Bernd is a senior partner and managing director in BCG’s Singapore office and the Poverty and Hunger topic leader for the Asia region. He is a member of BCG's Global Advantage practice and also a member of the Marketing and Sales practice area.
Can you please describe the current situation, dynamics, and trends in poverty and hunger?
Over the last 14 years I have witnessed the significant challenges of poverty and hunger in the Asia region—during the four years I lived in Indonesia; through extensive travel to some of the poorest countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Cambodia; and through my work with the World Food Programme. It is heartbreaking to see children under ten years of age begging or selling newspapers at the highly polluted traffic junctions in cities like Jakarta. Poverty and hunger are clearly among the most significant problems we face today.
For certain, much is being done, and it is reassuring to see that interventions increasingly aim at addressing the actual root causes of poverty and hunger instead of just dealing with the symptoms. The vicious circle often goes like this: Parents have not received a proper education and therefore cannot afford the fees to send their children to school (and they need their children as income earners from a young age); the children thus are deprived of a solid education and end up being economically disadvantaged, and this in turn prevents them from having access to the right diet.
Breaking this endless loop is a key imperative, one that can be supported by providing access to free or low-cost health-care measures, such as immunization against various diseases that today still kill far too many people—especially children—in developing countries.
What are the key challenges?
I see two main challenges. One is the fragmentation of the efforts targeted at fighting hunger and poverty. Many different organizations are focusing their endeavors on this battle with lots of passion, energy, and resources. There is nothing wrong with either their good intentions or, in most cases, the programs these institutions design and implement. However, improved results could be achieved with better orchestration.
The other challenge concerns how to build up the relevant capabilities in the affected regions and countries. It will be increasingly important for local stakeholders and experts to be involved closely in designing and implementing high-impact programs if sustainable improvement to the poverty and hunger situation is to be achieved.
How can collaboration between independent organizations and governments be made better?
In my view, this question represents the largest opportunity but also the biggest challenge. Integrating all the efforts into an umbrella organization or program is neither realistic nor desirable—it would put at risk the enormous decentralized energy, passion, and entrepreneurship seen in many places and organizations around the world.
However, more alignment around common objectives and the overall purpose of activities would go a long way. This, in turn, would require more transparency in the highest-impact areas, a good understanding of relative capabilities, and a sense of relative roles and responsibilities.
Practically speaking, I see a need for governments to define a more integrated agenda to fight hunger and poverty. I believe there is still potential to further eliminate overlaps in the roles of governmental organizations and bodies linked to the United Nations. Independent organizations often will have to define more clearly their specific roles in fighting hunger and poverty.
The need for coordination becomes most obvious if one considers a particular country or a specific emergency. For example, numerous institutions tried to provide support following the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami in late 2004, many of them on the ground. The largely independent nature of these activities—often driven by amazing passion and creativity—certainly led to a loss in impact and a waste of resources.
How can funds be allocated to the highest-impact projects?
I have been involved quite a bit with school food programs sponsored by the World Food Programme in places like Bangladesh and Bhutan, so I may be a bit biased. But what I like about the World Food Programme is that it addresses the basic causes of a vicious circle by providing children not only with a proper education but also with nutritious food, which serves as an incentive for school attendance and strengthens their learning capacity. Healthy, educated children just have a better chance in life.
So, in general, I see high value in projects that kick in early in an individual’s development. Beyond this, I have noted great worth in what is often referred to as “capacity building,” which includes teaching poor women in Bangladesh, for instance, about things such as elemental health care, growing food, and raising cattle.
Nonetheless, there will always be the need for emergency support in areas hit by disasters like earthquakes, cyclones, and flooding.
Is there anything else you would like to mention?
What always strikes me is the fact that the funds needed to combat hunger effectively in the region and globally are actually not that significant, especially when compared with the financial resources being disbursed to ameliorate the current economic crisis. It is crucial to align the relevant stakeholders across governmental and nongovernmental institutions, determine the areas where the greatest impact can be made, set up an integrated program, and join forces to make it all work. Will it be easy to pull off? No. But it can be done, and I am proud of the role BCG is playing to literally make this world a better place.