William & Mary

Joseph Wong: Reaching the Unreachable

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #1: To end poverty in all its forms, everywhere.

According to Professor Joseph Wong, this daunting challenge can one day be solved. The development world continues to offer solutions to alleviate global poverty, piece by piece. However, the biggest obstacle to progress lies with the “second to last mile” on the road to poverty reduction: the delivery.

“If we want to, in fact, achieve the SDGs, that is to eliminate poverty and its effects,” said Wong, “then we have to reach those who have been left behind…because they are the hardest to reach.” 

Bridging this gap between aid and the aided was the subject of Professor Wong’s lecture titled “Extending the Reach of the State: Delivering Sustainable Development.” Dr. Wong is the Ralph and Roz Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, and the Canada Research Chair in Health, Democracy, and Development.

His motivation to address this delivery challenge came through a colleague, Dr. Stanley Zlotkin, who was developing a micronutrient powder for children who do not have access to well-rounded diets. The micronutrient powder is a low-cost, effective solution to malnutrition, but children who needed the supplement often did not receive it when they should have. Clearly, the implementation part of the process had gone awry. Dr. Wong’s research seeks to show the development field how it can prevent future implementation processes from failing.

Dr. Wong argues in his research that, for the SDGs to be successful, organizations must solve the “reach and redistribution” problems.

“Reach” is a technical challenge, referring to the ability of organizations to deliver their products to people who live in remote areas, who do not have standardized addresses, or who migrate.

“We’re relying on formal mechanisms to reach those who live informal lives,” said Wong. “That’s really one of the key problems. In other words, we need new mechanisms that help us find the very poor and indeed help us reach them.”

To solve the reach problem, there needs to be a change in the politics of redistribution. It is expensive to deliver goods to the hard to reach. “Somebody has to pay for this,” said Wong. “Thus, we may figure out how to reach, then the question is how do you create a politically viable coalition that will actually support the steep redistributive costs of reaching…it is simply not politically worthwhile for governments to reach.” 

Using the case study of the Bolsa Familia conditional cash transfer program in Brazil, Wong addresses some potential ways to overcome the reach and redistribution challenges. The program requires families who receive aid to meet eligibility criteria, incorporating factors such as health and education.

The program has had positive outcomes, and despite government corruption, geographic challenges, and high rates of economic inequality, the transferred money is indeed going into the hands of the poorest. The success of Bolsa Familia is facilitated by the Cadastro Único, a database of low-income households in Brazil that is used by thirty different programs. It uses qualitative descriptions to identify where people are located even if they do not have a standardized address. While this program is funded by the Brazilian government, the cash transfers bypass state governments, going directly to the individual households. The Caixa Bank on a boat allows Bolsa Familia to reach remote locations via waterways, and community health agents go door-to-door to communicate with local families. 

“All of these interventions are essentially trying to make visible those who were previously invisible to the state,” said Wong. “To highlight and stress…the imperative of focusing our efforts on reach if we ever want to…realize the success of the SDGs.”