A Catalyst in the Development Sphere

Mamadou Biteye is the managing director for the Africa Program Team, at The Rockefeller Foundation, one of the oldest and leading philanthropic organisations founded in 1913, based in New York, United States. An agricultural economist, with specialisation in microfinance, micro credit and management of financial institutions, Biteye has extensive experience in the development sphere. Though a Senegalese, Biteye has worked in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Ghana, Liberia and Zimbabwe. In the sidelines of the Third Financing for Development Conference, Biteye sat with GETACHEW T. ALEMU, OP-ED EDITOR, to discuss about the role of philanthropic organisations in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the role of politics. Excerpts:

Mamadou Biteye is the managing director for the Africa Program Team, at The Rockefeller Foundation, one of the oldest and leading philanthropic organisations founded in 1913, based in New York, United States. An agricultural economist, with specialisation in microfinance, micro credit and management of financial institutions, Biteye has extensive experience in the development sphere. Though a Senegalese, Biteye has worked in Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Ghana, Liberia and Zimbabwe. In the sidelines of the Third Financing for Development Conference, Biteye sat with GETACHEW T. ALEMU, OP-ED EDITOR, to discuss about the role of philanthropic organisations in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the role of politics. Excerpts:

Fortune: In two of the previous Financing for Development (FFD) conferences, the talk has been about mainstream finance, largely official development assistance (ODA). Things have changed now, with the talk being about going beyond aid. Where do you see the place for a kind of foundation like yours in this global debate?

Mamadou Biteye : The issue of financing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)  is not an easy one, especially in the current context. If you take, for instance – not just ours, but the global foundation resources – philanthropic foundations and you combine it with aid budgets of different governments, it will probably reach some near two hundred billions of dollars. But we know that achieving the SDGs will require trillions of dollars, including, for just developing countries, about 2.5 trillion dollars a year funding gap. Hence, the available resources within foundations, development institutions and government aid budgets, are small compared to the needs. To seriously address this gap, we need to do things differently.  We need new thinking, new approaches and new partnerships, and we need to be innovative.

New thinking and innovation, as we know, is very difficult to achieve, because it requires a lot. It requires creativity, it requires risk-taking, it requires err grit. It is a challenge to bring about all of those elements together, so, our role, we see, as philanthropy, as those being able to provide the risk capital, and being able to play a catalytic role is to bring those elements through partnerships and supporting innovation.

Q: How do you actually evaluate, the performance of philanthropic organisations in general, in the past – in the era of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – in light of the aspects that you have mentioned?

I think philanthropic organisations have been playing a big and important role over the past 15 years, bringing new thinking and innovation, sometimes even leading development. For instance at the Rockefeller foundation, through our philanthropic dollars, we have been able to support very innovative approaches to address chronic vulnerability and to put some countries back on the path to development.

Let us take Ethiopia, for instance, in the late 1970s and 1980s, where you have extreme poverty, chronic food crisis and malnutrition, with the Horn of Africa Risk Transfer Programmme, which was spurred by the Rockefeller Foundation in collaboration with World Food Programme (WFP) and Oxfam America, bringing together three different organisations in an unlikely partnership, we were able to develop a programme that provided micro insurance to Ethiopian smallholder farmers in the Tigray Region. This was done by actually funding the development of software – Africa Risk View Software – that is used to predict rainfall and therefore, the predictability of good yields and food production.  The farmers were able to pay their insurance premium not with cash that they did not have, but through participation in community development projects with their labour.

And this has allowed several tens of thousands of these farmers to actually be protected against volatility – the fact that rainfall was erratic and making them very vulnerable.

Today, that approach is being replicated by WFP in other countries, such as Senegal and Burkina Faso.

If you also think about the promotion of universal health coverage and other social problems, philanthropic organisations have contributed a lot. Hence, I think that the contribution of philanthropy, has been, I can say, significant.

Q:  One of the issues often raised when it comes to foundations is that there are multiple foundations in the development sphere working in different areas but little is there in terms of cooperation between these foundations.

I believe and we at Rockefeller Foundation believe that the current development challenges in the world cannot be overcome by one single actor, so partnership is essential. We believe that foundations do cooperate.

For instance, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation came into a partnership in 2006 to 50 million dollars each to create the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which is an African-based, African-led institution that actually looks at promoting agricultural productivity and production through supporting healthy soils, good seeds, access to markets and access to financing. And today, AGRA is active in over 17 countries in Africa, after merely nine years of existence.

So, partnership is essential for bringing those kinds of lasting solutions that have the potential for large impact. And I can cite many more examples.

However, I believe that there is room for that partnership, to be again increased, building on the successful examples – not only between foundations, but between foundations and the private sector, between foundations and financial institutions, and between foundations and governments.

Q: In this Third Financing for Development Conference, pretty much, the talk is to get things away from the traditional aid-focused discussion. But things seem to be much defocused because previously it was all about committing a certain amount of Gross National Income (GNI) of a country to official development assistance (ODA) – but this time, the push seems to be coming from a different side because trade, illicit financial flows and public-private partnership are all in the agenda.

It is absolutely right that we need to move from charity. We need, as I said earlier, to be more innovative. And this is why, actually the partnership and the combination of different efforts to come with innovative finance is critical.

Because I told you today that what is needed, or the estimated financial gap to achieve the SDGs is about 2.5 trillion dollars for developing countries alone but we know over 200 trillion dollars is held by households and other institutions in assets – so the idea is how do you get to come with innovative ideas and innovative partnerships to unlock those resources. And different approaches can be used and this is why, actually, the Rockefeller Foundation, came up with an initiative called GAP Zero.

GAP Zero is building of 7-9 years experience in building an infrastructure and environment for impact investing and will be supporting those innovative ideas that can unlock that potential to provide this funding. So innovative ideas and innovative finance, such as social impact bonds, are actually needed to tie funding with impact.

Q: You are not basically worried about the de-focused nature of the debate that is going on in this discussion?

Focus is needed in everything and priorities are important. But today, where we are looking at is really, how this debate can actually be inclusive of the different issues that we have. Because we know that in the past, for instance focusing on productivity and forgetting social development has led to some disasters.

We know that if you look at social aspects only, without looking at productivity and participation, the results will only be partial. Thus, the debate needs to be inclusive. Yet, there is also a need for prioritisation.

Q: For Africa, on the one hand, the issue of local resource mobilisation, tax and non-tax resources mobilisation, has been a challenge. On the other hand, the utilisation of external resources that come in different forms is also a challenge because of infrastructure, management skills, policy and the like. In your view, where should Africa’s priorities lie, in terms of financing its development?

Infrastructure and skills are really important to be able to drive – successfully and efficiently – the development agenda.

So, we think that having the infrastructure, the skills, the organisation, the policies and the national framework and conducive environments, of accountability as well, are key to improving the efficiency of resource boost for Africa’s development.

Basically, the idea is having innovative ideas and unlocking finance is important but also building the capacity to ensure that these resources are well and efficiently utilized is of paramount importance.

Q: How do you evaluate the contribution of foundations, like yours, in terms of helping African countries build their infrastructure and improve their policy-making, including the framework for the utilisation of resources?

We are living the role – in terms of, as I said, creating unlikely partnerships to bring about innovative ideas, to bring about lessons that can be taken and scaled with big impact. One of the examples I can give you is really the public-private partnership that we have been leading around overcoming youth unemployment in Africa, which is Digital Jobs Africa. Digital Jobs Africa was launched two years ago to bring about corporates who have a role, in terms of adopting impact sourcing and by impact sourcing, providing employment opportunities to young people in Africa that otherwise would not have that opportunity.

The Rockefeller Foundation  provides the resources to actually test innovative training and capacity building models, to train these young people to the requirements or the needs of employers; government actually providing the enabling environment through policies, funds and frameworks.

So that is an example which actually allows to create learnings,  cement partnerships and create those models – the innovative models I have been talking about that can be replicated in different sectors.

But what is important here is really bringing that partnership, where a foundation provides the catalytic role, through its funding, works with institutions, corporates that employ; those who provide the capacity, like training institutions, and the government that creates that enabling environment through providing incentives or having the right mechanisms and policies in place. So increasingly, that is the approach that we have, in overcoming the challenges, by forging or creating those partnerships.

Q: But one thing that is often raised is the scalability of these kinds of project level partnerships.

Scalability is the challenge for many of the solutions. For us too, being able to scale the initiative I mentioned above has been a challenge, but it is a challenge that we are actually focused on. I remember working with different stakeholders to make sure that this can reach more and more.

To bring these things to scale takes time. It also takes models that are replicable, sometimes also simple and that are not costly. Some of the barriers to scale are really complexity and cost.

That comes again to the issue of financing, because if the solutions are too costly, mobilising the finance to scale it up is a problem. So this is why actually, the idea of continuously innovating – combining different ways of doing the same things – is important. It is not always new, completely new ideas, but it is continuously looking at how processes and approaches can be done differently to bring costs down, complexity down, so they can be replicable.

Q: As a foundation, your two main goals are building resilience and inclusive economies. Africa, in a way, has been witnessing some change over the past five or six years. In general, how do you evaluate the state of the continent in terms of building the resilience of communities and making economies inclusive?

I think that what is important to note, in Africa, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa is that it has been chronically facing food insecurity and food crisis. The approach in the past has been just to provide humanitarian response and relief. People do not have the opportunity to rebounce and be stronger in order to be able to actually withstand the next crisis.

Even if you look at recent times, the Ebola Crisis has led to governments rethinking differently by actually increasing investment in assets of the most vunerable, but also investing in systems that allow them to be more prepared.

So they have all understood that the way a community or a country that has not been investing in its resilience would face shock as compared to a community that has been intentionally investing in that, is different.

The latter has the ability not only to withstand but also to emerge stronger and more quickly from those crises. That is what we call the resilience dividend. In this, Africa has shown improvements, even if a lot remains to be done.

In terms of inclusivity, too, the challenge is big. But governments and their institutions now have visions. When we see that Agenda 2063 of the African Union (AU), it has at its heart, building more inclusive growth in Africa. What we have been seeing is that growth has been in the news, it has been happening but at the same time, inequality was deepening. The results – or the impact of growth – was not felt by every African.

Hence, we are seeing some of the very sad things happening like we see the boat people who sink every day going to Europe in search of better opportunities. We have seen many of the unrest and conflicts in the region that are channeled by inequality.

It, therefore, is really important not just in a plan or a vision but actually African countries come up with concrete ideas and actions to make this happen.

Q: As the world is moving from MDGs to SDGs, do you think that politics, be it national, regional, continental or global, showing dedication and determination that is comparable with the size and magnitude of the problems?

I think that it is important, there is commitment of politics. But I would call for a translation of that commitment, of that declared and said commitment, into more actions – into really enabling a different thinking, a different approach, which is not just aid, but really creating ways in which trade collaboration and cooperation can really bring developing countries to greater participation in the global trade and in the global economy.

Q: I would like, at last, to get your perspective about the Addis Abeba Action Agenda – the outcome document that is being discussed in this conference. Do you think it is sufficiently comprehensive?

I believe and trust that the actors and the different parties will come to something agreeable for everyone – not just because it is agreeable but because it is resolutely going to pave the way forward and show serious commitment.

Published on Jul 20,2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 794]



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