By Anand Mahadevan &Dibeyendu Ganguly
MUMBAI: Aggressive use of science and technology to solve the world’s problems and deeper collaboration within the philanthropic ecosystem are likely to emerge as two defining trends over the next decade, according to Rajiv J Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation.
“We’ve always tried to bring the frontiers of science and technology to the aid of human progress. Today, we’re refocusing on this. The same analytics that’s being used by Google to help sell me toothpaste can be used to search for and find households which are most vulnerable to infant mortality,” he told ET.
Shah, who took over as foundation president early last year, previously worked in the Obama administration and with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He’s the youngest person and the first Indian-American to head the prestigious foundation. While the foundation has always leveraged science and technology to solve the world’s problems, Shah is said to be laying even greater stress on them.
The 104-year-old foundation has been continuing its work through the decades even as a new crop of philanthropists such as Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar have emerged, with different approaches and focus areas on solving the world’s problems.
“Diversity between old and new philanthropy is important, but there also needs to be a bridge. We hope the Rockefeller Foundation can be that bridge,” Shah said. The foundation gives away roughly $200 million annually.
On this visit to India, his first since he joined the foundation, Shah has spent a lot of time looking to forge partnerships with other philanthropists. He’s just met Ratan Tata and, the day before, Nandan and Rohini Nilekani.
“We want to build partnerships with India’s leaders. The spark that lit their business, scientific or political work can light the way to tackling the challenges of our age as well,” he said. The foundation is also in conversation with corporates to see how they can partner in their CSR spending.
Shah last came to India as part of former US President Barack Obama’s delegation in 2015. “Philanthropy cannot solve problems alone,” Shah said. “But it is the risk capital that can go where government cannot go.” Governments cannot afford to take risks and fail, but philanthropy can.
Commenting on growing criticism that private philanthropy has too much influence on public policy, Shah said it is appropriate to have discussions on this issue.
“We need more and more transparency, not just in terms of the goals of philanthropy, but also in its values. Being inclusive in all we do is a big value for us,” he added. Even as the two big trends of science and collaboration play out across the ecosystem, Shah said a third emphasis for the foundation would be a relentless “focus on results.” Child health and nutrition are a part of its work, but the Rockefeller Foundation’s largest programme in India has been in the power sector. Half the $66 million it has invested in India over the last 10 years has gone into providing renewable energy solutions to 42,000 families in 122 villages in five states.
“India still has 300 million citizens without access to power,” said Shah. “If we can solve this problem, we can bring these people out of poverty and into the modern economy. With solar cells so cheap and the capacity of storage devices going up, the business model for renewable power has changed.” The latest in analytics is being brought to bear on the foundation’s allocation of funds to power projects, too. For example, it is using data to zero in on areas where access to power would have maximum impact in terms of productivity, as opposed to being used only for lighting.
Shah is proud of the foundation’s historic collaboration with agronomist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug, whose work is credited with helping to bring about Green Revolution in India.
Having worked in the Obama administration first as chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education and economics in the Department of Agriculture and then as head of the United States Agency for International Development, Shah knows his way around government. A second-generation Indian-American, Shah’s parents went to the US in the 1960s.
Growing up in Detriot in a vegetarian household, Shah recalls being raised on Indian values. At the age of eight, he came to Mumbai with his family and stayed with an uncle, who insisted he must see the “other” India, the one visiting NRIs don’t usually see. “My uncle took me to Dharavi and I admit I was shocked,” he said. “I think it influenced many of the choices I made later in life, including the decision to study medicine.”