After nearly four years of living in Mexico City and working on issues related to open government, first at Open Society Foundations and then at Omidyar Network, Iris and I are in the process of moving to Seattle where I have taken a job with the Gates Foundation to work on their Strategic Media Partnerships team.
First of all, I am going to miss Mexico City. A lot. Four consecutive years is the longest I’ve ever spent in any one place and Mexico City has changed me more than any other. You know the way that people describe Paris in the 20s or Prague in the 80s or Budapest in the 90s? That’s how I feel about my experience in Mexico City from 2010 until 2014.
Second, I’m excited to return to Seattle, my birthplace. Iris and I are here now looking for homes. Seattle has changed significantly over the past ten, twenty years. The cultural offering is overwhelming, and I can’t imagine a more ideal lifestyle that includes urban living, nearby nature and great music and art.
It’s funny, just as I decided to leave Omidyar Network to join the Gates Foundation a recurring debate emerged again in my corner of the blogosphere about the relationship between accountability and development. This time the debate resurfaced as development experts consider whether or not a governance-related goal should be added to the Post-2015 Development Framework (the renewal of the Millennium Development Goals).
The various positions are perhaps best summarized in this blog post by Nathaniel Heller who is firmly on the side of the good governance advocates. Ever since the late 1990s, the World Bank Institute — under the leadership of Daniel Kaufmann — took the position that development’s greatest hindrance is corruption and poor governance, which can be addressed by transparency and accountability. The narrative continues at the World Bank today — president Jim Kim recently declared corruption “Public Enemy Number One” in developing countries.
The Development Drums podcast hosted a great debate between Daniel Kaufmann and Mushtaq Khan on whether or not there is really evidence that corruption impedes development. Both Bill Gates and development expert Charles Kenny take the side of Mushtaq Khan: corruption is a problem, but it’s not nearly the greatest obstacle in the push for better health and basic economic development. China, hardly the exemplar of common notions of good governance, has pulled hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty over the past decade. Mushtaq Khan argues that it is, in fact, economic development and a larger middle class that leads to good governance rather than the other way around.
My own position? I think that both economic development and good governance are worth pursuing in their own right regardless of whether one leads to the other or not. There are many important institutions working on good governance around the world in both developed and developing democracies. While their progress is difficult to measure (and sometimes their objectives difficult to define), I hope that the accountability community continues its good work and continues to learn from its mistakes. Meanwhile, I am also supportive of new philanthropists that take a different approach with a clear focus on concrete development goals. We all want to live in a country with a properly functioning democracy in which we are represented and afforded opportunities to participate. For the middle class especially, greater democratic participation is often trumps other development goals. If you are poor, however, first you want enough to eat, security, access to healthcare, and basic financial services.
I am moving from an office of one person in Mexico City to an office of more than 1,200 in Seattle. My first priority will be to get to know my colleagues, their projects, and the challenges they are facing. Of course, I hope to contribute to the great work of the Gates Foundation, but I also look forward to learning.
I believe in the importance of big narratives to give our lives meaning. If the 19th century was about industrialization, nationalism and exploration, and if the 20th century was about the rise of the global consumer culture and IT, then its my optimistic hope that the 21st century will emphasize sustainability and put an end to the so-called “lottery of birth.” Throughout history more than 90% of our opportunities have been defined by the circumstances of our environment. As Malcolm Gladwell documents in Outliers, the most celebrated innovators and inventors of our age were all at the right place at the right time. I’m excited to work for an organization that aims to make many more right places and right times for billions of others.