Penelope Lewis is used to working against the clock. But now this former BBC journalist has – like all of her colleagues at the World Bank – something of a longer-term deadline in mind, namely the objective of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity by 2030.
It’s quite a target, one that has been embedded in the World Bank’s mission under the leadership of its president, Dr Jim Kim, and one that Lewis is working towards by strengthening relations between the Bank and philanthropic foundations around the world.
“As head of the Bank’s Global Foundations Programme, it’s my job to facilitate partnerships between the World Bank and philanthropic organisations,” she explains. “Partnerships have just become more and more important – largely due to the sheer scale of the problems out there. This means we have needed to rethink the types of partnerships and how the World Bank can act as a bridge between poor countries and much bigger amounts of capital. Philanthropies – especially new philanthropies that have a foot in the private sector – can play an important role in that.”
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that individuals and organisations see the drawbacks of acting in isolation from one another. For Lewis, this means that her days have become longer. “There is now more of an understanding that whatever each player does on their own is never going to be enough,” she says. “So, within the World Bank, programmes like the one I head up have become more and more important – and busier and busier.”
A life in development
Lewis began her career as a reporter with the World Service, but it transpires that her life has been steeped in the needs and aspirations of those in developing countries. “I did my dissertation at university on generational conflict in a squatter camp in Cape Town,” she recalls. “While I was living there, I helped a student organisation set up some places where children could go and have some learning, and so this interest in development has always been with me.”
Moving from the BBC – “it was time for me to actually work in the sector rather than report on it” – she went to work for the UN World Food Programme and subsequently for UNICEF as communications advisor, both in headquarters and in postings in Africa and the Balkans. During this time, she was the lead spokesperson on several humanitarian crises, including Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Kosovo, and Honduras. These experiences, she believes, have been hugely valuable.
“What you get from field experience is the human side to a story,” she explains. “Unless you actually live amongst it, you’re always going to be somewhat divorced from it. One month after I joined the World Food Programme I was sent to go and work in the war in Rwanda, which was a pretty intense baptism of fire. From a professional point of view, it helped me really understand how complex and fast-moving an emergency situation is on the ground. It also brought home to me the depth and level of suffering, as well as the sheer resilience of people in those situations. All of these elements become very, very real and tangible.”
She has taken such lessons into her subsequent roles, including her current task of developing partnerships with the philanthropic community. Lewis believes that such partnerships, which range across areas such as early childhood development, financial inclusion and women’s empowerment, work best when they bring together an abundance of different strengths. “We’re not all the same,” she points out. “And so we need to find a meeting point which brings different points of view and different expertise to bear.”
To illustrate her point, she goes on to cite a project on data collection funded by an American foundation. It’s an example of the World Bank collaborating with an outside organisation and changing its approach as a result.
“The project is about collecting data in health clinics and schools across sub-Saharan Africa,” she says. “It is innovative because it tracks impact – rather than output – by looking at, for example, the quality of education and how learning is progressing. More importantly, though, the foundation pushed the World Bank to think about what we do with the data. In many instances in previous years, the World Bank would produce a gorgeous piece of research only for it to collect dust on a shelf of some government ministry. But this foundation wanted very early on for this project to be about how this data and this research could be used for accountability. Namely, how it could be put into the hands of the media, citizens and others to keep their local authorities and governments accountable. So this has pushed us to think about something we do all the time, but to think about it in a different way.”
Charting a course
Almost 100 foundations currently partner with the World Bank and, between 2012 and 2016, foundations contributed US$1.12 billion to the Bank, or about 2 per cent of its total budget. These aren’t the only numbers to bear in mind, however: 10,000 staff in 120 offices worldwide tell a story of a highly complex organisation – even without the added influence of so many external actors. With this in mind, it seems pertinent to ask how Lewis and her colleagues navigate such a complicated environment.
“For me one of the key things is understanding who you are talking to and understanding who you are talking for,” she says. “So I need to understand my institution very, very well, and I also need to understand the philanthropic field very, very well – otherwise the conversation misfires. In the partnerships which I help forge, I try to heavily prioritise – so I look at the priorities of the institution and try to distil and make them relevant to the organisations I am reaching out to.”
Such bridge-building has become imperative, she adds. “Maybe people have always felt this, but I feel we’re at a moment in time which is presenting so many challenges which are converging at once: climate change, forced displacement, famine, and so on. They were all challenges before, but there is a real sense of urgency now, and this is also forcing development actors to behave in a different way. There is now a bigger shared belief in the need to work together.”
Lewis will be spearheading the next phase of her programme from her new base in Brussels. “We have very strong strategic relationships with many key partners in the US, but we need to strengthen what we do across Europe,” she explains. “I’m also working on finding high-level advocates – maybe not the usual suspects – who can talk about the issues we care about, and my sense is that Europe is an interesting place to seek out those individuals. There are some great champions for this type of work among the business sector in particular, so that’s another line I am working on.”
As she and her family settle into their new home, it’s a case of so far, so good. “We’re all looking forward to seeing what comes next,” she concludes.
As are we all.
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