I felt privileged to speak to the freshman class of Princeton University, my alma mater, at the annual “Reflections on Service” event organized by the Pace Center. In my speech, I drew on my work on the 2004 World Development Report, Making Service Work for Poor People and since then in South Asia and Africa, as well as my village immersion experience living and working with a woman in Gujarat, India who earns $1.25 a day.
Both sets of experiences taught me how government programs—in health, education, water, sanitation, agriculture, infrastructure—that are intended to benefit the poor often fail to do so because they are captured by the non-poor who are politically more powerful. I suggested to the students that, in addition to getting a good education and undertaking volunteer activities, they consider using their education to inform poor people, so that they can bring pressure to bear on politicians for pro-poor reforms. The two examples I used to illustrate—citizen report cards in Bangalore and public expenditure tracking surveys in Uganda—were from the 1990s; with the penetration of cell phones in Africa and South Asia, getting knowledge to poor people in 2011 should be easier.
The reaction of the students, as well as their palpable enthusiasm for “doing good,” was inspiring. [Since this is not a group I’m used to addressing, I shared a draft of my speech with someone close in age to the freshmen—my sixteen-year-old daughter—whose main comment was that there were too many facts (“It’ll remind them of a class. They’ll feel they have to take notes”). I cut out a few facts.] Even more inspiring were the four undergraduate panelists who described their programs, ranging from starting an education NGO to running for a local school board to helping at-risk youth with cultural activities. I left energized by the feeling that, with the combination of talent, drive and commitment of these students—and their peers throughout the world—we can end poverty in Africa and South Asia.