“A Great Partnership Means You’re Learning Together”

June 15, 2021

By John Donnelly

For two decades, Dr. Rajiv Shah has helped develop innovative solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. At the Gates Foundation, he helped create an effort that catalyzed financing for developing vaccines for tens of millions of children in the developing world. As administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, he led the U.S. response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2014 Ebola pandemic in West Africa. Today, as president of The Rockefeller Foundation, he aims to mobilize billions of dollars of capital to spur greater vaccine access and a green and equitable recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this first of a series of Partnership Corner features in IFC Insights, Shah talked about what makes partnerships successful and why partnerships are essential to solve global issues.

Q: Given your leadership experience over the years, what do you value in partnerships, and what have you learned from them?

A: The problems we're trying to tackle—such as as addressing hunger, addressing energy poverty, the climate crisis, and vaccinating the world—are so big and multifaceted that in order to actually imagine solving them, you need multiple partners at the table. And I learned that most naturally working on global immunization issues, and leading an effort to create a vaccine financing facility called the International Finance Facility for Immunisation (IFFm), which ultimately was a partnership among European nations, European statistical and bond rating agencies, private banks, law firms, and the global vaccine industry. [Together, these partners] worked in concert to reshape how the world manufactured and delivered vaccinations to lower-income countries around the world.

I learned that it might take years to build a partnership, and you have to spend the time learning from people and ultimately getting folks to agree to a singular goal. In that case, it was raising a certain kind of capital to restructure the supply side of the industry and reach a certain number of kids with vaccinations who weren't getting them.

I think the other part is listening, listening, listening, because at the end of the day no one really has all the answers. The best partnerships, I think, are informed by that common and shared experience of learning together. And then I'd say it's being results-oriented in execution. People get excited about things that deliver results where you feel like, I put in effort, I put in resources, I put in my credibility and my time, and because of that, life is better for tens of millions of kids around the world.

Q: That's a very timely example, considering what we're facing now with the pandemic. You said in talking about the IFFm partnership that it might take years to put together a strong partnership. How does the world move quickly now to ensure vaccine access?

A: Well, you can accelerate that time frame with urgency and leadership. Building partnerships and building a sense of common purpose can take a long time before you get everyone to agree to a shared goal. You can speed that up when there's an urgent global crisis, and when leaders step up and just hammer it out faster. And I feel like I got to see that experience take hold in disaster response examples such as fighting Ebola in West Africa in 2014, or leading a humanitarian response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010. So I do think you can accelerate it. And right now, given the urgency of our desperate need to get vaccines out and vaccination rates up in country after country, I hope that the world can come together in a broader collaboration much more quickly.

Q: What are the most important roles for the private sector to speed this scaling-up of the response?

A: First and foremost, it's mostly private vaccine manufacturers that need to organize the supply chain and scale up manufacturing to hit price points that are affordable for the emerging world, and then commit themselves to that scale of production and distribution. The private sector is also important in building out cold chains in country after country and supporting distribution down to the last mile. Over the last 20 years, we've just seen so much more collaboration from private companies that have real talent and skills in logistics and communications, on refrigeration and food processing and transport, on all elements of the challenge that face us. So we do need a big, broad private-sector mobilization to overcome this pandemic and avoid future ones. And that's only going to be more true as the world becomes more digital.

Q: What about the roles of the Bretton Woods institutions in fighting the pandemic?

A: The Bretton Woods institutions are so critical and so important to making sure we create a world that has more of a sense of justice and equity. That was true after World War II, which was the motivation for the creation [of these institutions], and frankly it's just as true, if not more true, coming out of this pandemic. At the same time, we have to keep our eye on the ball. If we don't invest dramatically and effectively in a green recovery, we're going to look at half a billion people being pushed back under an expanded definition of the poverty line. We can’t afford a recovery that leaves out half a billion people. And so the World Bank [Group], the IMF, all of the institutions that represent the multilateral development finance system, need to come together in this moment, recognize this is the moment to go big and be aggressive, and do what they can to support nations to make the kinds of investments that will lift their people up through this recovery.

Raj Shah at a mini-grid site in Bihar, India.
Raj Shah at a mini-grid site in Bihar, India. Photo courtesy: The Rockefeller Foundation (2019)

Q: How are you leveraging your relationships to advance a green recovery?

A: For the first time in our 108 years, [The Rockefeller Foundation] went to the capital markets to mobilize a $700 million bond offering, and [we] have committed $1 billion to a global green recovery. As part of that, we're reaching out to all of our partners, long-standing partners and brand new ones, and we’re asking them to join us in building a pandemic prevention institute that will make sure that no pandemic threatens the global economy and the global loss of life the way COVID-19 has. Also, building on our decade of work in distributed renewable energy infrastructure with partners across South Asia and Africa, we are also investing half a billion dollars to catalyze the billions of dollars in private and concessional investments needed to scale distributed renewable energy across developing countries.

Q: How often do you just text people or get on a call spur of the moment to push things through?

A: Well, when we have ideas at The Rockefeller Foundation, we try to think that through, but we're always reaching out to others because we know that the bulk of the capacity to do things resides outside of our institution. For example, when we started our work really aggressively last fall on accelerating Special Drawing Rights to help accelerate immunizations around the developing world, we, of course, did that alongside [IMF Managing Director] Kristalina Georgieva and a group of other well-known economists and leaders who could help design that path forward and make it viable and politically palatable to the key shareholders. And really that type of reaching out, learning, listening, it's both tremendously fun, and it makes ideas better. But it also lays the groundwork for getting things done quickly.

Q: What evolving partnerships are you most excited about?

A: The ones I'm most excited about have to do with using this crisis as a moment of opportunity to ensure that we recover in a manner that is green and equitable. If you look at the landscape of energy technologies—distributed renewable electrification, and new types of on-grid battery storage, new approaches to energy efficiency, and energy consumption—it’s possible now to imagine every person on the planet having totally reliable, productive electrification. Without that, you're going to leave 1 to 2 billion people behind in the global economy. So it's my hope that in building on this exciting MOU that we're signing with IFC, that partners can come together and mobilize the billions of dollars necessary for this.

“Reliable, productive electrification” is possible for everyone, Shah believes. Photo courtesy: The Rockefeller Foundation (2019)

Q: One last question. You said earlier that one of the most important lessons in partnership was “listening, listening, listening.” If partners or prospective partners were listening to you, what would they hear about The Rockefeller Foundation’s approach?

A: A great partnership is all about a shared objective and a good fit. For example, we were in a partnership conversation yesterday where we were describing our efforts to build out a platform to advance renewable electricity and energy around the developing and emerging world. And our partners were bringing up key and core issues about how the program might work in specific countries. They were raising smart, thoughtful, really important points. So a great partnership is defined by constant learning, and people putting in not just money and resources but enough of their intellectual knowledge and enough of their experiential knowledge so that you actually design for programs and partnerships that deliver results. You kind of know a great partnership when you're in one because you get the feeling that you're learning together. You have a collegial relationship, and you're focused on delivering results—and then, ultimately, you do that.

Published in June 2021