Peter Williams of the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction: “I wish someone had told me that my profession will not feel like a job because it isn’t”

Society must begin recognizing the important role that rural communities play in the areas of global development. Currently, we do not see an urgency to solve rural communities’ problems. However, rural disinvestment and underdevelopment has ripple effects across the world. Therefore, a good way to turn this around is by having more conversations reinforcing the […]

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Society must begin recognizing the important role that rural communities play in the areas of global development. Currently, we do not see an urgency to solve rural communities’ problems. However, rural disinvestment and underdevelopment has ripple effects across the world. Therefore, a good way to turn this around is by having more conversations reinforcing the connection between rural development and global gains.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Williams.

Peter is President of IIRR, one of the world’s leading rural development organizations. Previously, he served as an International Expert Advisor for the World Bank, prior to which he founded and led ARCHIVE Global — an NGO using design solutions to improve health. Peter holds Masters degrees from the University of Oxford and Columbia University and has received numerous recognition for social innovation including being cited by Forbes Magazine as having one of the ’10 best sustainability ideas on the planet.’

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. I was born into a family of five siblings and a household of eight. And really, from an early age I lived in the city and I was acutely aware of the differences between rural and urban communities. My dad would travel between the two areas. He was a farmer for much of his life that I knew him, and that took him to the rural areas. We were able to see firsthand the way in which the fruits, literally, of those efforts and his labor were able to support the household.

While both of my parents have passed away, I’m thankful to be part of a strong family. My dad became ill as a direct result of poor living conditions, and growing up, partly because of his influence, I became interested in construction architecture. I held a few positions in those industries for a while, but the early years were formative and important because my mom, who was an educator, always reinforced the importance of education — formal or informal — as a way of providing access and opportunities. This belief is something that was certainly strengthened within and across our family. Those early lived experiences growing up in Jamaica inform what I’m doing today.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

One unintended consequence of a global pandemic is that it’s reversed global trends in alleviating poverty. As a global community, we’ve achieved so much in terms of alleviating the global poverty burden, particularly around extreme poverty, or those who are living on less than 1.90 dollars per day. Prior to the pandemic, those trends we’re taking a downward shift.

What was revealed by the World Bank last year is that for the first time in a generation, the number of people living in poverty is on the rise again. More specifically, what we know now is that 80% of those 8 out of 10 people who are living in extreme poverty are actually in rural towns.

We understand and we talk about the benefits of globalization, and the countless benefits that have positively impacted millions of lives, but there are many that are left behind. For me, the commitment that I have personally, and the organization by extension, is really to ensure that these communities are supported and strengthened. Not just with handouts or short-term fixes, but with investments that support the communities, so that they, on their own terms, can bring about the change that’s needed in their lives. This approach is something that has been at the core of the organization’s work for over 60 years. IIRR is one of the leading rural development organizations in the world. We’ve worked today in about 14countries and we maintain nine offices around the world.

Part of what we’ve done in that time is invested over 150 million dollars to ensure that these communities rise up, and are, in fact, strengthened. Our mission is to ensure that these communities take on the approaches and methodologies that they deem to be quite important so they can sustain their own livelihoods.

I am delighted to be part of this organization that not only invests in these communities but does so in a way which is very much on the community’s terms.

We also talk a lot about community led approaches, and that is something that we’ve been championing for 60 years. What this means is that the community, not “IIRR,” is taking the lead in designing their own solutions. IIRR is meant to be a facilitator of that process, however our programming is very much a community-led approach that allows us to continue a sustained effort.

Our programs are anchored on 5 broad thematic areas: Food Systems, Environment, Education, Economic Empowerment and Health. Within each of these areas, IIRR tries to learn what works, and then shares these lessons with others involved in development.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

While working in a previous nonprofit, which I started, I was looking at the relationship between housing improvement and health — two areas that don’t fit neatly in the same sentence. What that experience introduced me to and gave me a commitment for is the way in which solutions and strategies, particularly those affecting the most vulnerable cannot possibly be isolated. You can’t possibly ask communities to choose between whether or not they think certain issues such as water, food or the environment, should be choose between one or the other.

I was eventually introduced to IIRR’s work. The organization has an incredible track record in conceiving and ultimately deploying an integrated approach to development that looks at the community as a whole and recognizes that economic opportunities and economic development is a core part of how these communities are going to be lifted out of poverty. The way you do that is not simply by social protection mechanisms where you give people money, or ensuring that people are going to school to get the right skills. While these have roles to play, lifting communities out of poverty is done by carefully looking at how climate and the changes we’re seeing present certain risks and threats to future livelihoods certain concerns for communities today. I saw that the organization was very much committed to this kind of holistic approach to rural development, and not excluding two key existential threats of our time — climate change and food security. These issues are exactly what caused me to really connect with IIRR, one of the world’s leading world development organizations, and its commitment to an integrated approach. Its insistence on ensuring that the approaches are and the programs are in fact community-led.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I was an architect, doing quite well, surrounded by an intellectually stimulating environment. I did a number of exciting projects — I was designing Apple stores for Steve Jobs and got hired to help design the next tallest building in the world. You know a lot of things are great from an architectural perspective because that’s what I was trained to do in my former life, but I recognized that there weren’t a lot of people focusing on problem solving, on design thinking on human-centric approaches to development key development issues. I thought that while there are a thousand more people who could design buildings better than I could, the design approach to problem solving and human-centric design needed to be used for more pressing issues.

I ended up choosing to work with IIRR because I recognize the world is seen as complex at a glance, but when looked at closer, it’s actually interrelated and integrated, a concept which was sadly exposed by the pandemic. Therefore, we can understand that the challenges we face are integrated and provide us with a rich opportunity to consider the way in which the solutions or the strategies should be systemic. For me, I thought that the “aha” moment is how my commitment to ‘design’ and ‘problem-solving’ can be used to really move forward the conversation about the way in which energy is related to the environment and how the environment is also related to certain economics — the three E’s. IIRR has been a champion in this space for over 60 years, and that for me meant there was no way an opportunity can look back, but to think creatively and with some agility around how are my skills and experience and problem solving and strategy could be used to inform the work that IIRR does with its partners around the world.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

While IIRR is not a new organization, it is one that sees its history going back several decades. I had the benefit of starting an organization prior to my involvement with IIRR, and I would say that trying to get something off the ground requires focus. Your resilience is what needs to kick-in, and your passion and belief in what you’re doing needs to push through the challenges you will most likely face. You need to be prepared — I call that arming oneself with the belief that you are going to encounter many obstacles. This may take the form of not having access to the kind of funding your idea needs, or not having the kind of support from others that you thought you would have. I think you often need to rely on your instincts, passion and conviction that what you’re aiming to do is actually important and relevant. This doesn’t mean dismissing advice or comments, but rather acknowledging that people may have a different set of views on the issue, and listen to their insights if and when you need to pivot. You also have to be strategic and opportunistic in terms of how you work. Altogether, these are some of the key things and steps that have remained with me that were a very vital part of the lessons I learned along the way.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

When I first joined IIRR, I was speaking to the former CEO of one of the world’s top five organizations, who has since become a mentor for me in many ways. When we met, I was prepared to assume that she didn’t really know IIRR or the work we do, so I started our meeting by saying “this is the organization that I’ve been working with, and this is what we do.” She stopped me and said, “Wait, wait, wait a minute, Peter. You know I need to let you know that I’ve known about IIRR’s work for decades. In fact, I’ve received training from the organization in my earlier years on Rural Development, because the organization is one of the premier organizations working in that space.” Her already knowing about IIRR’s work made me see how much influence the organization has on many emerging leaders who have gone on to hold high profile positions at global corporations. Here we are, trying to introduce our work, and someone in the crowed know gave more insight into how much we’ve already done. While IIRR is known to some, it isn’t a household name in many circles, despite providing educational materials on how to do work in rural areas and how to develop rural communities around the world to UN agencies.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I have formal and informal mentors, most of whom tend to be older peers of mine. Mentors give you influence on your decisions in different ways — positively or negatively. I had one of my peers say, “Why don’t you work and earn a lot of money in Architecture and then you know when you’re close to retirement or upon retirement, you can think about going into charity and giving back.” While I appreciated his opinion, that wasn’t an option for me as the issues IIRR is working to mitigate as an organization are extremely urgent. I live by the mantra that no one really knows how long they will actually live, so you don’t want to put off important things that can be done today.

On the other hand, there was a point in time when I was becoming discouraged IIRR was experiencing a challenging moment in time trying to secure partnerships, donations, and strategic relationships to advance or work. A formal mentor of mine who is head of a major global organization saw how discouraged I had become over the lack of support and said to me, “Peter, you’re having a tough time, I get it. But you just have to keep knocking. And one day, the door will open”. At the time, I didn’t receive this advice very well because we had lost out on about four or five potential partnerships. Looking back, I recognize that what he was trying to express to me, as an older and wiser individual, is that being persistent and resilient no matter what area of work you find yourself doing is what helps you achieve your goals. Essentially, he taught me to never give up, no matter how challenging the journey may seem.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, society must begin recognizing the important role that rural communities play in the areas of global development. Currently, we do not see an urgency to solve rural communities’ problems. However, rural disinvestment and underdevelopment has ripple effects across the world. Therefore, a good way to turn this around is by having more conversations reinforcing the connection between rural development and global gains.

Second, governments and funders should increase their support of holistic approaches to rural development. Taking on a holistic approach requires a greater initial investment in funding, resources, and time but produces the most sustainable results. At IIRR, we seek not only to provide aid, but to empower rural communities as well.

Lastly, the narrative around rural development must invite the participation of the private sector. At IIRR we have begun this effort by connecting with impact funds. We are actively developing opportunities for investors to tackle climate change by funding our Climate-Smart Villages and our Carbon Sequestration projects. This is only one example in which we have engaged the private sector to be an ally of rural development and climate change initiatives, and we plan to expand on this trend.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

By emphasizing the long-run cost-effectiveness and client satisfaction of being environmentally and socially sustainable. For example, in the farming business — if you use too many chemicals or too much fertilizer, your yield may be good but will likely deteriorate over time. If you adopt a more sustainable and environmentally conscious approach to take care of the soil, your future yield will pick up. Your business becomes more profitable as a result.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

This is a question that sometimes keeps me up at night.

I wish someone had told me that my profession will not feel like a job because it isn’t. It’s a commitment. You are trying to address a core problem or challenge and trying to drive value around extremely fluid areas. Therefore, how you address this too often needs to be rethought, re-worked, and re-designed constantly with a fresh commitment to agility. That is something that I wish I had recognized. It’s not simply like a business where you have a product, to identify the product, and you have an addressable market and you’re trying to fit that product into the market. Its various elements are influenced by a confluence of factors ranging from geopolitical to climatic to internal to civil to economic. There are so many factors that are influencing the way we work.

Another thing I wish I knew when I first started is you are often put in places where you’re going to be asking people to contribute and not everyone responds quite the same. To that idea, I was coming from a private sector where funds were in place to do what you do or clients would directly pay for what they needed. Now we’re in a service where you rely on the commitment or the belief of others. I wish I had been briefed on how much time and effort would be involved initially in trying to access the resources that were necessary to do the work.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

What is great is that I see a lot of enthusiasm. We get a chance to work with interns and I use that as a proxy for young people and most of them are. It’s encouraging that many of them are already very committed to working on issues that are bigger than themselves. They are incredibly focused on driving and improving social value, and creating social impact. That is incredibly rewarding. Nothing about society, geopolitics, economics, inequalities were talked about with the cohort that I studied architecture with. Instead, we spoke about the industry trends and it was very insular in many ways.

So I would say to young people, “be open, there is no one path to creating and driving social value and social impact.” There are many ways in which you can approach the subject. I would encourage yourself to be open to the experience of working in a think tank that is writing and designing policies that are directly focused on improving lives just as much as you can be working in a laboratory, experimenting and testing new ideas, new approaches around health or new emerging diseases.

While that drives driving incredible value, working with an organization like IIRR, allows you to do a bit of both while also working directly with communities on the ground to deliver true impact. I don’t believe that one is necessarily better. It’s quite key that we understand the value that each effort can produce. We should be able to assess an ROI against that return on investment.

My suggestion to the young people would be to be open about which specific way they can help because I do believe that multiple opportunities exist, and for those that are a lot more passionate and determined, one can find opportunities to create a novel way and novel approaches within the scope of what they’re already doing or what they might seek to do in the future, that might give them a much more tangible realization of their efforts.

All in all, the general thought is “to be open, open to new approaches, new opportunities”.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It was something that my father used to recite to us. It goes like this: “There are three things that come up back: a past day, a sped arrow, the neglected opportunity”.

I remember my father telling me this from an early age. I think that the notion of the neglected opportunity, and the sped arrow, gave me an urgency around life. I apply that to my work every day, in some way, shape, or form, I’m forced to question, or admit to myself, “what am I doing, am I sure this is what I should be doing?”

The quick answer is, yes, quite easily — because I recognize the importance and urgency of the issues that we’re looking to address and with whom we’re addressing them. And I could think of doing nothing better! I think my father’s quote has influenced my decisions. It does define who I am as a person — I do seek to involve myself and spend time doing the things that are quite critical to my existence. I think about the finite time that we have here on this plane and I think about how I choose to use that time.

Thankfully I can reflect on those early words and how it’s given me an urgency towards life and in terms of setting goals and that plays out on a day-to-day basis in terms of how I lead the organization. I try to encourage our teams to be urgent about the decisions that we make and ensure that they’re thought out — it’s quite crucial. But ensuring that we can step forward in a creative, careful, and credible way in making decisions around who we work with, where we work, what we do, and how we do it. All of the decisions that are made are set against the fact that we want to ensure that we are making the most of the opportunities that we have as an organization. We can influence and impact so many lives around the world. So let’s do that. And let’s do it thoughtfully and respectfully.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Indra Nooyi, former CEO of Pepsi. She is known for her leadership skills leading a company at a time when she doubled the company’s revenue while re-strategizing its efforts towards a more holistic brand: Performance with a Purpose.

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