Joseph Foltz: USAID’s climate change warrior in Asia-Pacific

Joseph Foltz, deputy chief of the Office of Environment, Energy & Climate at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: Devex

Listen to locals and see what’s important to them. That’s a strategy Joseph Foltz honed in the Peace Corps and is now bringing to his work in climate change.

As deputy chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Environment, Energy and Climate Change in Manila, Foltz is not only involved in Philippine programs; he also provides oversight on climate-related aid to 12 Pacific island countries.

Foltz is one the most influential development leaders aged 40 and under in Manila.

Devex is recognizing 40 of these young trailblazers in international development. They are social entrepreneurs, government leaders, development consultants, business innovators, advocates, development researchers, nonprofit executives and journalists.

How did he get there? We asked Foltz.

What sparked your passion about climate change issues?

I was raised on a dairy farm in Michigan where I learned first-hand how business decisions, like switching from rotational planting to no-till planting to a cell grazing system, reduced operating costs to the business and environment, e.g. reduced wear and tear on equipment, lower herd health costs, reduced fertilizer runoff, and reduced soil erosion. In the very limited free time available, my favorite hobbies were all associated with spending time outdoors in the different seasons, most importantly skiing in winter through several feet of lake-effect snow.

Studies at Michigan State University, the University of Denver, and experience with the Peace Corps only served to reinforce my interest and passion in business opportunities and need for social safety nets, particularly for migration, food and water, resulting from the effects of global climate change. Clearly, the impact of climate change will vary locally, requiring partnerships across a wide range of stakeholders to make investments that create trust, value, and equity at the community level.

So why am I so passionate about climate change? It is the chance to lead a small portion of a much larger, much broader partnership to address the primary issue of my generation that will shape all others.

What USAID-funded climate initiatives are you particularly excited about right now?

One initiative that I’m working on is called EC-LEDS, Enhancing Capacity for Low Emissions Development Strategies. It’s a really exciting partnership between the U.S. government and government of the Philippines to improve data quality, data sharing, and analytic tools to advance sustainable development goals, access finance from international climate funds, and integrate climate considerations in long-term economic planning that does not necessarily correlate to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a lot of fun working on EC-LEDS because it brings together experts from Filipino and American public and private sectors to tackle some very hard issues like analyzing how economic choices and trade-offs affect emissions growth and economic resilience. The best part is seeing how businesses and policymakers use the information at the local community level to make decisions.

Additionally, I led design of two recent climate-change projects, B+WISER (terrestrial biodiversity and REDD+) and Be Secure (water security), that were consultative with a broad range of government and NGO actors, evidence-based and informed by science, and emphasized a premium on creating measurable benefits at the community level.

First in Rwanda and then in the Philippines, how did you manage to strengthen USAID’s engagement with local communities in its climate change programming?

Climate change can be a challenging issue to discuss directly with community members, although I am impressed with the level of understanding more and more people have of the terminology.

In Rwanda and the Philippines, I employ a tactic first honed in Peace Corps, and that’s simply taking as much time as necessary to understand community-level issues and “breaking bread” together. The most important insights about community perception of opportunities and threats to their way of life have come from getting out of the conference room to listen to and see what is important.

I like to ask lots questions too, while on work assignments or on personal travel. I carry that feedback throughout the life cycle of the portfolio, building on it with literature reviews and expert feedback to lead or support design, implementation, assessment, or evaluation.

I am always interested in better approaches to strengthening community engagement, and know it takes new types of engagement with local partners and continued collaboration with USAID’s traditional partners.

Read more about the Devex 40 Under 40 International Development Leaders in Manila.

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