Lima, Peru is 17,325 kilometers away from Hyderabad, India. Monrovia, Liberia is 9,725 km away. Yerevan, Armenia is a mere 4,128 km distant. And the village of Rayaraopet in the Malgonda district of Andhra Pradesh, India, is 37 kilometers from Hyderabad.
Last week, 267 policymakers, practitioners and professionals from 61 countries convened in Hyderabad, where they arrived from Lima, Monrovia, Yerevan … and from Dili and Delhi and Accra and Astana and Sana'a and Seoul. We in turn took journeys from the skyscrapers and high-tech environs of this Southern Indian city to villages like Rayaraopet, to understand how lives are being changed by government policies in the area of social protection and labor, and by the poor people themselves.
If you haven’t guessed already, the World Bank just wrapped up its 2012 global South-South Learning Forum on social protection and labor issues - this year, in Hyderabad, learning about policies and programs that build resilience and opportunities for people.
But the learning didn’t come from Bank experts sitting on a podium and dispensing their wisdom. Instead - uniquely and wonderfully - it was about people learning from each other. We learned through discussions over coffee and over South Indian delicacies, through "global cafes" on topics where tables of 8 or 10 practitioners exchanged ideas, through bus trips to rural villages to see how programs succeed (or fail) on the ground, and through globally connected "Google hangout" sessions (where, for instance, social entrepreneurs in Nairobi and Bangalore interacted with their peers and the audience in Hyderabad while fielding questions from Vietnam and Cameroon).
We saw an American entrepreneur based in Bangalore, who started a website  for matching informal sector job-seekers with employers, being mobbed by policymakers from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa trying to understand what elements could be relevant for their countries.
We took part in animated but collegial arguments over steaming cups of Indian chai between participants from Africa and Europe, Latin America and Asia, about how to harness the power of social programs while balancing the risks of political capture and corruption.
We were astounded by the scale and ambition of enormous programs such as India's MNREGS (the 100-day guaranteed rural public works program), and impressed by the success (established through rigorous impact evaluations) of much smaller efforts such as Liberia's project on the Economic Empowerment of Adolescent Girls and Young Women. We learned from the long-established "good practice" experiences of Korea's programs for skills development or Brazil's unified registry of social programs, and were intrigued by the promise of experiments or new designs such as the BRAC Ultra-Poor program in Bangladesh or the "public works plus" model by the Social Investment Fund in El Salvador.
Locally, we were moved and inspired by our interactions with people in the villages around Hyderabad. I went to Rayaraopet, and met women who formed their own "self-help" groups to pool savings and use them to start small businesses, link to services, and empower themselves. I was particularly taken by the name of the detergent that a group of women manufacture in the village itself and sell in neighboring villages (photo below), which, to me, embodied their core realization for themselves -- that such efforts underline the power of women to better their own welfare and to effect change.
So the week was marked by 267 journeys from far corners of the world to this corner of India. But it also marked one important journey for all of us - a journey toward becoming a global community of policymakers and practitioners, which, as it deepens, can harness the granular knowledge present in each practitioner toward creating tailored solutions for us all.
This is one of a series of posts appearing from the Bank’s 2012 South-South Learning Forum—Building Resilience and Opportunity: The Role of Labor and Social Assistance Policies— held in Hyderabad, India.
- Labor and Social Protection