Nothing To Lose

fighting global poverty and supporting human potential

Pupils attend class at the Stara Rescue Centre & School in Nairobi’s Kibera slum in May 2009.
REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Serving up enchiladas at the Zamboni Café at Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto for a community supper.
Tony Bock/Toronto Star

poverty is beaten by giving people what they need: belief in themselves.

Every day hundreds of millions of people face the blunt reality of simply not having enough. The causes of poverty are complex – economic distress, flawed social structures, chronic conflict, environmental threats. But the key to alleviating it is clear: strengthen people’s ability to fulfill their own promise.


A woman in Sullivan City, Texas, who entered the country illegally shows the footprints of her daughter, who was born in the U.S. but was denied a birth certificate.
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Prof. Teresa Kramarz, Director of Munk One, teaches a first-year class.

I.D. Required

Access to health care and education. The right to labour protection and judicial services. The simple freedom to move in search of new opportunities. These are building blocks of a fair and well-governed society. But in most countries they’re beyond the reach of someone who can’t provide proof of birth.

The challenge of birth registration was the focus for the 2015 Global Ideas Institute, a collaborative venture between the Munk School, The Learning Partnership Canada, the Rotman I-Think Initiative and U of T’s affiliated secondary education institution, University of Toronto Schools. Now in its sixth year, the Global Ideas Institute provides top high school students from across the Greater Toronto Area, as well as nearby Peel, Durham and York regions, with opportunities to consult leading experts and conduct their own research on a range of global problems.

More than 150 students and 30 teachers participated in the most recent program, guided by U of T faculty and student mentors, and learning from experts with organizations such as St. Michael’s Hospital, UNICEF and the World Bank. Their efforts culminated in a daylong symposium at the Munk School, where student teams pitched their ideas and proposed solutions to panels of experts – an important step toward realizing their future academic goals. In the summer of 2016, Prof. Joseph Wong will be leading a team of undergraduate students to investigate the same issue in South Africa, which was one of the world’s lowest-ranked countries for registered births and now is among the highest.

Young and Homeless

In addition to embarking on a unique undergraduate experience, students entering the 2015–2016 Munk One program benefited from a special legacy created by the previous year’s cohort: a case competition focused on reducing the risks associated with youth homelessness in Toronto.

On arriving at the two-day event during the November break, new Munk One students received a case guide prepared by their predecessors and challenged to research and craft compelling interventions – which they would then pitch to a panel of experts. In the intense 24 hours that followed, students worked with experienced mentors on solutions to a wide array of challenges, from preventing incarceration to creating social enterprises that would provide jobs and help street youth engage with the community. At the closing session, teams presented their cases to the judges, including Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo, long-time social activist and Ontario MPP. The winner: “Pot of Gold,” a project aimed at helping homeless LGBQT+ youth.

Apply Generously

Over the past year, Munk School students and recent graduates applied insights gained through learning and research to a range of innovations aimed at driving social change:

Viraj Ayar has co-founded an NGO that provides inner-city Boston youth with services they couldn’t otherwise afford, including academic tutoring, skills development workshops and guidance on college applications – all aimed at helping them pursue higher education.

Quinn Underwood has created FoodShare, an app that connects people with low incomes to stores, restaurants, events and households that have leftover or excess food. In recognition of FoodShare’s potential to provide cheap, accessible meals while reducing waste, Quinn has been invited to speak at a UN forum on food security and sustainability.

Adam Sheikh was deeply concerned about the deaths of more than 3,000 migrant workers in Qatar as the result of working long hours in the desert heat. So he founded AEGIS, a student-run non-profit that will provide workers with protective cooling vests, beginning with a pilot in the summer of 2016.


Prof. Joseph Wong (right) along with MGA students Nina Da Nobrega Garcia (second from right) and Ariel Sim (left) consult with the local community in Brazil.
Man measuring height of baby
Ana Nascimento/MDS

Tax Time

Recent thinking around international development has stressed the importance of local taxation to secure funding for public services and reduce dependence on foreign aid. Now a more provocative view suggests that taxes are not merely an unwelcome necessity; they can actually strengthen the state, reinforcing the social contract connecting citizens and their government in a relationship of accountability.

This is the argument put forward in Taxation, Responsiveness and Accountability in Sub-Saharan Africa, a new study by Prof. Wilson Prichard of the Munk School. Published in September 2015, the book immediately won admiration – including praise from organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – for its success in linking broad policy ideas to the economic realities of low-income countries. Building on empirical evidence gathered in Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, Prof. Prichard suggests concrete measures by which governments, business leaders and civil society can create a virtuous circle of accountability regarding how taxes are collected and spent. He is now applying those insights in further investigations – notably a collaborative research project examining how local services are delivered, and who pays for them, as the Democratic Republic of the Congo tries to restore social well-being after two decades of civil war.

Only Human

When disaster strikes in some part of the world, whether natural or human-made, we want to believe that efforts to help will be efficiently deployed and have an immediate, tangible impact. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case.

To grapple with this troubling issue, in February 2016 the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict and Justice focused its annual conference on the theme “Humanitarianism Exposed: Non-Governmental and Private Sector Perspectives on Aid and Development.” The two-day, sold-out event was introduced by keynote speaker Prof. Janice Stein, founding Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs, who delivered a clear-eyed critique of current humanitarian efforts around the globe. Her observations framed the series of panel discussions that followed, as speakers and participants exchanged trenchant and often passionate views on the role of private corporations and NGOs in providing humanitarian relief. The clash of ideals and harsh realities foreshadowed the larger, global conversation to come at the first UN World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016.

Bolsa Familia


For most undergraduates, challenges such as poverty in the developing world are necessarily viewed from a distance. Their grasp of day-to-day realities comes from reading professors’ first-hand accounts – and YouTube. But for several students of Prof. Joseph Wong, the Roz and Ralph Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs, studying how the Brazilian government provides financial help to the poor involved a more direct research method: travelling to Brazil to see for themselves how the system works – so they can go on to help design similar support systems in other countries.

The initiative they were investigating is Bolsa Familia, which supports nearly 14 million families across Brazil through what is called conditional cash transfer: to be eligible for help, recipients must agree to have their children attend school and receive regular medical checkups. The largest program of its kind in the world, Bolsa Familia has a 75% compliance rate, far higher than similar programs across Latin America.

“The program has had a positive effect on child health, including a significant decrease in under-five mortality rates,” Prof. Wong says. “There’s a lot to be learned from its remarkable success, and I’m fortunate to have some phenomenal students helping out with the research.” In December 2015, he travelled with two MGA students and three Munk One undergraduates to Brazil, where they arranged meetings with dozens of experts, as well as government agencies and NGOs. They subsequently presented their findings to the Canadian consulate and the Brazil-Canada Chamber of Commerce. Plans are now in the works for similar research projects in some of the world’s poorest countries.

“Speaking with people who live and work inside a system is miles ahead of reading a third-party perspective in the academic literature,” says Ariel Sim, one of the MGA students on the team and a recent recipient of an Open Society Foundations grant to do research in Kenya. “The face-to-face interaction was a gift.”

Funding for this project was provided by Ralph and Roslyn Halbert; the Canada Research Chairs program; and the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth.

“For the students, this is a fantastic research experience. They’re motivated by issues of poverty reduction and development. Here’s an opportunity to study a particular initiative very deeply.”

– Prof. Joseph Wong


A man and a girl walk past collapsed houses a month after the April 25, 2015, earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal.
REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
Political activist and author Ralph Nader discusses inequality in the United States with Munk School students.

States of Inequality

In the fall of 2015, the Munk School’s Centre for the Study of the United States hosted a series of talks on inequality in contemporary American society. Among those offering their perspectives were three prominent U.S. thinkers: acclaimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Christopher Hedges and pioneering consumer advocate (and former presidential candidate) Ralph Nader. The program was complemented by a special Master’s course convened jointly by the Munk School and U of T’s School of Public Policy & Governance, where students had the opportunity to meet with the speakers.

“It was a privilege to have the chance to speak personally with some of the leading thinkers on inequality,” says MGA student Adam Barrett. “The course showed how crucial it is to look beyond wealth inequality to consider intersections with gender-based, race-based and even intergenerational inequalities. It was a fantastic experience – albeit with a troubling message.”

Asha Means Hope

When a catastrophic earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015, offers of help came quickly from governments, relief agencies and other organizations around the world. Among them was the Centre for South Asian Studies, part of the Asian Institute at the Munk School, where Nepal specialists and other concerned faculty members rallied to see how they could lend support. The result was a group called Asha Toronto, which shares information on relief efforts and collaborates with the Canadian Red Cross and other international organizations working in Nepal. As post-quake rebuilding continues, the group (which takes its name from the Nepali word for “hope”) meets regularly to organize fundraising events – and to foster critical discussion of the politics and uncertain accountabilities of humanitarianism.

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