Impatient Optimism for GGGI

Blog by Dr. Frank Rijsberman, Director-General, Global Green Growth Institute

On October 1, 2016, I officially began my four-year term as Director-General of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI). Together with GGGI’s Members, Management Team and staff, I started an exciting journey, implementing the Work Program and Budget (WPB) 2017-18 approved by the Council, while at the same time building and redesigning GGGI’s business models. The past two-and-a-half years have seen change in the organization’s business processes, which include shifting focus to country offices from the Seoul headquarters; moving toward putting more emphasis on results – focusing on GGGI’s 6 Strategic Outcomes in its Refreshed Strategic Plan 2015-2020 as well as its business plans, projects, corporate results frameworks and impact assessment work; and bringing flexibility and adaptability in its project cycle.

Now, we are in the midst of developing a strategy for the next 10 years, known as GGGI’s Strategy 2030. To drive the formulation of the Strategy 2030, we are in the process of examining thematic areas, value creation models and outlining broad goals that are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. GGGI recently held its Ninth Meeting of the Management and Program Sub-Committee (MPSC) at the Institute’s Seoul headquarters where our Members were given an opportunity to actively engage in and contribute to the organization’s strategy development process.

Midway through my tenure, I realize now is an ideal time to reflect upon my experience, look at where the organization stands and examine what is happening in the world around us.

I am always optimistic, but impatient optimism is also the mantra of Bill and Melinda Gates that I share completely. This phrase refers to optimism that development actually works and has brought huge progress to billions of people, despite the nay-sayers and that we need to be impatient given the urgency of the challenges we face. Whether you take your inspiration from the IPCC 1.5 degree report, or the environmental events such as the 2018 forest fires and droughts, or the air pollution crisis in Seoul – there are plenty of goods reasons to be impatient to see progress at scale, and be optimistic that we can make it happen. That is why I am proud to be an impatient optimist!

In 2007 in Silicon Valley, Apple launched the first iPhone, and Google and its colleagues were busy disrupting many industries. None of us book our travel and hotels like we used to or find restaurants like we used to. I haven’t visited my main bank in France in years, as I do all my business with them online. Amazon is worth more than the next five biggest retailers put together. And we are in the middle of witnessing the renewable energy disruption and are on the cusp of the e-mobility disruption.

In his brand new book “ The Business of Changing the World”, Raj Kumar, editor in Chief of Devex, argues that we are also in the middle of a disruption of the aid industry – and I find that he puts very eloquently what have become my convictions as well during my period among the disruptors when I worked in Silicon Valley for and the Gates Foundation.

Raj Kumar argues that Old Aid is about:

  • Good intentions – focusing on how much money was spent.
  • The giver, the donor – with the other side referred to as the “beneficiary”.
  • Monopolies of the UN, the World Bank and some big donors like USAID and DFID (or “monopsonies” to be more).
  • Following the rules, rather than focusing on the results.

In contrast, New Aid is:

  • All about the results, first and foremost, and evidence-driven and based on data.
  • About the customers rather than the beneficiaries.
  • About many more new players – foundations, social entrepreneurs, start-ups, and even the mainstream private sector discovering the true triple bottom line.
  • But above all is about the results, delivering impact and being accountable, not covering our backs by having followed the rules.

Why does any of this matter for GGGI? In a world where I believe the aid industry will be disrupted, and many other disruptions will affect our Members, providing both threats and opportunities is key. Will our Members be leaders? Or will they be followers? Will they leapfrog, or see an ever-widening gap? Will they be disruptors or be disrupted.

History shows that the incumbents rarely manage to be the disruptors. AT&T would not believe that mobile phones would rapidly eat their landline business. The UN and the World Bank have been engaged in near-continuous reforms for decades now, but I don’t see them taking a lead.

In fact, all during my career I have encountered the pessimists that claim that new technologies will not be relevant for developing countries for a long time. That was the case in the early 1980s when I advocated for the use of personal computers in water resources management. Or later that decade when I wanted to distribute DVDs instead of books. Or more recently, in 2008-9 when few people believed that smart phones would be relevant for poor people in developing countries.

Yet, traveling for GGGI in 2017, going “off the grid” in Myanmar, poor people’s rural houses often had small solar panels outside, lighting one or two bulbs inside, and allowing people to watch movies on DVD players. Non-Governmental Organizations brought those solar home kits to the most remote villages. In Kiribati last year, the most remote GGGI presence I have visited, I was in a phone shop where they sold low-end smart phones for about $10. And big billboards outside advertised mobile banking – for people who never had a bank account, no credit rating, enabling them to send money to family in outer islands over their phones. Most people could not have imagined this 10 years ago – and yet we are planning for the next 10 years, where changes will, if anything, most likely be at a faster pace.

What is our route and what is our destination? Will we be disrupted or be disruptors in the world of New Aid? I think the jury is still out – both are still possible – but I think we have worked hard to increase the odds that we can be disruptors, if that is the path we choose. I, for one, would love to be a disruptor, but it may well be a bumpy ride – fasten your seat belts!

My sense is that GGGI will have a chance to help its Member countries to transition their economies to a low-carbon future, contribute to solving dramatic global climate change, increase the blue skies and healthy landscapes, and provide decent green jobs for people to work in. These are what gets me up, and excited to come to work, in the morning.