THE BLOG
03/09/2016 04:19 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2017

Using Social Connectedness to Unlock Sustainable Development

Many of us instinctively appreciate that being connected to other people is one of our most basic human needs. But did you know that when people lack those meaningful connections with others, the consequences can be seen all the way down to the molecular level?

Our cells inflame. Our hormones misfire. Our immune systems weaken. Right down to the very fiber of our being, isolation undermines our true potential.

And, too often, that experience of feeling like we don't belong has broader repercussions. It undermines people's identity and dignity. It deprives them of their agency and voice.

That is why I have long believed that isolation underpins many of the challenges in our world today. Unfortunately, because the concept is so difficult to quantify, it all too easily goes unnoticed. And if isolation is considered, it tends to be seen as a consequence of problems--when in fact, as I have come to see, it can also be very much the cause of them.

I realized this when I started studying things like poverty and public health and power dynamics and prejudice and the millions of small signals that get sent to people that tell them: You do not belong. The deeper I looked, the more intertwined the feedback loops appeared.

In Mozambique, for example, where I was studying multidimensional poverty, I met a woman who told me, "Poverty means being lonely and not being able to get things because you are lonely." She felt isolated because she was poor; and poor, because she was isolated. The shame of being seen as in need was so painful that she and her neighbors withdrew and isolated themselves.

Or, take the challenge of public health. Being sick can make people feel isolated, especially when their condition has stigma attached. In South Africa, I met young pregnant women who were so ashamed of their situation that they did not seek medical care, putting their own lives and the lives of their babies at risk. I met people with HIV, who were too embarrassed to seek treatment, even when there was a clinic nearby.

In my own country, Canada, I've seen how the legacy of forced assimilation has cut indigenous peoples off from their own heritage, culture, and traditions, and set the stage for isolation and dysfunction within communities that had thrived for thousands of years--communities that made full and rich lives on the land, long before European settlers arrived.

Put simply, in my travels around the world, I've seen isolation holding people back--individuals, communities, and groups of communities--to their detriment, and to the detriment of the world. And, time and again, I've seen that if social bonds are threatened, then social assistance programmes are prone to failure.

But what if we changed the paradigm? What if we put social connectedness at the heart of our policymaking and programme development?

The timing is ripe, especially against the backdrop of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, which came into force on January 1, 2016, and which encompass challenges from job creation to education to health to gender equality.

Over the coming months and years, the world's nations and regions must move from agreement to action--and demonstrate in concrete, measurable ways what inclusive progress looks like. This provides an open invitation for community-driven policy development, built on local solutions that are grounded in local strengths.

For inspiration, consider the non-governmental health organization Partners in Health, which began its work in Haiti in the 1980s and has since expanded to 10 countries.

The Partners in Health hospital in Haiti is not a tent staffed with foreign doctors who drop in for a few days or weeks. It is a permanent clinic, with a garden and mosaics on the wall, staffed by as many local people as possible. The doctors and nurses know the names of the patients, and they make house calls when a patient is too ill to get to the hospital. Local Accompagnateurs, or community health workers, are the backbone of the system: after receiving their training on the job from Partners in Health, they supervise patients as they take medicine and are present to answer their questions. But their main job is to provide emotional support.

To me, this is such a beautiful approach. By establishing a permanent presence, Partners in Health allows the community to build the relationships needed for a health system to grow and flourish. By employing people who may not otherwise be able to find work as emotional support for patients who need it the most, Partners in Health combats the deadly feedback loop that links isolation and poor health. At a Partners in Health clinic, everyone receives the healing medicine of human connection and acceptance.

Perhaps most importantly, with every action the Partners in Health staff members take, from using patients' given names to making house calls, they subtly communicate to patients that their lives are worth something--that they have just as much value as any other person on the planet. When you ask founder Paul Farmer how many lives the model has saved, he refers to a medical term--TNTC, or too numerous to count.

Partners in Health is supporting economic development and spurring social connectedness simultaneously--and I firmly believe those two achievements are mutually reinforcing. When communities are engaged in programme development and implementation, the benefits extend beyond the scope of the project itself, promoting the kind of self-confidence and self-reliance that accelerate the fight against poverty.

In other words, just as isolation can be both cause and consequence of problems, so too, connectedness can spark a virtuous cycle of solutions. As we pursue the Sustainable Development Goals and work to "end poverty, protect the planet, and promote prosperity for all," let's use the lens of connectedness to focus our efforts--and magnify our chance of success.