Raj Shah served as administrator of USAID during the Obama administration and is now the President of the Rockefeller Foundation, a major philanthropy that is a key player in the global development space. His new book “Big Bets: How Large-Scale Change Really Happens” draws from lessons in his career to argue that big bold visions for systemic change — what he calls “big bets” — are crucial drivers of progress, particularly in global health and development. In our conversation, Raj Shah explains this premise. We then have a long discussion about the current state of global development and the kinds of big bets he believes are required to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals and beyond.
This is a brief excerpt of the interview. It has been edited for clarity.
Mark Leon Goldberg: I’m wondering how you see the Sustainable Development Goals factor in the rubric of the “big bet.” They don’t feature that prominently in your book. How do you understand them in kind of the context of the framework you introduce of how to inspire huge change?
Raj Shah: Well, you know, the SDGs are big bets. They are a statement of what is possible if we actually collaborate and commit ourselves to do what we know is feasible to accomplish. The goal of zero hunger and zero poverty, as we know, is not technically zero. But when you look at the trend line from about 1997 through 2016 or so, in that 20 year period, the trend line on most of the SDGs was actually very positive in the sense that you had more girls in school, you had fewer under-five child deaths, you had less maternal mortality, you had a pathway to very low levels of aggregate hunger and poverty.
And then the circumstance with Covid and the post-COVID recovery, which has been this great divergence in human development outcomes between wealthy nations and less wealthy nations, has sort of undermined that trend line. And now we’re actually going backwards and unwinding progress on the SDGs. That said, if this is the trend line over 20 years, what do we have to do to actually get these targets to be met by 2030? And those are achievable goals if we put our mind to it.
Mark Leon Goldberg: I’m glad you brought up the impact of Covid on progress towards the SDGs, because it made me think of the devil’s advocate argument to your book, which was that GAVI, The Global Fund, PEPFAR and to a certain extent the SDGs and then Feed the Future were all seemingly of an era. Back then these big bets were possible — because of macroeconomic trends, geopolitical trends, or domestic politics here in the United States. But since Covid, as you noted, progress has been reversed and that kind of global zeitgeist seemingly no longer exists. And I wonder if that’s a reflection of the moment we’re in — and if the idea of making bold, aspirational bets is something of a bygone era?
Raj Shah: Well, so I should start answering that by saying, why did we make those bets and commitments in the first place? And it was the very, very simple understanding that unless everybody experiences dignity and opportunity in their life in a very fundamental way, the rest of the world cannot be safe and secure and prosperous. And I think if that simple principle, in my mind underpins the very purpose around having sustainable development goals. And that simple principle is as true today as it was in 2015 and certainly as it was in the decades prior. So I think the need for the SDGs is greater than ever today because that principle is still alive and important in our national security thinking and in how we want to build a planet that is safe and secure and prosperous for everybody. If you look at what happened with Covid, it wasn’t just the disease itself and even inequitable response to the disease from a health perspective, it was also the reality that wealthy nations put somewhere between 20 and 30% of GDP into their economies to create a floor. I think developing countries did about 2%, while middle income emerging economies did about 6%. And so the resulting inflation and run up in interest rates has had really drastic consequences in the developing world. While in the wealthier nations actually, there has been a strong economic performance created by that very, very large scale public investment. That’s why we’re experiencing this divergence today in terms of human development outcomes across those two big groups of countries.
And the question you’re asking is, is that reversible? Can you get back on a path that we were on effectively for decades where you had real convergence in human development outcomes driven by outsized growth in emerging economies, catching up to wealthier ones, and then all of the initiatives you mentioned. And the truth is we can get back there. You know, you’re right that it’s difficult in this politics. But I write in the book about a series of lessons I learned also at a time of difficult politics, of how you build coalitions, how you build partnerships, how you leverage technology. And the truth is, big bets are grounded in fresh, innovative solutions. We’ve never had better solutions than we have right now. The world’s undergoing a renewable energy technology revolution that could, for the first time actually lift a billion people out of energy poverty. That simply wasn’t even possible to imagine 5 or 10 years ago. So, you know, we should be optimistic because I think it’s realistic to be optimistic about achieving these goals, even though we’re currently in a place that in the short term seems like the opposite. [00:15:45][68.5]
Mark Leon Goldberg: How do we reconcile this idea that we have more solutions right now than we ever have had before, as you describe, but yet the politics of the moment seem like implementing those solutions at scale are far off and difficult? These solutions require a degree of global solidarity. And for the reasons you described earlier, there is this pervasive sense in the Global South of angst and real anger actually towards the global north that they’re unable to access those solutions at scale. And this seems to be fundamentally like a political problem to solve. So how do we get there?
Raj Shah: So I think at the end of the day, the best opportunity we have to transform global inequity to fight climate change to prevent the next pandemic is based on the solutions that are available right now. And I’ll give you just a couple of examples, but our biggest bet at the Rockefeller Foundation is the idea that we can extend the renewable energy revolution to emerging and developing economies in a way that actually provides power to people who are energy poor. 750 million people who have less power consumed than it takes to light one light bulb and one home appliance over the course of a year. As long as you’re trapped in energy poverty, you can’t actually convert your labor and your efforts into real productivity. And beyond that upward ladder of mobility, job creation and growth. But today we have new solutions. Solar mini grids anchored by lithium batteries, coupled with remote management through artificial intelligence and battery management, also through remote AI that can bring the costs down in servicing customers from rural northern Bihar to eastern Congo to parts of Honduras in ways that don’t require the grid, that don’t require large scale fossil fuel or coal based generation. And in ways that we know and have data are hyper effective at people lifting up themselves in their communities, starting that cycle of job creation and girls learning at night and the whole. Positive cycle of development and opportunity. That’s a new opportunity available to the planet. And we mobilized a pool of about $11.5 billion at the Glasgow COP and since then are now reaching probably more than 10 or 12 million people with these solutions in. Unique public private partnerships and blended finance project financing that’s setting a path for how to actually reach nearly a billion people. So it’ll take time. We’ll keep learning, but those kinds of examples give me hope that we can take advantage of the solutions that we have at our disposal and recommit ourselves to the very basic idea that unless everybody has dignity and opportunity, we can’t build a world that is safe and prosperous for the rest of us.