisan collaboration. The current Conservative government seems barely interested in Africa, for example. Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien at least turned the trend line from pointing down to up. His Liberal successor Paul Martin disappointed globally when he failed to meet expectations and implicit promises.

Indeed, in early 2005, Prime Minister Martin allowed his Finance Minister Ralph Goodale to sign a globally prominent recommendation that all rich countries should fulfill their commitment to allocating 0.7 percent of national income to supporting practical investments in the poorest countries. At the same time, Goodale openly questioned European countries for following through on the commitment, and publicly ensured that Canada did not. Martin and Goodale were apparently happy to ride a wave that rallied public emotional support for Africa, but were essentially uninterested in the task of marshalling practical public effort for partnering with Africans on problem-solving.

Such shallowness of commitment should not be surprising when one considers how little most G8 leaders and their key advisors typically know about many core global briefs. Nor should it be surprising that relevant public debates in the same countries are often driven by tangents. Too often the critical arguments only bubble to the surface once a crisis has hit. Instead, issues of broad global interest merit public discussion that is both rigorous and vigorous well before crises erupt, with public leaders framing both underlying issues and potential solutions.

Fortunately, the era of maximum global power convened through minority representation is already coming to a rapid close. Of necessity, the recent G20 Summit in Pittsburgh declared that the G8 will now be superseded by a more diverse group of 20 countries that better reflect today’s global economy. The G8 was already pushing the bounds of legitimacy well before this major shift. In addition to concerns of representation, the group was in many ways putting itself out of business through an inability to follow through on its own commitments. Most prominently, the G8 has now essentially locked in a self-governance failure in the form of a US $20 billion-plus shortfall on its leaders’ personally signed 2005 pledges to Africa for 2010.

Even as issues of representation are remedied in global fora, globally pertinent expertise will still be needed. Three major trends provide grounds for optimism that forthcoming leaders will have much more appropriate skills than their predecessors. The first is inexorably generational. Leaders today were educated in the 1970s and 1980s – when vast portions of the Cold War world were blocked from mere travel; when most currencies were inconvertible; when there were no cell phones or emails, and certainly no Skype accounts for free phone calls to anywhere in the world.

Future political leaders will have come of age in an era where global posts and pan-regional responsibilities are a standard part of business, science and government – and not just the preserve of the elite. ‘Developing country’ posts typically still imply middle-income ‘BRIC’ environments – rather than low-income poverty zones – but the expanding professional interconnections of the world economy are nonetheless unquestionable. (Among countless indicators of the trend, the eminent consulting firm McKinsey & Company recently named a Singapore-based Canadian as its global Managing Director.)

We can anticipate that many of the political leaders of 2030 and onward are studying in university today. The global spirit on campuses is palpably stronger than even a decade ago. In North America, it is now commonplace for undergraduates to take internships in developing countries and to launch their own internationally-focussed organizations, whether for profit or not. Many young people have gained tremendous global exposure well before they have even graduated from university.

The second trend is slightly more subtle. A growing number of university students realize that mere exposure is not sufficient preparation for global problem-solving. Advanced technical and scientific skills are needed. A generation ago, a large share of global policy-minded student activists studied law or international relations. Today, they are more likely to pursue more technical subjects to match the nature of many of today’s problems. Similar to how Norman Borlaug’s green revolution heroics inspired legions of agronomists two generations ago, a huge number of ambitious idealists today study biosciences – not as a precursor to simply becoming a doctor, but as a stepping stone to a career in global health. Related movements are clearly discernible among engineers focussed on energy, water and environmental management.

A third trend is related to, but more grounded in, strategic planning, and will be guided in the short-term by current academic and policy leaders. It is the growing recognition that global problem-solving requires not only advanced expertise from within disciplines, but also management of expertise across disciplines. While PhDs and technical specialists are crucial for generating insights, well-trained generalists are needed to manage and implement insights across disciplines. This was the finding of a recent International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice, supported by the MacArthur Foundation and the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Consider, for example, the chronic catastrophe of low food production in sub-Saharan Africa. An understanding of basic agronomy is central to tackling the region’s soil nutrient crisis. Basic climate science and hydrology are essential for understanding the water challenges of rain-fed agriculture – particularly those in the pastoralist drylands that also represent some of the world’s most significant security challenges. Basic engineering is fundamental to the successful introduction of irrigation. Economics is required to understand market limitations in solving problems among extremely poor people. Anthropology is required to understand community behaviours and choices.

Similar cross-disciplinary connections apply to problems of disease control, ecosystem management, basic education, and more. All such problems require the need to stay on top of evidence as it evolves, lest a 2020 or 2030 political leader be working from the health protocols taught in 2000 – for example, when official global policy said that AIDS was something to be prevented rather than treated, and that malaria bed nets were to be sold rather than distributed.

But our academic institutions overwhelmingly reward ever-narrower specialization, overlooking the public interest in rigorous, evidence-based generalism. This is why the Commission recommended that universities around the world introduce a new form of degree programme – a Master’s in Development Practice (MDP) – as a mechanism to teach core content across each of four basic pillars of sustainable development: health science, natural science, social science and management. The Commission further recommended that universities systematically deliver joint courses and internships across institutions and time zones, so that students practice cross-border study, analysis, and problem-solving on a routine basis. Students must also learn how to link efforts across the interwoven community-, country- and international-level dynamics.

The global interest in this initiative provides further grounds for optimism. In the three months after the Commission launched its recommendations, well over 100 universities around the world submitted formal letters of interest in MDP programmes. Less than a year later, the MacArthur Foundation has granted seed funding to help nine universities launch programmes across seven countries and five continents. A ‘global classroom’ is also entering its third iteration as a flagship that uses cheap webcam software for weekly seminars spanning across a dozen universities and time zones.

Global skills and representation are not a substitute for political acumen. Public leaders will forever require aptitude in distilling issues, communicating effectively and motivating their constituents. But it is an early 21st century anachronism that annual processes among a small minority of leaders still serve as a major force for brokering the major global problems of the day.

The skills are forthcoming. By 2030, today’s university graduates will be assuming positions of global influence. In 20 years, they will be vastly more globally-minded and technically prepared than their predecessors. They will be much better prepared to shorten the gestation period between the emergence of a global challenge, its diagnosis and the implementation of appropriate solutions.

This does not suggest that the world should spend a generation in waiting. We must ensure that new cadres of public leaders receive rigorous cross-disciplinary education, and learn to follow evidence as it evolves. They must be trained to listen and think across the diversity of constituencies needed to draw global insights and build global coalitions. We must ensure that they learn to connect global decision-making processes with expertise and communities on the ground. Above all, we must ensure that we do not let the problems they inherit run so far afield that they grow simply too big to be solved.


John W. McArthur is CEO of Millennium Promise and former Deputy Director of the UN Millennium Project. He recently co-chaired the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice.


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