Rising trade tensions are threatening to undermine collaboration needed to tackle big problems like poverty on a global scale, CARE CEO Michelle Nunn said at the World Trade Day conference in Atlanta May 3.
“In many ways we are seeing threats of an inward-looking and nationalistic sensibility, an insularity that threatens some of our capacity as a globe to solve complicated and globally meaningful problems, but also to stand in solidarity with one another to advance our capacity to make progress,” she said during an award acceptance speech at the annual event hosted by the World Trade Center Atlanta.
Ms. Nunn was presented with the John C. Portman Global Leadership Award for her work advancing international ideas and encouraging cross-border collaboration.
This instinct was instilled her at a young age. The daughter of Sen. Sam Nunn in college completed the Semester at Sea program, visiting 12 countries on a ship. She then spent six months in India. Later, she would be selected to research the intersection of faith and social justice — interviewing religious leaders during travels to 12 more countries.
“That was sort of falling in love with the world in a true sense, and having had the opportunity now at CARE to live that out is I think really exciting,” she said.
And all that was before she founded Hands On Atlanta, a volunteer mobilization organization, then went on to lead Points of Light and finally join CARE in 2015.
Since then, Ms. Nunn has learned a lot from her front-row seat to U.S. development efforts. CARE was founded 75 years ago along with the post-war system of global governance designed by the U.S.
Without mentioning President Donald Trump by name, she said this mutually beneficial system is facing its first true test as politicians bash the idea of cross-border collaboration.
That makes telling stories of positive impact all the more important to counteract narratives based on fear and misunderstanding, she said.
Contrary to what many people think, the world has made a huge dent in extreme poverty — largely because China and India grew their middle classes. But citizens awash in negative news cycles overwhelmingly tend to think that it’s getting worse, despite the facts.
Losing confidence in the system could threaten work toward combatting climate change or meeting two of the United Nations sustainable development goals that are close to CARE’s heart — to end poverty and achieving gender equality, Ms. Nunn said.
To do so, CARE is going to be relying more heavily on the scale that companies can bring to the table. Even with a budget of about $800 million, the Atlanta-based organization is a “tiny part of the global capacity” in the fight against a foe that Ms. Nunn believes can ultimately be defeated in her lifetime: extreme poverty.
U.S. development strategy should coordinate aid and trade together for maximum impact, Ms. Nunn said, noting that 11 out of the top 15 U.S. trading partners were once recipients of aid, like Germany and Japan after the war.
“Something I think we can do more of is talk about the nexus between global trade and overcoming poverty globally. There’s not as much alignment in some of those messages to show the potential synergies,” she said.
As nonprofits look to raise the bar on economic sustainability and accountability, they’re looking more to the private sector and introducing better technology.
Many of CARE’s programs are focused on building up entrepreneurs, especially women, or educating young girls. Ms. Nunn has presided over a massive expansion of CARE’s village savings and loans program to nearly 7 million people in 46 countries. These VSLAs, mostly run by women, pool their funds in what amounts to a mini bank and then make loans to members of the group to support small-scale ventures.
The organization has also received donations in the tens of millions of dollars from the likes of Pepsico, Mars Inc. and the Cargill Inc. to focus on improving the lot of small land-holding farmers, most of whom are women and face hurdles to owning land and access to capital. Mars, the maker of M&Ms, is helping secure the supply chain for cocoa in West Africa and getting access to a key raw material.
CARE is also about to launch a $50 million impact investing fund that will back small enterprises incubated via the nonprofits workers, like a Bangladeshi delivery service run by women. Such funds operate as venture capital — not debt like the micro loans that have seen mixed results since coming on strong a decade or so ago.
Atlanta, with its slew of Fortune 500 headquarters and strong global health scene, has a major role to play in bringing the right stakeholders together, if only it will acknowledge assets like the CDC, Carter Center, Emory and much more. Other cities such as Seattle are already taking the crown for themselves, Ms. Nunn said. An effort seems to be underway with the Global Health ATL initiative, but it also broader than just one sector. Atlanta is a bona fide global hub, she told John Portman IV in an on-stage conversation.
“We have a rich history, an extraordinary history of visionaries like your grandfather [the late architect and artist John C. Portman Jr.] who purposely, creatively built those assets, and I think its incumbent on all of us to take that and to build that platform out further and then to extend it,” she said.
In his response, Mr. Portman IV likened the task ahead for CARE to one of the lectures he heard often from his grandfather, who talked about balancing big, sweeping ideas with the constraints of the real world. He thought both were indispensable in the act of creation.
“He called himself a pragmatic idealist,” Mr. Portman IV said.
Right now, Ms. Nunn believes there are too many people who focus on the constraints, and not enough dreaming big.
She hearkened back to the CARE package, the humble gift kick-started by a few people that has snowballed into a massive machine for poverty elimination. A $10 donation in the 1940s would come with the promise that you would receive a note letting you know where your CARE package was delivered. Ms. Nunn’s 83-year-old grandmother still remembers the name of the French girl who received the parcel her family sent 70-plus years ago.
That sense of global community and audacity is what’s going to be required to make the world better, Ms. Nunn said.
“I think we need to be restored by a sense of optimism that we can make a difference as individuals and on global problems.”
The John C. Portman Leadership Award is presented annually at World Trade Day. The inaugural winner in 2018 was former Atlanta Mayor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young.
Learn more about the event here.