On February 24, 2015, WWF President and CEO Carter Roberts sat down with Dr. Naoko Ishii, CEO and chairperson of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), to talk about the value of leaving a legacy, why change takes courage and why bankers make smart environmentalists.
CARTER ROBERTS You come from a background in finance and banking—more than three decades, including as Japan’s deputy vice minister of finance. And now you head up the largest environmental financing institution on Earth. What made you decide you were interested in running the GEF?
NAOKO ISHII Right. I started my career in 1981 with the Ministry of Finance of Japan. I spent half of my career at the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank and those kinds of financing institutions, and the other half of it with the Japanese government. So, for about 30 years, I was mostly working on finance and development. And it was in those three decades that I gradually came to understand the critical linkage between development and the environment.
Nature is revered in my culture [Japanese]. It permeates everyday life—both the banal and the sacred—and there came a point where I realized with much nervousness that nature might not be around us anymore. I think the turning point came with the concept of planetary boundaries.* Understanding that the way we are living is really undermining the ability of humanity to prosper was the moment I realized why nature is so precious.
It was about this time that the opportunity to be considered for the GEF chairmanship presented itself. But I thought, why me? I’m not an environmentalist, I’m not a conservationist. But precisely because I would be coming in with a totally different background I came to realize I could bring the worlds of international development and finance together for the benefit of the global environment. And I really do think the work of the GEF can help change the world. So I decided to devote the last several years of my career to this cause.
CR Someone asked me once about our work, and I said it’s all about legacy. When you die, you want to feel like you’ve left something behind.
NI Yes, that’s it. Exactly.
CR And now if you ask me, “What’s your legacy?” I would talk about the Amazon, and I would talk about ARPA.
NI Absolutely. It’s arguably one of the best things the GEF and WWF—and Brazil, of course—have done together. Along with, perhaps, our partnerships to improve governance on global tuna fisheries in the high seas, the Coral Triangle Initiative we launched, and many others.
CR Which leads to my next question. About four years ago, the GEF decided to invite nonprofits to become project agencies—the entities that work between the GEF and recipient countries to facilitate GEF-financed projects. What led to that decision? I should note that WWF is proud to be the first nonprofit to have achieved project agency status at the GEF.
NI Because everyone who can help, should. There is so much work to be done, and with such urgency that no one agency or organization or even government can do it all. When we work together we accomplish so much more. We also wanted to give recipient countries more choices in terms of agencies with which they could work, so inviting nonprofits on board as project agencies seemed like a good idea.
CR We are going through a process right now within WWF of establishing new goals for our global network. When that’s done, we’ll recommend institutional changes that will allow us to get after those goals in a big way.
And at the heart of these changes is the conviction that, unless we lift our eyes from the places we cherish and look at the big systems of the world—governance, commodities markets, financial flows—we are going to fail. You come out of one of those worlds. Now, you lead the biggest institution in the world that funds solutions to environmental challenges. So when you look at an environmental problem, how do you look at it differently because you’ve been a banker all your life?