March 2010

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Since my college days as an International Relations major, I’ve had an interest in the development of Third World countries. But my post-college trajectory was more domestic in nature so most of my knowledge of the field is twenty years old. I think the phrase “Third World” is frowned upon these days, for instance.

Nevertheless, I do try to read an article about development now and then. I read one recently in which a guy talked about creating a “virtuous circle of reinforcing changes.” Reinforcing changes rather than a focus on one category of change. Virtuous circle (or cycle) rather than vicious circle (or cycle). Vicious cycle sounds more familiar and more interesting to me so I prefer, in turn, virtuous cycle. The virtuous cycle of reinforcing changes appeals to me for two reasons. First, it sounds like a positive feedback loop, which have fascinated me since I first learned about them in a freshman year science seminar. Second, because whenever I think about development, I think with exasperation, “Where does one start?”

The population of the world today is just shy of 7 billion people. Some demographers think the world population will plateau at around 9 billion in 2050. Others believe no foreseeable plateau exists.

So what can we do? I feel like education is the key. Whatever else we do, we need to educate the young people in these countries. Then, eventually, they will be able to solve their own problems. And one thing I’ve come to believe in life is that problems are best solved by the people who have the problems. I apply this to individuals, peoples and nations.

I do want to help, though, and I think we can help, and not just in obvious situations such as the recent earthquake in Haiti. But there is so much to do. We need to lower fertility rates and help build critical life-sustaining infrastructure. I want to educate people but how do we educate them if they spend all their time looking for food and water? And how do they get food and water, let alone sit in classrooms, if the political atmosphere is stifling, stagnant or downright volatile?

My sources in development tell me there has been more of an emphasis on partnerships in development recently. This is a great way to help while making sure people help themselves. And in helping themselves, they become a homegrown problem-solving elite for the future.

So I love the phrase, “virtuous cycle of reinforcing changes.” It’s new to me but probably old hat to development professionals. Basically, it means we have to do everything at once, which is what we have been trying to do (in sometimes disorganized fashion) for many, many years. With some success and some failure. What can we do but keep trying?

The virtuous cycle of reinforcing changes. It is not a bad way to look at any attempt to affect positive change on a complex system. The phrase is just a phrase, and maybe it is only saying what many people already know. But what a great way to say it.