Peggy Dulany Rockefeller, the founder of Synergos Institute, has worked in the past five decades on issues of philanthropy globally, over three decades of which has been as the Chair of Synergos, a global non-profit organisation bringing people together to solve complex problems of poverty, and to serve as catalyst for creating opportunities for individuals and their communities to thrive.
A fourth child of David Rockefeller and Margaret McGrath, and also a fourth generation of the American Rockefeller family, who has led some of the Rockefeller family charities, her organisation, Synergos Institute, has made very critical interventions in the Nigerian agricultural space in the past three years.
It has not only created critical linkages for partnerships among all the stakeholders in the sector, but has been at the centre of innovation in producing livestock feeds from cassava waste, in a manner poised to assist in resolving some of the violent tensions between farmers and herders running through many communities in Nigeria.
On her first visit to Nigeria to attend the Diversity Dialogue 2017 Nigerian Women in Agribusiness Stakeholders’ Dialogue, hosted by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Technoserve Nigeria and the Synergos Institute, she spoke to Secretary to the Editorial Board, Ololade Bamidele, on her work and mission in Nigeria.
PT: Please, could you give a context to your work with Synergos? What actually built into the founding of the organisation?
Dulany: I founded Synergos thirty years ago. When I was between ages of 17 and 19, I had the chance to live in Brazil and the opportunity to work in a couple of the favelas or squatter settlements, and study rural migrants come into the city. After about a year doing this, I began to see that those squatters had the most initiative, will and creativity to get out of poverty. But in those years in Brazil, there was no connection to government, to private resources, to sources of education, etc. And so from a very early age, I was left with the impression that everything could be resolvable if there could be connections between those suffering the problems and those trying to work on them.
But in those days, the approaches were very Top–Down, and there was no effort to involve people in their own solutions. So, fast forward about 20 years, I began to work on something called the New York City Partnership, which was an effort to bring government, business, trade unions, universities, NGOs to work together on New York’s economic and social problems. I did that for five years and it was a very interesting experience but I learned one mistake that we made: The participants in this were all the top levels of each of those expert groups; so again, it was not consultative. They were thinking on behalf of the people but not consulting them.
At that point, I wanted to go back to my international roots in Brazil – later in Mexico and also in the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. I was very connected to the frontline states in those years. So, I wanted to test the idea that maybe partnerships, mainly inclusive partnerships, that included the opinions and the involvement of the poor themselves would be possible in terms of getting people to join forces to solve problems collaboratively. Well, I think I might have miscalculated by about 20 years, because although people sounded interested, I think they actually didn’t know what it would involve. And I am not sure I knew what it would involve; I just had this idea. So we brought together a brain trust of people – activists, NGOs, ex-government officials, some business leaders from all over the world, to help us begin to think through what could be done to get people to work together.
So the first thing that came up was, there were no institutions that had the convening power at all levels in all sectors of society that could do that. Because we tried in Ghana, in Zimbabwe and in Brazil to form some initial partnerships, but the only one that really got grounding was in Brazil, and that was because we had a leader who later became a minister in government. But she was a lowly NGO leader at that time, who had the mentality of reaching out across divides to bring people together, and she had a personality that could do that. In the other two countries, the timing wasn’t right yet.
Her name is Ronda Engel and she later became minister of social development and she was the originator of the conditional cash transfer in Brazil, which has now happened in many other countries. And she really recognised that you have to work with the national government, if it’s a big problem like education or children’s rights. You have to work at the national level, at the state level and at the local level. So she puts together councils at each of those levels around the issues that she was working on. So this was a great inspiration to us at Synergos.
About 12 years ago, we were invited by the government of Maharashtra in India – it has a population of 100 million and it had a child malnutrition rate of 40 percent, which all of India had at a time – to collaborate with UNICEF and the company Unilever, and the state government and NGOs to try to bring down the rate of child malnutrition. And that was when we really began to get some traction. Because what we realised was that you have to bring together all the different stakeholders and this was difficult because none of them trusted each other. You have to go through a process of helping them build trust, and the way we did that initially was to divide them into diverse groups of five and take them across the state to observe together what the nature of the problem was. And this was the origin of our taking a systems approach to problems, and so it wasn’t just somebody up here saying, ‘Child nutrition is because we don’t have food or it’s because we have too much corruption or not enough micro nutrients. It’s not any one thing.’
So, by spending those five days together, they began to see the problems through each other’s eyes and began to trust each other and empathise with the different places they were coming from. So when they all came together as a group, they were already bonded, and that was the basis for the drop in severe stunting from 39 per cent to 23 per cent over a six-year period, which no other state in India, and no other country in the world, had actually achieved at that time. So it really demonstrated the importance of interpersonal trust building, which is part of our approach, and which is a little bit different in most development approaches.
PT: What sorts of interventions were you seeking to make when you set out in founding Synergos?
Dulany: What we wanted to do was to get the proof of concept. We wanted to work in different regions in the world so people wouldn’t say maybe it will work in Philippines but wouldn’t work in South Africa. We wanted to work on different sensitive problems, because we are not the technical experts in any of these problems, whether education, maternal mortality, agriculture; we are not the people who know about the substance; you can always find those in the countries. We are the experts on the process of convening and facilitating; the bringing together of people and then building their capacity to become what we call bridging leaders. So that is why we started out and we worked on the basis of being invited in. We only worked where some group in a country invited us in because you can’t force yourself on somebody.
PT: What actually led to your focus of work in Africa, particularly in Nigeria?
Dulany: First of all, I have to say that I have a great love for Africa and a long history since 1984 of coming to the continent, although that time mostly Southern Africa. I have a strong bias but that couldn’t be what affected us. And I also have lots of connections in Africa, so it is easier for someone to invite you if they know you. So our work in South Africa and Namibia was because I was trusted by the new governments, and so they were willing to take the risk of inviting us. But then it became one huge success in Namibia with bringing down the rate of maternal mortality. Then the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began to take notice and they were about to embark on a big agricultural initiative in Ethiopia, and they invited us to participate in that. And this was actually at the request of President Meles Zenawi, who later died.
So, he asked them to help, and they asked us to be one of the implementers. And in a way the same thing happened in Nigeria: Bill Gates talked with the Ministry of Agriculture, which requested their support, and having seen the work we did with local people in Ethiopia, the Gates Foundation invited us to join them. And I would say that over time, our team here has managed to build trust and so they keep asking us for different things, which we then do our best to support in collaboration.
PT: How do you relate and respond to Nigeria within the frame of the generally global negative view of the country? How do you actually see Nigeria?
Dulany: This is my second day here. But I have always heard about Nigeria and I have heard about the energy, the cultural diversity; of course, I knew about the oil boom, and how that had a down side to it. I have also heard about the corruption. So, I try not to just look at one element, and what I have seen since we started working here is there are people in every sector and we find this in every country.
There are allies in every sector – in the government, in the private sector, in the civil society. So, we seek out those allies, and what I am seeing is that more and more people are recognising that the dependence on oil was a bubble, and it isn’t going to last. And that if Nigeria is growing at the rate that it is growing, there will have to be a real shift in agriculture so that the country can support itself and even become an exporter. So, I’m filled with hope with what I see with the possibilities; and seeing this young people at this meeting today, passionately convinced that agriculture has to be a future in their lives which is a key ingredient, because I heard here today that the average age of farmers are 65. There has to be a shift, so that young people really see that there are potentials, not only for higher income but also for exciting new innovations.
PT: When one looks at the global march of innovation, in terms of the way human society is actually progressing – for instance we are already said to be on the boundaries of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, what do you think will constitute the potentials for Africa’s survival in this sort of new world order?
Dulany: First of all, Africa has already skipped a whole generation of home phones into mobile technology. I mean the uses of mobile phone technology, including for farmers, is incredible in Africa. So, I think that’s really good that it didn’t try to just follow the steps of industrialisation,
Secondly, the human resources are also incredible. There has to be a more inclusive method of making sure that more people in this country have access to education and technology, no matter what area they end up in.
Thirdly, again with regard to agriculture: because of the advances of mobile technology, I think this is going to appeal to young people who are so adept at using technology. They are going to bring things that I couldn’t even imagine into the evaluation of soil; into organic ways of restoring the soil, so that carbon is sequestered in the soil and is not just going out of it into the atmosphere – which is not just Nigeria’s problem, but one we all need to address collectively.
So, I have a hopeful outlook, even though I know Nigeria is facing a huge challenge of population growth and how the country is even going to feed people, much more educate and create jobs for them.
PT: Do you think Africa and Nigeria should concentrate more on agriculture going into the future?
Dulany: I think Africa will have to focus on many things. We happen to be focused at the moment on the nexus between agriculture, nutrition, education and health, because those four taken together, are going to determine the skills level, the nutritional level and the educational level of the next generations coming up, who are going to determine whether the country will thrive or just be surviving.
PT: Why do you think there is the concerted attention of global philanthropy on Nigeria? What actually drives that?
Dulany: Nigeria, for all its problems, is an incredibly entrepreneurial society. So if anybody can solve its problems, it will be Nigerians. But in some cases there are resource needs, and I would suspect that some of the institutional funders are both seeing the problem of a growing population, and the need to solve problems like health and agriculture. But they are also banking on the creativity and entrepreneurship of the Nigeria people to work with them on the solutions.
PT: To look at it another way: Is it that western-oriented philanthropy is trying to find a way of helping to resolve the tensions here so that some of the push effects of migration can actually be dealt with at the home front?
Dulany: That will be probably half realistic, half cynical as an interpretation. In other words, I think those who are genuinely concerned with Nigeria are really focused on what Nigeria’s problems are. However, it could be that some Europeans are very worried about the influx of migration, which isn’t so much about Nigeria now than other countries but it could become more Nigerian.
PT: Could there be any reason why this is your first time in Nigeria, considering the volume of work your organisation has already done on the ground?
Dulany: I know and I’m so embarrassed about this. First of all, we have only been here for about three years and we are spread so thin all over the globe. Our Country Director here, Adewale Ajadi, has been looking for the right moment with enough time to organise events such as this happening today and a few others we will have this week, so as to make the best use of my time. But now that I have come it’s going to be trouble keeping me away from Nigeria!
PT: What motivates your interest in diversity and how much of a perspective do you think it forms in fixing Nigerian agriculture?
Dulany: I will say not only Nigerian agriculture but also Nigeria, because my personal perspective, having grown up in New York, which is a completely diverse culture, which I love, is that diversity can be such a positive thing – the diversity of culture, background, even of belief. In a democratic society, it is possible to manage those differences and to appreciate them. So that’s the very positive side. The other aspect that I hope we would be able to provide some support in, is that in some cases – as you know – diversity of one kind or another has led to conflicts; and in the case of agriculture, we are talking about between farmers and pastoralists, through which some of the conflicts that have come up.
In other cases, in poorer areas, it may be competition over water or over land. So, it is really essential that we come up with creative, innovative solutions that will allow the tensions, which really don’t have to do with ethnic differences but which have to do with scarcity, to be doused. If we can help resolve the scarcity and support the positive elements of the diversity, then that will be a small contribution to the large issues that Nigeria is facing.
PT: Yours is quite an interesting methodology that looks at arts and humanity in a manner that offers insight into problems of agriculture. What informs this source of eclecticism and broad outlook on solving complex problems of poverty?
Dulany: Thirty years of trying. I mean I would have to say that about every ten years, we have an evolution into a new aspects and the latest one is this part about personal reflection for social change; to have each of us have less fear, build more trust and become more creative together in solving problems. So, we feel we have developed something of a secret source that enables us to come to use the technical, the heart, the inter-cultural, etc., to come to a more lasting, scalable solution to whatever problem the people in the countries we are working in are facing.
PT: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the range of activities you are engaged in, considering that you have operated at some of the highest levels of philanthropy in the world and of non-profit organisations, on whose boards you have served or which you still lead?
Dulany: Maybe in part because of my family background, I have been invited to be on the board of a number of NGOs, foundations and a couple of businesses. I feel that, first of all, good governance is a very important part of getting an institution – whether it is philanthropy, for profit or non profit – to succeed; so that is why I have agreed to do them. I also believe that with the growing movement of philanthropy around the world – not only in the U.S. or Europe, but in Nigeria, for example – that there is a real opportunity for people who have made a lot of money to bring all of themselves, not just the money they put in their foundations, to solve problems. They have influence, they have connections, they usually have a good education, so they have some skills; as such, in a way they are the venture capital of social change.
They can afford to put money into risk – trying out new things. They don’t have to be counting every penny, even though it is very important that philanthropists look at monitoring and evaluation, and the impacts of their investments. So, that it why I have put a lot of time into working with philanthropists, to engage them, to expose them to different problems, different solutions, different countries, so that they find their passion, and that they apply their skills and everything else to the problems they are trying to solve.
PT: You have two degrees in education. Was there anything about the degrees that you took that informed what you subsequently did?
Dulany: I told you about my experience in Brazil before going to graduate school. So, that was stuck on my mind: How do we get people to connect? I looked at how the youth adapt to change, and in a way it is very similar to what we are doing in Synergos in different countries. You have a problem and you have people who have different perspectives; how do you get them to adapt, connect and then create the change they want to see? So it is with a different age group often, but it’s the same principles of: How do we open ourselves up to be our most confident but humble, our most trusting, and having the most gratitude and love, frankly, and how you bring all of these to the table to solve problems. And that followed from my great love of working in public schools with young kids or adolescents, all the way into my international work.