Rockefeller legacy extended to new issues
John D. Rockefeller was the richest American in his time through the monopolistic Standard Oil. But while most rich families just passed on the enviable wealth to descendants, in 1913 the Rockefeller Foundation came into shape to solve social problems at their root causes. Starting from health, the foundation lives on for 100 years with the focus being extended to cover emerging issues like climate change.
As old as his philanthropist initiative is the foundation's involvement in Thailand. Starting from the fight in Siam against hookworms 100 years ago, the Rockefeller Foundation has seen its presence here expanded. From the Bangkok office - which assists the headquarter in New York, an office in Nairobi and a conference centre in Italy, some 9 staff are working on projects involving Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Vietnam in close collaboration with colleagues in New York and a network of academics and NGOs across the world. Together, their focus is placed on 4 major areas which are expected to be the most life-threatening to all mankind - Revalue Ecosystems; Advance Health; Secure Livelihoods; and Transform Cities.
To Ashvin Dayal, managing director of the foundation in Asia, under the four themes, while health-related projects are the legacy of the foundation's work here, resilience-related initiatives become bigger in Thailand in the same way as they are over the world, in light of extra shock disasters.
"Noone can really predict them. Our focus is how people will be prepared for them. Through our Asia resilience network, we can learn from New York (after it was struck by Sandy Superstorm). And our work here can help globally. Together, we are looking for ways that globalisation can be equitably shared," he said during a recent interview.
From the Bangkok office, the foundation's Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCERN) - encompassing over 100 organisations, NGOs and government agencies - is working with 10 cities in Asia, including Chiang Rai and Hat Yai in Thailand. The focus is on second-tier cities which are facing more and more risk pressure associated with climate change, rapid growth of urbanization and migration.
"How to help these cities develop a more dynamic capacity to manage these risks and vulnerabilities," Dayal explained.
For the projects in Chiang Rai and Hat Yai, the aim is to establish community-based flood preparedness. After years of research, the foundation found that Hat Yai's flooding problem has worsened on two major factors: poor physical land use planning and infrastructure development which blocks natural drainage system; as well as climate change which changes the rain pattern and intensity. In Chiang Rai, the encroached Kok River must be restored to resume its role as the natural drainage system and serve its tourism purpose. Importantly, all stakeholders - NGO, the government, businessmen and local residents - must be included in the planning
Each city has its own problem and own causes but they can learn from each other, Dayal said. As such, Danang which is threatened by bigger waves due to the climate change was here in Thailand recently to observe the work here.
"The key is how to introduce new ways of thinking and planning at the city level, to look at the risks associated with climate change and impacts on the local community. Building something new to solve the problem, like what Bangkok is doing? Sometimes, not to do something - leave the land to cope with the flood - may be better," he said.
The Thai coverage will be expanded, probably to Bangkok which was paralysed in 2011 after a flood disaster and sent a shockwave to the global supply chain.
Moreover, to catch more attention from stakeholders who must realise the something must change, the foundation plans to embark on a disaster economic case. With a comprehensive documented study on the economic damage, policy makers and others are expected to realise that that they cannot let things continue as usual, Dayal said.
For example, Thailand plans flood barrier projects to protect some areas - mainly industrial estates - but that means transferring problems to someone else. In a way, negative impacts are not solved but shared by the entire nation.
Dayal is concerned with the plan, initiated mainly to assure Japanese investors that their investment here will be protected from future floods. He noted that indeed the investors should be more comfortable if the government take a long-term view to look at the long-term land use, as that could mean long-term protection.
He was encouraged by the fact that some cities are now allocating partial budgets to strengthen the city-level resilience, realizing the long-term benefits.
Aside from resilience, the foundation looks to strengthen its health-related programmes and starts to promote philanthropy among Thai businessmen to cash in on growing enthusiasm. The resource alliance is being formed, to draw entrepreneurs and impact investors. Much of the resources will then be given to NGOs. But to ensure that the money will be well used, these NGOs must prove their work standards and good governance.
"We are looking for ways to mobilise large funds from investors and channel them to impact enterprises," he said.
Unlike social enterprises which are mostly created to ease social problems, impact enterprises are those with capital allocated to activities that have positive social and environmental impacts.
Aside from cooperation with the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) in engaging business leaders, the foundation is working with the Internet Foundation for the Development of Thailand in developing a volunteering platform. Through the platform, Thais will be encouraged to register for the donation of time and money and others.
Dayal expects this project to win supports from the next generation who are going to control large assets and want to become philanthropists.
"We are trying a number of different things to promote the idea. As a 100-year philanthropist organisation, we have not only just resources but guidance. There are some people here who did something amazing, some young Thais who want to see a different kind of future - like the equal access to education. They are thinking what they can do," he said.
Their giving can't match Rockefeller's, of course. But as the modern-day American philanthropist demonstrated, 80 years after he died, his legacy lives because of its good courses.