Rethinking our place in the world

Nature, people, poverty, and opportunity: A conversation between Carter Roberts and CARE's Michelle Nunn

After more than half a century, the conservation movement is solidifying behind a unified, game-changing recognition that we are all connected and the well-being of people and the well-being of nature are one and the same. Fueled by that understanding, the conservation and humanitarian communities are uniting efforts, each bringing forward their particular expertise to create transformational programs that provide for people by protecting nature. This fits with WWF’s core belief that partnership is indispensable, and that only by putting together the right partnerships to tackle the biggest issues facing the planet today will we accomplish our goals.

Since 2008, WWF—the world’s largest conservation organization—and CARE—one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations—have been partners in a strategic alliance to address the root causes of poverty and environmental degradation. The CARE-WWF Alliance has another goal as well: to deepen the collective understanding of how and where conservation and development intersect.

Focused initially in Mozambique, the Alliance is now making a measurable difference in some of the poorest communities there, has expanded to Tanzania, and is exploring additional work in Madagascar and Nepal, among other countries. In Mozambique, the Alliance has helped develop more than 20 farmer field schools where small producers can learn about sustainable agriculture; as a result, crop yields critical for food security have quadrupled. In areas where two community-managed fish sanctuaries were created, the catch has doubled and fish diversity has tripled. And the impact of these successes is spreading, as models being created in other communities are influencing the government’s approach to agriculture and being included in national fisheries regulations.

Michelle Nunn, a nonprofit veteran and Georgia native who most recently ran a strong campaign for US Senate, took the reins at CARE just over a year ago. On January 13, 2016, she sat down with Carter Roberts to talk about the promise of the Alliance, how we cannot separate people’s lives and livelihoods from the protection of nature, and how every family must be “our family” in the end.

CARTER ROBERTS I think we have to start out with the fact that we both grew up in Atlanta.

MICHELLE NUNN We did! I always say that no matter where I live, I will always be from Georgia.

CR We talk about the importance of place, how our identity is rooted in where we grew up. That’s particularly true of Southerners. Do you think it has made a difference in your work?

MN I do. It’s all part of how I think of my own place in the world. Southerners are storytellers. It’s expected. It’s how we communicate. So I very much appreciate the power of story to inspire and engage. And what about you? How does it shape your sense of identity?

CR When I was young, my mother would take me to go “visiting”—we’d just roll up in front of someone’s house, with no advance notice, and go in and talk. So since I was a little kid I learned how to make conversation with people I didn’t know, no matter their age. And in our work, in conservation, we meet with people all the time that we don’t know. And those connections—those relationships—are what it’s all about.

When you first started the process of joining—and leading—CARE, what drew you to the work?

MN To be honest, I was having a moment of really thinking about my future: What is it that I feel called to do? The reason I entered the US Senate race in Georgia was that I believe in the platform of our democracy to create change, and I’ve always been inspired by the change-making role.

When CARE called me, the nature of their vision at this critical moment—eradicating extreme poverty by lifting up women and girls—just spoke to me in a very profound, visceral way. The concept of building a movement, at a global level, was compelling.

CR So when you started at CARE, what was the toughest question you faced?

MN “How do you create a movement? How do you mobilize people in this fight against extreme poverty?” That’s a tough one, and I still don’t think anyone has the answer, at least not yet. So I wrestle with questions like “How do you connect people directly to the work of CARE, so they have a sense of their own efficacy and role and responsibility as global citizens? How can we enlist them in our work?” You’re fighting the same battle at WWF, I think.

CR We are; we have the exact same issue. For a long time we’ve asked, “How do you put the movement back in the environmental movement?” Because the perception seems to be that environmental concerns have become so mainstream that they’ve lost some of their power. These days, too many people think the environment is an abstract concept for policy or corporate leaders to discuss in boardrooms far away. And so we need it to also be something for which people bring their passion and their voice.

Back in the 1970s, at the birth of Earth Day, there were rivers on fire, smog in the air, and trash in the streets. There were so many provocations to spark a movement. Today, climate change has replaced those tangible reminders of environmental destruction—climate change is so big and vast and global that it feels less immediate to many. But climate change is a far greater danger to our lives, and to our planet.

MN Why do you think it’s more difficult for people to embrace an environmental movement now? Is it what can feel like the intangible nature of the issues, or the distance at which people can place them? What is it that would provoke the sense of urgency that both CARE and WWF need in our work around really saving people and supporting the planet?

CR Neville Isdell, the chairman of WWF’s Board of Directors, who grew up in Zambia, is fond of using the African phrase “the snake at the door” to describe pressing threats. That’s what we saw in the 1970s, and so to grab people’s attention now, I find myself bringing out maps of the Florida coastline and what it will look like when the ice sheet in Greenland melts and all the major cities in Florida are under water. But that’s showing what the future looks like, instead of what we’re up against today, which makes the immediacy very difficult for people to grasp. The science is in, and it’s clear. The real question is whether the world will act before it’s too late.

MN Right, we have to make it tangible and urgent.

CR We have to make the future and its risks come alive. And we need to transport people to these places mentally and emotionally—to take them into ecosystems like the Amazon or the Arctic, into the lives of these communities where we work, to make these issues come alive. How does CARE do that?

MN I think it’s our ability to connect with individuals—because we all know that people can get lost in the enormity of the challenges in front of us.

But if we can help people say, “Okay, I’m sitting in a room with a mother and a father and their three little boys, and they’ve lost everything, and they’re simply trying to rebuild their lives,” that could make all the difference. I actually met that family, and two of the boys are 11 and 13—the same ages as my kids, which makes it personal of course—and both boys are working fulltime to support their family. So if we can get people to say, “This mother and father want nothing more for their children than education and the opportunity for a better life. That’s all they hope for, and I can help,” that is powerful. That is what connects one person to another—that sense of empathy. The notion that “this could be my family.”

It is incumbent upon you and me, on CARE and WWF—on all of us, really—to identify the stories that break through the clutter and give people a sense of urgency to act, and the belief and understanding that individual action joined together with others can actually result in change.

CR I couldn’t agree more. You would introduce people to a family. Interestingly, I would introduce people to a place—one where families’ livelihoods depend on the natural resources around them, and where magnificent creatures like tigers, whales, or polar bears depend on the same thing. It would be the whole story of that place—from where that family gets their water and food, to how their livelihoods depend on the ocean or the presence of fish, to how tigers depend on the bounty of intact forests. Which speaks to the connection between WWF and CARE.

MN When I started this job, I immediately began traveling to see our work in the field. My first trips took me to Somaliland, Kenya, Jordan, Turkey, and then Ecuador. In Somaliland in the last few years, CARE has built more than 250 schools for girls. Somalia is one of 26 countries that CARE recently profiled where girls are more likely to be married before the age of 18 than they are to enter into secondary education.

But we know the trajectory of change that is possible when a girl actually graduates from school. She can earn her own money, feel empowered to protect and provide for herself and her family, and more. So you think about that single arc of change, and then you think about that multiplied by, for instance, 63 million—the number of girls globally that are out of school.

Thinking of those girls keeps me, keeps CARE, going. It will inspire anyone. So that story of the importance of our work, and the urgency that I feel to scale up that kind of effort, not only in Somaliland but in other places, is a powerful motivator for me.

CR The kind of understandable, relatable data you’re talking about is so important. In all of our work, I ask our staff to talk about the before and after of our engagement. Tell the stories of what changed, and what the consequences were—whether that’s reduction of CO2 emissions, or increased forest cover, or increasing tiger numbers, or helping more communities gain a level of health and resilience in the face of so much change.

So what are your key numbers? What change do you see in key indicators when a mother or a daughter receives that education? What actually happens?

MN In purely economic terms, just one additional year in secondary education for a girl can mean earning power that is 20% higher over a lifetime. So imagine the multiple effects of that. We know that when these girls become mothers, the likelihood that their own children will be similarly educated is quite high. An educated mother’s children are also more than twice as likely to survive past the age of five and live into adulthood.

CR Impressive.

MN It’s huge. When you lift up a girl, you’re lifting up a woman, a mother, a family, a community, and ultimately a nation. And when we help give them an equitable chance—from an economic perspective, from an education perspective, from a community participation perspective—it really does change the trajectory of what’s possible in terms of development.

CR Especially because, globally, women play a disproportionately large role in conserving natural resources.

MN They do. I think a lot about Anastasia, one of the women we work with in Mozambique. She is a smallholder farmer—meaning her farm is less than the size of a football field—and she leads one of the Alliance’s farmer field schools. Her farm is her sole means of supporting her family. So her capacity to increase her yields through the technical assistance of the Alliance will directly affect whether her kids have opportunities to go to school, whether they are properly nourished, and more.

CR And that’s the story we need to tell. There’s no better spokesperson for the importance of sustainable ecosystems than someone like Anastasia. People will listen to me, and they’ll listen to you, but they will hear Anastasia.

MN I think that’s really the magic of it—seeing communities as part of a broader ecosystem and understanding that context in which we are not just individuals. We are part of families, we are part of communities, and we are part of an ecosystem, which is an extended way of understanding our place in the world, whether that’s Atlanta, the Amazon, or the coast of Mozambique.

The CARE-WWF Alliance was founded in partnership with the Sall Family Foundation in 2008 and continues to thrive thanks to their longstanding support. Our joint work is also generously supported by USAID, several anonymous foundations and many others.

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