In conversation: Finding big solutions to big problems

Carter Roberts and Dr. Rajiv Shah

WWF president and CEO Carter Roberts sits down to talk with Dr. Rajiv Shah, president of The Rockefeller Foundation, about finding big solutions to big problems.

CARTER ROBERTS Hi, there. So nice to see you again.

RAJ SHAH Thanks for the invitation.

CR We’ve talked before about the nature of solutions and how to get after the biggest problems facing the world. Can you reflect on things you’ve done that epitomize how you think we should approach this work?

RS When I started working with Bill Gates almost 20 years ago, we were looking at how to get more children immunized. So we pulled all the top thinkers together and asked what it would take to go from a global immunization rate of 40% to as close to 100% as we could get. These conversations led to the creation of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, and over 18 years we got the immunization rate to the mid 80s [percentage]. That translates to almost 600 million children immunized and more than 6 million child lives saved.

“It’s up to all of us to be not only the actors creating the innovations but also the voices for how important this is at this moment in time.”

Rajiv Shah
President, The Rockefeller Foundation

CR So the lesson there is find the experts, set a precise, quantifiable target ...

RS Right. And be laser-focused on reaching that target. Something else that’s important is having a coalition of actors that feel accountable and are willing to put themselves out there to innovate and try new things.

CR You once said that an organization like WWF should “make no small plans”—that we should figure out what it takes to solve a problem completely, and not be content to make partial progress. Do you still feel the same way?

RS I do. Look, if we’re going to take on big challenges, then let’s figure out what it takes to solve them. I think our collaboration on transforming food systems is potentially one of those examples. We know our current food system is destroying the environment. It accounts for 75% of total water use, 50% of total vegetative land, 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions, probably a higher percentage of nitric oxide and methane. And still it leaves up to 800 million people chronically malnourished. So, we know we have to change how that system works.

CR How would you address the human behavior issues that surround food? Changing ingrained habits about the choices we make, the food we serve to our children, the portions we provide, and all the rest?


FOOD FORWARD WWF and The Rockefeller Foundation are working to tackle food waste on many fronts—from farms and schools to hotels, groceries, and homes.

RS We’ve been thinking about this a lot at Rockefeller. We have a food economy in this country driven by a tremendous amount of both scientific and practical subsidies for certain types of processed foods. We have a food system that produces so much that is incredibly cheap, which is why Americans spend only 9% of their disposable income on food—lower than anywhere else in the world. And then we make other things really hard to access. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the best example. They’re either outrageously expensive, or the quality is poor, or you live in a food desert, as 30 million people in America do, and don’t have access.

To me, these feel like solvable problems. If we change the underlying economics, change the relative prices, invest in the right kind of science, and frankly connect it to young people, who have a consciousness about what they eat and a set of values they want to project in the way they interact with food and the food system, why can’t we change the way we behave?

CR I agree, absolutely. It continues to boggle the mind that as the global population grows to 11.2 billion people, on a finite planet, food-waste levels hover around 30–40%. That’s been the entry point for the work we’re doing together. I’d love your thoughts on that collaboration.

RS I think the biggest thing is, we need a vision for what a food system could look like in the future. I’d love the end result of our collaboration to be: We know how to feed 11 billion people, and we know how to do it sustainably.

CR As a nonprofit, we exist within an ecosystem of institutions—corporate partners, foundation partners, governments. It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that if we honor your call to arms, it will take blended investments—philanthropic, private capital, and multilateral. How do you think about the role of philanthropy, and particularly The Rockefeller Foundation, in that sense?

RS Our view is that those in our sector should look 10, 20, 30 years into the future and allow ourselves to be the risk capital, so that the WWFs of the world can be successful at what they do over that long term. It’s our job to say we can stomach failure and stick with it because we believe in the purpose, and we’re making a bet on the future.

All right, now it’s my turn. You’ve been a successful CEO in this space for some time. When you look at the dire news out there, around the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report [from October 2018], and species decline, and everything else, what gives you hope that we’re going to get where we need to be?

CR You know, that was going to be my last question for you.

RS [laughs] You first.

CR Here’s the deal. We live in a moment where our political system is not particularly good at solving long-term problems. And conservation and food security—these are long-term problems. We know what the solutions look like, in terms of the right policies, the right regulatory environment. So, right now we have to run toward the light and make things happen where we can. That means finding ways to work at city or state levels, and with leading businesses and foundations, to create the regulatory solutions necessary for success.

What gives me hope is when I go to the California Action Summit that happened last fall, and I see on stage mayors from poor and wealthy communities in the US. I see the Bishop of the California Archdiocese and the head of the Quinault tribes of northern Washington, and industry leaders like Microsoft, McDonald’s, Mars, Walmart, Clif Bars, and Fat Tire beer. When those different players are talking about not only reducing their own emissions but also going beyond that to create a movement, I see in that the seeds of the kind of bipartisan leadership we need. And the next administration, or the next Congress, will inherit a tapestry of so many different initiatives that there has to be a single solution that makes it easier for people to navigate everything and get to the scale that we need. That’s where I see the light in an otherwise fairly dark time.

RS Absolutely. And I would also say that it’s up to all of us not only to be the actors creating the innovations but also the voices for how important this is at this moment in time.

CR Thanks, Raj. I am grateful for our partnership with you and everyone at The Rockefeller Foundation. I can’t wait to see what we do together.

RS Me, too. Thank you, Carter.

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