Students focus on hardest-to-reach people in Toronto alliance

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

The report we produced was the very first case study of the Reach Alliance. The students presented the results to Canadian officials and Brazilian policy makers. The work of the students – and themselves – made the 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 clear 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 invisible administratively and those who have been marginalized – in other words, those who are most likely To be left behind.

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

Here’s why this program works so well and why Reach provides an innovative bridge between the university’s role in teaching and research: Students conduct the research. We attract students representing diverse academic backgrounds and lived experiences. Our goal is to catalyze cross-disciplinary learning and research, understanding that engineers and humanists may “see” the same thing, but will “interpret” the data differently.

The faculty experts who volunteer for Reach also come from a variety of disciplines, sharing their insights and experience while providing mentorship to student teams along the way.

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

We believe that the only limits to students and their ability to produce world-class, action-oriented research are the constraints we place on them. Actionable insights from the Reach Alliance have been published in leading academic journals and opinion outlets, including BMJ Global Healththe Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Speart and the Stanford Social Innovation Reviewamong others.

In 2020, with support from the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, the Reach Alliance formalized partnerships with UCL, 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 will allow the global network of faculty and students involved in Reach to flourish, training the next generation of principled, experienced and capable global leaders.

Although each partner university implements the Reach research process in a way that suits its mode of operation (for example, at some universities students are awarded college credit, while at others, such as at University of Toronto, the 16-month Reach experience is co-curricular), all partners are committed to the core principles of the student research experience.

Reach recruits students who are not only bright and accomplished, but also dedicated to serving those who exist on the fringes. The Reach experience is not meant to be another line on their resume. These projects are really ambitious.

Ultimately, the Reach Alliance pursues the full realization of the SDGs by equipping new generations of global leaders with knowledge and skills. Those who have experienced Reach are accelerated into leadership positions catalyzing change around the world. Through Reach, they are empowered – with the right balance of humility and confidence – to claim their rightful generational ownership of the SDGs, and with that ownership the responsibility and power to drive 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 the Roz and Ralph Halbert Professor of Innovation and Professor of Political Science.


THE Impact Rankings 2022, based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, will be released at 7:00 p.m. BST on April 27.

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