After twenty years working in international development -- a career I relinquished when I realized that taxpayers' money was largely being spent on failed or redundant projects in countries so corrupt that taxpayers should be outraged -- it came as an encouraging surprise to learn of a program that has made a real difference.
The International Fellowships Program (IFP) funded by the Ford Foundation in 2001 has demonstrated that an international scholarship program can help build leadership for social justice, thereby contributing to broader social change at local and national levels. Since its inception, the program has enabled more than 4,300 talented leaders from various parts of the world to pursue advanced degrees at more than 600 universities in nearly 50 countries. The groundbreaking work of IFP enabled its Fellows, who because of ethnicity, geography, gender or physical disability are marginalized in their communities, to bring new knowledge and skills back home. And by removing traditional barriers to educational opportunities such as restrictions on age or fields of study, IFP has opened the door to advanced education for change makers in 22 countries worldwide. (Today approximately 82 percent of IFP Fellows work in their home countries.)
Some of IFP's alumni now promote eco-tourism and conservation in China, develop drama therapy programs for youth in Tanzania, prevent early marriage and promote education for girls in Kenya, and advocate for the rights of disabled people in Vietnam, among thousands of other contributions. Vo Thi Hoang Yen is one of them. Having contracted polio as a young child, she "wanted to change the perception that people with disabilities were incapable, helpless and only a burden on society, but I did not know how," she recalls. "Then IFP came along, bringing me a great opportunity to study abroad, expand my knowledge and realize my dream." Armed with a master's degree in community development from the University of Kansas, Yen returned home after completing her graduate studies and founded the Disability Research and Capacity Development Center in Ho Chi Minh City, a groundbreaking NGO and civil society initiative that now plays a national role in shaping disability law and policies in Vietnam.
I learned about IFP because my daughter works there. But the inspiration for this remarkable program came from its founder and executive director Dr. Joan Dassin, 2011 recipient of the Marita Houlihan Prize for Distinguished Contributions to the Field of International Education, and a former Ford Foundation regional director for Latin America. "IFP has conclusively demonstrated that people with direct experience of the problems they want to solve are strongly motivated to improve conditions in the places where they live and work," she says. "Expanding educational opportunities in a targeted way to the neediest communities has a direct impact on development."
IFP's proven model is now being replicated by governments and international agencies in a number of countries, with particular success throughout Latin America. Across the board, IFP alumni are being elected to public office, many hold leadership positions in NGOs and international organizations, and about 40 percent of them are leading changes being made in basic, secondary and higher education.
Contrast the IFP story with the experience of a friend serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in an African country rife with NGOs and bilateral aid agencies. A nurse, my friend sends stories of life there; her reports of moral lassitude and financial corruption abound.
"Whites put on an air of being super-busy, but they are often just recuperating from hangovers, dozing on Valium or paralyzed by depression. [My counterpart] said I can't help her with the office work, mainly to gather statistics on how many of which vaccines were given or how many pregnant women tested HIV positive and received treatment because I do not know how to inflate the numbers. The results are what WHO, UNICEF, UNAIDS, PEPFAR and all the others use to explain to the public their ever growing need for funding.
My friend, having decided that if she can't be part of the solution she is not going to contribute to the problem, is leaving Peace Corps earlier than planned. That, in my book, is a terrible waste of a good nurse and a heartrending commentary on the state of international "development."
In contrast, IFP's measures of success stand up to any development criteria. So, too, do the relevant words of James Kityo, an IFP Fellow from Uganda who earned his master's degree in health management planning and policy at the University of Leeds in England: "Whenever I see a problem, I start imagining how that problem can become a solution."