Students can play a key role in reaching the hardest to reach

A core principle of the SDGs is to ‘leave no one behind’. Joseph Wong explains how a global alliance based at Toronto is empowering students to lead the charge

April 26, 2022
Favelas in Rio de Janeiro Brazil
Source: iStock

In 2015, I teamed up with five students to explore how the Brazilian government’s Bolsa Família cash transfer programme delivered financial aid to the poorest families in favelas and the countryside. The initiative stood out for its ability to reach those who were historically excluded from social programmes. Drawing on archival documents, secondary research materials and time in the field in Brazil, we uncovered several policy and programme interventions that contributed to Bolsa Família’s remarkable success.

The report we produced was the Reach Alliance’s first-ever case study. The students presented the findings to Canadian officials and Brazilian policymakers. The students’ work – and they themselves – made a difference.

The Reach Alliance is a research initiative based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, committed to understanding how development practitioners can access those who are the “hardest to reach”. Motivated by the clarion call of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure that no one is left behind, the Reach Alliance focuses on the world’s poorest people, the most geographically remote, the administratively invisible and those who have been marginalised – in other words, those who are most likely to be left behind.

The alliance has since scaled to involve top students and faculty from around the world. Reach researchers have uncovered new insights about public-private partnerships in Peru; behaviour change interventions in Thailand; biometric technology in Jordan; GPS mapping software in Tanzania; and personalised digital healthcare in Canada.

Here is why this programme works so well and why Reach offers an innovative bridge between the university’s role in teaching and research: students drive the research. We attract students representing diverse academic backgrounds and lived experiences. Our aim is to catalyse interdisciplinary learning and enquiry, understanding that engineers and humanists may “see” the same thing, but that they will “interpret” the data differently.

Faculty experts who volunteer for Reach come from a range of disciplines too, sharing their insights and experience while providing mentorship to the student teams along the way.

Another strength of the programme is that Reach attracts students who are willing to work on creative, multi-sector solutions, combining insights and expertise from government, the private sector and civil society. We invest in leadership coaching for the student research teams, so that they can hone their skills in everything from chairing meetings to giving effective feedback.

We believe that the only limits on students and their capacity to produce action-oriented, world-class research are the constraints we impart on them. The Reach Alliance’s actionable insights have been published in leading academic journals and opinion outlets including BMJ Global Health, the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, The Lancet and the Stanford Social Innovation Review, among others.

In 2020, with support from the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, the Reach Alliance formalised partnerships with UCL, the University of Oxford and Monterrey Institute of Technology in Mexico, with future plans to team up with collaborators in Asia, Africa and Australia. This scale-up will allow the global network of faculty and students involved in Reach to flourish, cultivating the next generation of principled, experienced and capable global leaders.

Although each partner university implements the Reach research process in ways that fit the way it operates (for instance, at some universities, students earn academic credits, while in others, such as at the University of Toronto, the 16-month Reach experience is co-curricular), all partners commit to core principles for the student research experience.

Reach recruits students who are not only bright and accomplished, but who are also devoted to serving those who exist in the margins. The Reach experience is not intended to be another line on their CV. These projects are truly ambitious.

Ultimately, the Reach Alliance pursues the full achievement of the SDGs by equipping new generations of global leaders with knowledge and skills. Those who have experienced Reach are accelerated into leadership positions catalysing change around the world. Through Reach, they are empowered – with the right balance between humility and confidence – to claim their rightful generational ownership of the SDGs, and with that ownership the responsibility and power to lead change for a sustainable and inclusive future.

Joseph Wong is vice-president, international at the University of Toronto and founder of the Reach Alliance at the university’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. He is also Roz and Ralph Halbert professor of innovation and a professor of political science.


See the full results of the THE Impact Rankings 2022, based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

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