In Asia, Rockefeller Foundation wants to invite 'unusual actors' to the table

Deepali Khanna, managing director at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Asia regional office. Photo by: Benedikt von Loebell / CC BY-NC-SA

BANGKOK — Forty thousand people, many of whom live in poverty or are socially excluded, now have access to electricity in rural villages across three states in India. The Rockefeller Foundation’s $75 million Smart Power for Rural Development initiative has so far helped incentivize seven energy companies to expand services using decentralized minigrids as a way to leapfrog the often costly expansion of the national system.

“We always see our resources as high-risk capital, and we want to be the first movers and shakers taking those risks and … getting something up and running.”

— Deepali Khanna, managing director, Rockefeller Foundation Asia regional office

It is in this niche of convening actors and helping them problem-solve for social good that Rockefeller sees itself as most valuable, according to Deepali Khanna, managing director at Rockefeller’s Asia regional office.

In a region facing deepening inequality, shifting geopolitical tides, and rising Asia-led overseas development assistance, Khanna’s role is to harness new ideas born in Asia with the potential to solve challenges around the world. It’s a difficult task in a rapidly developing context, but the foundation is determined to stay nimble to be able to address priorities as they crop up, she said.

With only two people in the Asia regional office, Rockefeller doesn’t plan to expand its staff size to deliver on ambitious plans.

“Our model has been not necessarily wanting to beef up our [number of] officers … You could build up a whole set of competencies here, and with the changing nature of things, those competencies could get redundant very soon,” Khanna told Devex at the foundation’s office in Bangkok.

Instead, Rockefeller will call on its partners and other outside experts to help deliver on four identified focus areas in the region for 2019: health, resilience, energy, and food systems. At the same time, its position as convener will hopefully play a role in informing Chinese overseas development assistance, establishing a stronger ASEAN, and bringing high net worth individuals together to talk about focused financing efforts, Khanna said.

Focusing efforts in 2019 

“We still need to be doing more,” Khanna said of the foundation’s energy work, which has in the past year set its sights on Myanmar, a country with one of the lowest electrification rates in Asia.

In May 2018, Rockefeller led the formation of Smart Power Myanmar — a facility devised along with founding partners that include the World Bank, U.S. Agency for International Development, and Yoma Strategic Holdings — to advance public-private partnerships and accelerate universal rural electrification in the country. Next, Khanna would like to see how best practices from this work can be transferred to Indonesia.

The foundation will also remain involved in work on universal health coverage and in examining solutions for reaching mothers and children in particular. Big data and technology have vital roles to play in delivering better health services, Khanna said, and Rockefeller spent a large part of 2018 examining systems to understand gaps and constraints in the information needed by community health workers — research that will inform potential tech-focused interventions in the coming year.

Rockefeller’s programs focused on resilience will also continue but pivot slightly toward “second tier” cities, or up-and-coming cities with untapped promise for markets like tourism. This focus is in response to urbanization trends in the region, and also aligns with the foundation’s larger strategy of not duplicating efforts but rather taking on challenges that require increased attention, Khanna said.

“If there are lots of actors working in that space and there's really not a road for us, we don't want to create one,” Khanna said. “We always see our resources as high-risk capital, and we want to be the first movers and shakers taking those risks and really getting something up and running so that then we can actually leverage resources from other folks and take it to scale.”

In the past year, the foundation has turned that thinking toward food systems, agriculture, and postharvest loss. In 2019, Rockefeller will be looking harder at the notion of sustainable protein, Khanna said, with plans to launch a “robust program” to improve protein production the by the end of the year.

“We're really trying to understand how technology can help, because we know about the animal protein issue. Just in China, if we can be smart and bring about behavior change of 1.5 billion people and combine that with India …”

They aren’t the only plans the foundation has for China, a country Rockefeller has established a rapport with as it increases its presence throughout Asia and beyond. China’s work in agriculture, for example, has involved sending experts to Africa to set up centers for excellence without government or local buy-in, which inevitably leads to sustainability problems, Khanna said.

“How can we really help them [China] to do that in a meaningful way?” Khanna said. “They've already committed to the SDGs, but do they really understand, at the end of the day, what inclusive development looks like, what participatory processes are, how local ownership of communities is important?”

China has “acknowledged that there they're still new in the game and there's much to learn,” Khanna told Devex, adding that Rockefeller is still trying to work out how best their expertise and credibility can help China rethink how it is planning official development assistance.

Collaborating for impact

Focusing on collaboration for impact — whether convening civil society organizations in the same room as government officials to hash out roles in the midst of shrinking CSO spaces or getting philanthropic foundations together to align measures of impact — will continue to underscore all of Rockefeller’s work in the region.

Some of this is already happening with Co-Impact, a global collaborative that connects philanthropists with each other and with social change leaders to develop and invest in proven solutions that are ready to scale, but “we want to be doing more of that,” Khanna said.

Too often, each organization sticks with its own siloed approach and doesn’t talk to anyone else.  In the case of Co-Impact, “rather than Gates putting money, Rockefeller putting money, Scholl Foundation putting money, and then each one saying what has to be done ... no, you as a group decide what your mandate is for the next three years, give [the money] to this entity to find the right partners, make five to 10 year commitments, and have one measure of impact.”

Khanna sees a similar need for alignment for the many donors to the Asia Venture Philanthropy Network, and hopes to organize a meeting with its funders to understand which sectors they want to be playing in and ensure there isn’t duplication of efforts.

That stress on the importance of collaboration will also extend to Thailand, which is preparing to take over ASEAN chairmanship from Singapore in 2019.

“How do we now start setting the table with unusual actors, how do we get private sector with philanthropists, or high net worth individuals coming together with government?”

— Deepali Khanna, managing director, Rockefeller Foundation Asia regional office

Rockefeller, in partnership with the Asia Foundation, is in conversations with the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs to provide technical support in the creation of a center for sustainable development based in Bangkok. The center could “demonstrate the possibilities of what a regional entity could do,” Khanna said, by providing a space and opportunity for ASEAN governments to gather and talk about common issues, then collectively put their resources behind what they deem top priorities for the region.

Otherwise, Khanna will be focused on how to open up unexpected dialogue channels in order to create more feedback systems where people can work toward unified goals.

“Generally, you're going to convening after convening, you're bumping into the same people. It's the same conversations happening, the same solutions, and we see no results. How do we now start setting the table with unusual actors, how do we get private sector with philanthropists, or high net worth individuals coming together with government?”

About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.