By Sang Zoon (Joon) Park, MPP/MBA student
The Elusive Solution to Ending Poverty
You might be reading this post hoping to discover a secret formula to ending global poverty. Regrettably, let me dash your hopes up front. There may be no silver bullet, but the solutions may be more straightforward than we imagine if we better leverage political will and diplomacy. Consider this: The World Bank estimates that about 700 million people live in extreme poverty, subsisting on less than $2.15 a day. But with just two trillion dollars, a mere 0.14 percent of the global GDP, we could eliminate extreme poverty today. What’s missing? A collective political decision to do so.
This scarcity begs some fundamental questions: If we have more than enough resources, why doesn’t the world choose to end poverty? When resources are invested in projects to improve communities, why do we still fail to achieve sustainable outcomes? Why is it so difficult to get things done in international development?
A Novel Concept: Development Diplomacy
These questions form the core of the Center for International Development (CID) Seminar, “Development Diplomacy” led by CID Executive Director Fatema Z. Sumar. During fall 2023, Fatema taught a novel course for over 30 Harvard undergraduate and graduate students across multiple schools on her coined term, “Development Diplomacy,” drawn from her book, The Development Diplomat: Working Across Borders, Boardrooms, and Bureaucracies to End Global Poverty. According to her definition, development diplomacy signifies “an approach that leverages diplomatic resources, skills, and assets to achieve development objectives to end poverty.” The seminar studied the intersectionality of foreign policy, politics, and international development in understanding how decisions are made to resource and execute development priorities. Instead of studying international development in a political vacuum, over the course of four lunch-time sessions, we dove head first into the diplomacy that can make or break development objectives.
Is Development Diplomacy for you?
Many of us at the Kennedy School came to Harvard to study how to solve real world challenges. From improving education quality to tackling climate change, from promoting gender equality to pursuing peace and justice, we are hungry for practical tools and knowledge to help communities thrive.
I came here to fulfill my lifelong goal to contribute to ending gender-based violence and achieving gender equality as codified in Sustainable Development Goal number five as part of the United Nations’ roadmap to end global poverty by 2030. As a newspaper journalist in South Korea, I closely covered issues of sexual violence. I saw firsthand how complex politics, lack of resources and inequitable distribution of resources, and patriarchy and misogyny prevented communities like mine from achieving gender equality. My dream is to break these patterns on a national and global scale.
But I have had my doubts. Are lofty goals like these even possible to accomplish? How do we break down the silos between politics and policy? How do we achieve change at scale? I was excited to tackle these questions and more through the new lens of “development diplomacy.” This CID seminar is great for students who:
- Seek to understand real-world obstacles in international development and viable political strategies to overcome them.
- Aim to be practitioners who are looking to gain the skills and tools they need across diplomacy and development to pursue change at scale.
- Want to meet students across Harvard including undergraduate students and graduate students from professional schools who are curious about integrating development diplomacy into their respective fields.
Seminar Discussions: A Deep Dive into Development Diplomacy
The fall 2023 sessions were interconnected, each thread exploring different aspects of development diplomacy:
- International Aid Overview: This session helped us scene set to understand the post-World War II and post-colonial landscape that shaped international aid institutions and budgets. We can’t change the future if we don’t understand the past and the politics of the global aid system we are inheriting.
- Political Barriers to Aid: This session delved more into the political systems that can help or hinder foreign aid. We explored how various stakeholders — including governments, parliaments, NGOs, media, academics, taxpayers, and intergovernmental organizations — are interconnected and influence decision-making processes. The highlight for me was role-playing real-world diplomatic scenarios such as the challenges of implementing U.S. aid to Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war. These scenarios, derived from Fatema's own career experiences, offered students a pragmatic view of the role of diplomacy in shaping development outcomes.
- Overcoming Implementation Challenges: This session explored how we can make progress using development diplomacy when we are stuck during the implementation of a development project. It was exciting to have Judith Tumusiime, Deputy Executive Director of Kampala Capital City Authority, guest lecture on a case study about her leadership of a World Bank-funded infrastructure project in Uganda. We worked in teams to analyze the negotiation skills, diplomatic tools, and political leverage she had in making decisions that affected the outcome of this massive transportation investment.
- Becoming a Development Diplomat: This session looked at concrete skills we could pursue to become a development diplomat focusing on:
- Money – understanding how money is spent (not just how much)
- Bureaucracy – how to rise above bureaucratic turf wars
- Politics – how to navigate political waters for long-term buy-in
- Language – how to speak the bureaucratic language of others
- Emotional Intelligence – how to be flexible and agile
- Diversity – how to leverage diversity for better outcomes
Each of us self-reflected on our current skill levels, identified areas for growth, and contemplated our own pathways to becoming adept development diplomats.
The Path Forward
Attending the seminar or reading Fatema's book on development diplomacy is not a silver bullet to solving the world’s toughest problems. But it does offer us a new way to think about how to better leverage the role of diplomacy in brokering development outcomes. Whether we are pursuing careers in policy, politics, or development, we can be savvier in how we position ourselves to have greater impact. I walked away from this seminar feeling the once seemingly unachievable goals of international development and the SDGs appear more attainable.
Development diplomacy also feels like a rewarding and engaging skill set that can be built by bringing together everything you learn and experience at Harvard. As Fatema explained in the final session, development diplomacy calls for knowledge and experience in various areas like policy, politics, negotiation, statistics, micro and macroeconomics, national security, foreign policy, congressional oversight, impact measurement, and the role of civil society (pretty much everything we learn here at the Kennedy School).
I never thought about it before, but I now find a career as a development diplomat genuinely intriguing. Reading Fatema's book and listening to the discussions during the sessions, I found myself getting excited to think about the role I could play as a development diplomat to pursue my passion of achieving gender equality. If we can work in novel ways to change development outcomes, then perhaps the solutions to ending global poverty are not so elusive after all.
Sang Zoon (Joon) Park
Sang Zoon (Joon) Park is a former newspaper journalist from South Korea with a nonprofit management background. Currently, Joon is pursuing a dual degree: MPP at Harvard and MBA at Stanford with an expected graduation of 2026. In 2016, Joon founded a nonprofit organization aimed at ending sexual violence and assisting survivors, working with the Mayor of Seoul and the Minister of Gender Equality. During his career in journalism, 2018 - 2023, Joon continued addressing sexual violence and defending refugee rights, influencing government policy changes. For his stories, Joon was awarded Korea Journalism Grand Prize and Legal News Journalist of the Year in 2022. Joon earned his bachelor's degree in business administration from Seoul National University.