The world is a tumultuous place, and currently in a distressing state. 22,000 children die every day of poverty. 805 million people go hungry every day. Climate change causes rising sea levels, droughts, biodiversity loss, and overall damage to the ecosystem. However, there is a growing community of organisations, institutions, scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs that not only realise that the current path we take as a society is a destructive one, but actively participate in the positive and sustainable reversal of it.

For me however, as a student in economics, developmental issues used to be a distant issue. I was mainly involved with topics about the Dutch economy, the state of affairs in Europe and international relations between countries in the industrialized world. Economics as a science is unfortunately seen as the development of applied mathematics, the attempt to creation of infallible models. Comparing the prices of Big Macs and such. The discussion about social issues was unfortunately limited to a bare minimum. I was always very sceptical about how this mind-set could actually support to make the world even a slightly better place. And to be honest, I can’t deny that in my mind I used to associate developmental aid merely with corrupt dictators and digging waterholes.

It wasn’t until 2015 that I became interested in development economics. I read books by Banarjee & Duflo [1] about bottom-up solutions to global poverty, and Moyo [2], a former Goldman Sachs consultant, about the reason why the current model of international aid is failing. Reading those books made me realize that international development should not be seen as a bank account where one periodically donates money to, but something that we should be actively involved in. During the same year I was lucky enough that my study association offered an opportunity to set up a development project. It was here where I met Mayra Werges, Linde Crijns, Anniek Schepers and Vincent Altorffer. They were like-minded individuals, who had the same hopes and aspirations. We had the same education in economics, and we had the same urge to do something more with that knowledge than to crunch numbers in an office all day, gulping down gallons of coffee.

In a year time we managed to find a partner NGO which perfectly fitted our shared ideology; that development work should be seen as a holistic process, carefully emphasizing the economics of poverty and regional development. Their mission was to improve the livelihood of the native inhabitants of West-Papua, based on the UN Sustainability Goals for 2030. In order to do this, they created task groups that focus on each sector in the West-Papuan economy. After our initial desk research, we decided to focus on investigating social investment opportunities in the cocoa sector.

Now West-Papua is a relatively safe place to be, but let’s say it isn’t the most tourist-friendly area in the World. It’s only been open to outsiders since a few years, and even now foreigners are carefully tracked by the secret police. The political situation is very complex, crowded with human rights abuses, and is too long to elaborate on. But there is a good reason you probably never heard of it: the province of West-Papua has been closed to the outside world for a very long time. I remember that we were sitting in a meeting with the political advisor at the Dutch embassy in Jakarta, just before our trip to the area. The political advisor warned us about the risks in West-Papua. The authorities in that province had a bad reputation of imprisoning Western journalists. These warnings were not entirely unfounded. We were woken up twice by the secret police and the military. One time in Manokwari, the capital city, and the other time in Sausapor, a smaller village in the north. Although we had some hiccups with the authorities, we were able to freely do our research in several areas under the pretence of being tourists.

Everything about West-Papua was mesmerizing. The province is host for unique fauna like birds of paradise and tree kangaroos, and contains miles of unscathed coral reefs along the coast. But the people and their communities added the most to the experience. Our mission was relatively simple: get out there, speak with cocoa farmers, cocoa traders, and exporters, and identify what is needed for a stable social, ecological and economic development. What we heard was that many large development initiatives were completely useless. Many state initiatives invested in completely wrong areas. Foreign entrepreneurs were driven out of the land on nationalistic grounds, local governments invested in seeds for the wrong crops, and funds were allocated to often the wrong—corrupts—parties. All this could have been prevented by just listening to the needs of the people.

Although we had limited amount of time, knowledge, money, experience, and any other relevant resource that you could think of, I’m convinced that we made the first step. We listened to the people, and wrote it down. We identified the problems in the rural areas by first-hand experience. And we created a plan that could potentially benefit the whole province of West-Papua. The plan is a call for cooperation between national governments, local and foreign entrepreneurs, and NGOs. Whether it will work, time will tell, but if there is something that I learned from our research, it is that development projects should not only be traditional state-run enterprises, but that bottom-up initiatives work much better because they actually engage with the people. The best thing is to get your hands and feet dirty, and get out in the field. But above all, engage in a dialogue with the people that you are trying to help. Listening to the people is the first step to a successful programme, that is often forgotten by the large development molochs. If anything, I discovered that this step is most accessible for us as students.

Therefore, I would like you, dear reader, to think about how you can put your knowledge and vigour into practice to make the world a slightly better place. Don’t hesitate, but take the first step.

[1] A. Banarjee and E. Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011.
[2] D. Moyo, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa, 2009.