Investing in the Weakest Link
Why Governments Should Focus on Reaching the Hardest to Reach
Here is a stark fact: children that grow up in poverty are nearly twice as likely to die before they reach the age of five compared to their counterparts growing up in better circumstances.
This finding was presented in the 2010 UNICEF report Narrowing the Gaps to Meet the Goals. It is a harrowing reality, and only a glimpse into the experiences of those living in poverty around the world. I believe the global health community carries a moral imperative to reach those who are disadvantaged, marginalized, and lack the necessary services to live healthy and prosperous lives. While most people would agree that eradicating poverty and providing early childhood care to those that need it are honourable and well-intentioned goals, many do not understand how far the reach must go. In this essay, I will provide a reconceptualization of what it means to “reach the hardest to reach,” and argue the moral and developmental importance of reaching those who have fallen through the cracks of society.
Framing the Weak Link-Strong Link Distinction
For the purposes of this essay, I will make the argument that there are two broad stances one can have toward social, economic, and political development: a weak link stance and a strong link stance. These two arguments ask a fundamental question: what matters more when you want to build a strong team, how good your best player is or how good your worst player is? Allow me to provide a hypothetical situation. Say you are given $50 million and are told to spend it in a way that makes the library system in a particular city more efficient. Now, where would you invest that money? Some people would invest the money in a well-established library and make it more beautiful and more efficient. But others would give the money to a library that lacks proper infrastructure or has an outdated catalogue system, or one that has a leaking roof and broken plumbing.
This hypothetical situation is what economists Chris Anderson and David Sally would call the weak link-strong link distinction. In their book The Numbers Game, Anderson and Sally use the example of soccer and basketball to demonstrate the weak link-strong link distinction. They argue that soccer is a weak link game, since investing in the weakest player on the team contributes more to the overall success of the team than investing in the best player by an equal amount. In soccer, one point can go a long way, so having an overall strong team is necessary. Basketball, on the other hand, is a strong link game. The best player on the team usually scores the most points and dominates the court. Therefore, it’s worth investing the time, money, and resources into the top few players on the team. To bring this back to the issue of reaching the hardest to reach, I argue that economic, social, and political development can be seen as a weak link game. Every society is only as good as its bottom line, and the removal of barriers for the poorest, most marginalized, and disadvantaged citizens is what really defines a well-functioning society.
Investing in the Weakest Link
The well-off are visible. Many people living in high-income countries have formal identification, a registered birth, and a street address. They pay taxes and partake in a state-sponsored census. Put simply, they are eligible for certain economic and social benefits because they are detectable. This is a technical privilege many of us do not even think twice about. We take it for granted. Those who are not well off do not have the same privilege. They are essentially invisible—they fall through the cracks, lack essential services, and remain at the bottom rung of the social ladder. A sixth of the world’s population—nearly one billion people—live in slums, highly populated urban areas defined by over-crowdedness, decrepit housing, poverty, and disorganization. People living in slums lack formal addresses, a key barrier to accessing services and work. Alleviating poverty and providing access to essential services begins by identifying who needs help, and this means investing in information and identification systems (e.g. unified registries, poverty maps, censuses).
Furthermore, investing in the bottom line isn’t only good, it is necessary. Evidence has shown that when a government invests in its people, as well as proper education, healthcare, and social services, that government is directly facilitating economic growth and stability within its country by improving the quality of life and creating pockets of positive feedback loops.iv For example, prosperity and renewed opportunities incentivize parents to invest in their children’s education, which leads to the emergence of an educated citizenry that demand improved governance. Economic growth and human development become a cycle: growth promotes human development, which, in turn, promotes economic growth. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to develop solutions that focus on the “weakest links” of society. Meant to be achieved by 2030, the SDGs encompass 17 global challenges we face today and act as a blueprint to achieve a more prosperous and sustainable future for all. The goals include poverty eradication, food security, quality education, gender equality, and clean water and sanitation, among others.
It should be noted that the marginal cost required to deliver interventions or services to an additional person or family increases for those that are hardest to reach. In other words, how much it costs to reach an additional person or family increases based on how difficult it is to provide them with the necessary services. However, a follow-up study from the research conducted in the 2010 UNICEF report found that on average, every US$1 million “invested in the health of the poorest children prevented nearly twice as many deaths as an equivalent amount spent on providing the same interventions for non-poor children.” This is a good sign. Investing in those who need it the most works.
There are many strong examples of reach, including Brazil’s celebrated conditional cash transfer program Bolsa Familia, which was implemented in 2003 and continues to operate today. The program provides direct cash transfers to Brazil’s poorest families on the condition that their children attend school, are immunized, and have regular medical check-ups. The program is quite genius: it not only aids in reducing poverty and improving health and education outcomes among those in Brazil’s bottom income quintile, but it also delivers cash benefits to families who may be socially excluded or geographically distant. In 2011, over 26% of the Brazilian population were covered under Bolsa Familia, and since the program’s inception, poverty in Brazil has sharply declined.
The Reach Alliance, a multi-disciplinary research initiative housed at the University of Toronto, boasts many other examples of reach. Through the organization, students are able to investigate the pathways to success for innovative development programs around the world. So far, The Reach Alliance has looked at innovations in Palestine, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Canada, Tanzania, and Mexico, among others. By understanding how development programs have successfully reached the hardest to reach, we can support those who have been relegated to the margins of society.
In conclusion, reaching the hardest to reach is a worthwhile endeavour that has significant positive benefits on economic, social, and political development. Investing in the most disadvantaged and marginalized populations of society ultimately facilitates growth and prosperity. When we help strengthen the weakest link, we help everyone.
Narrowing the gap: The power of investing in the poorest children. UNICEF; 2014. https://www.unicef.org/publications/index_96534.html
Anderson, C., & Sally, D. The numbers game: Why everything you know about soccer is wrong. Penguin. 2013.
Slum Almanac: Tracking improvement in the lives of slum dwellers. UN Habitat. 2016. https://unhabitat.org/slum-almanac-2015-2016
Kim, Y. Jim. Why investing in poor countries helps all of us. World Bank Blogs. 2014. https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/why-investing-poor-countries-helps-all-us
Cingano, F. Trends in income inequality and its impact on economic growth. 2014. http://www.oecd.org/els/soc/trends-in-income-inequality-and-its-impact-on-economic-growth-SEM-WP163.pdf
Lu, Y., Nakicenovic, N., Visbeck, M., & Stevance, A. S. Policy: Five priorities for the UN sustainable development goals. Nature, 520(7548), 432-433. 2015. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/520432a
Wong, J., & Skead, K. Costing universal health coverage. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 97(12), 849. 2019. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2471/BLT.19.229799
Narrowing the gap: The power of investing in the poorest children. UNICEF; 2014. p. 21. https://www.unicef.org/publications/index_96534.html
Wong, J., Sim, A., Dos Santos, N., Waud, A., da Nobrega Garcia, N., & Ray, S. Reaching the Hard to Reach: A Case Study of Brazil's Bolsa Família Program. Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. 2016. http://18.104.22.168/resources/pdf/BolsaFamilia-CaseStudy-FINAL-pages.pdf
Meet Ali Taha
My name is Ali Taha, and I am in my final year at the University of Toronto specializing in Political Science with a minor in Professional Writing & Communication. I became a UofMosaic Fellow to learn what it means to be a global citizen and develop skills to support and empower the changemakers in my community.
For my research paper, I chose to write about “reaching the hard to reach,” an idea that has interested me throughout my undergraduate career. In this publication, I provide a unique way of looking at development and argue that to truly support economic, social, and political development, governments must focus on reaching the hardest to reach.
This topic aligns with the UofMosaic theme of inclusion and promotes ideas of systems thinking and changemaking. My main hope is that people will either read this publication and learn something new or learn to think about a familiar issue in a new way.