Remarks by Dr. Judith Rodin at the USAID Frontiers Conference
September 19, 2014
This morning, like many of you, I took a stroll through the innovation marketplace. It struck me that, to understand just how far we’ve come in terms of the opportunities being opened for our work in just the last five years, picture what that room might have looked like then. Much emptier, right? That’s because five years ago, many of these technologies on display didn’t yet exist. Or if they did, they were hidden in garages scattered around Northern California, in the Silicon Savannah, or Silicon Plateau of Bangalore, and in so many other places worldwide waiting for their debut.
That is certainly the case for Planet Labs, a start-up founded by a group of NASA engineers who saw opportunity to launch—literally—projects, such as satellites, into space, at a much lower cost and in a much shorter time frame. Working in a garage in Cupterino, they assembled the first fleet of “doves”—which costs, by some estimates, 95 percent less to build than NASA’s satellites and takes much less time than the decade it usually takes to assemble a massive satellite. Their goal: to put hundreds of these doves into space to take photos of the Earth’s surface providing a pretty complete picture of what the Earth looks like every day—something our current technology cannot provide. And to provide a picture of the planet everywhere, every day at a higher resolution than ever before. We can imagine this unprecedented undertaking will enable greater stewardship of our planet by making change on earth more visible, accessible, and actionable by those actors building more resilient communities across the globe.
It could help to monitor deforestation or identify illegal fishers in real time. This is just one example, and you need only walk a few feet to discover dozens more. Data sets as big as our world. Technology that knows no planetary bounds. With so much available in new innovation, how can we maximize its impact? How do we apply the data, use the technology, or deploy any new capacity to break the cycle of systemic, extreme poverty?
Of course extreme poverty is certainly not new. Nor are the efforts of development actors to address it, but I would argue that in this 21st century context two things are different:
First, the pace of change has accelerated rapidly as we face the challenge of globalization, climate change, and urbanization: As these megatrends converge and intersect dynamically not a month goes by that we don’t see some kind of disturbance to the normal flow of life. A cyberattack, a new strain of virus, a violent storm, a civil disturbance, an ecosystem at the brink of vanishing. These disruptions affect us all, but they do not affect us equally. Some people and communities are able to bounce back quickly from these events. Others never recover at all, trapped in an endless cycle of crisis-response-repeat.
For example, the Sahel has experienced three major droughts in the past decade, the most recent of which destroyed most crops and led to widespread food insecurity and shortages. There was starvation and considerable loss of life. As farmers are unable to produce crops and are therefore unable to provide for themselves or their families, many become climate refugees—often flooding already crowded urban areas unprepared to receive them. This kind of population influx sorely test governments’ ability to provide for their citizens and sustain functioning operations under an increased load, and the refugees vie with existing residents in a contest to secure dwindling resources.
Under these circumstances a significant difference between communities that rebound and those that stay down is resilience. Building resilience requires investing and planning in the non-crisis times so that we are better prepared for the bad times. It enables bouncing back more quickly and effectively from a disruption. In addition, these investments also bring benefit to people and communities in times of calm—greater equity and social cohesion, better transportation systems and infrastructure, and more economic opportunity, to name just a few. Both of these together, are what we call this the resilience dividend.
The second 21st century difference is that with growing numbers of crises, and two billion more people predicted on our planet, hundreds of millions more people will depend on aid from multilateral and bilateral aid organizations for their survival and well-being. And this at a time when the economic growth of many donor countries is stagnant or slowing, putting a strain on budgets for aid.
To fully grasp the enormity of this juxtaposition, note estimates that for every three dollars spent on development, one dollar is lost to the next disaster. Meanwhile, year after year, humanitarian aid continues to be directed to the same regions to address immediate recovery needs. And in every scenario, the poorest of the poor are always the most affected, because they don’t have the safety nets that others might have—savings, insurance protections, access to health care, among others. And every disaster weakens their ability to ride out the next big disruption. But by aligning development more closely with building resilience, not only will disasters not be as detrimental to development progress, less money will be required for disaster recovery and relief and development investments will be more fully protected. More important, resilience investments will contribute to a greater individual sense of security, one that allows families and households to save more money, protect their assets, and make plans for the future—critical contributors to breaking the cycle of extreme poverty around the world.
We’re not the only ones who have seen the resilience dividend in action. The leadership of Administrator Shah and his team has been groundbreaking in bringing resilience to the forefront of the development agenda. One might say we’d make pretty good partners. We thought so, too. And so The Rockefeller Foundation has joined with USAID to convene the Global Resilience Partnership. With an initial joint investment of a $100 million, the partnership will work to share and coordinate resources, scale innovations, and build open source data platforms and monitoring systems for all who are workingin the geographies most vulnerable to shocks: the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and South and Southeast Asia.
We’ll be going into greater depth on these issues at a session later today, but let me just highlight two key pillars that will anchor our activities: One key pillar will be a challenge, which you’ll hear more about from Secretary Kerry in just a few minutes. Another pillar will be innovative partnerships among business, government, and finance. Together they will offer resilience-building services and support to those working in these regions. Planet Labs is one of those partners, poised to support, through innovative technology, resources or expertise, development investments that build resilience.
Ultimately, our goal is to leverage financing to fund resilience projects with the potential to help millions of lives. Doing this may require financing vehicles that increase the flexibility and responsiveness of current funding flows. One innovation we are exploring is the development of a resilience impact bond, bonds issued by a government and backed by a donor, that could finance a range of projects, such as mangrove planting, large-scale coastal protection, and small-scale infrastructure, such as sea walls or storm-resistant housing.
This is just the beginning, and we’ll take our next steps with more announcements in the session later today.
But before I finish, I have just one last thing to add. Although the Global Resilience Partnership has been founded by a global philanthropy and a bilateral development agency, we are cognizant that resilience only works when we empower many others, including local actors as active collaborators.
In our work we have repeatedly seen the power of partnerships and the impact of resilience building innovations translated into solutions that affect lives. And we’ve learned that true resilience is never built top-down; it’s people-up. Because, while building resilience is often seen as solving an infrastructure problem, or a resource problem, ultimately it’s about people—helping them access the tools and the safety provisions to be secure and resilient in their own lives in the face of whatever challenges may come their way. By infusing resilience thinking throughout global development investments, and seeking true partnerships across civil society, donors, governments, companies and a range of others, we can drive a paradigm shift, and also realize the resilience dividend ourselves—whether it’s more effective diplomacy, more streamlined use of tax dollars, or greater impact of development aid.
This is a big, exciting next frontier for global development, and we’re glad to be among so many of our fellow pioneers today. Thank you.