Donor Perspectives: A Conversation with Jennifer Gross

The Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) was established to mobilize scientific expertise for the development of innovative solutions to the challenges of sustainable development. CSD’s research and technical support has helped enable partner governments, companies and NGOs to implement innovative interventions in education and health in countries across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. All this work is made possible through the generous support of CSD’s donors. Our Center, as well as the partners and communities we work with, benefit from the vision and commitment of those who believe in CSD’s mission. One such donor is Jennifer Gross, whose vision of a peaceful and prosperous world has impacted CSD’s work and helped amplify the voices of thousands of individuals living in poverty around the world.

Through her own Blue Chip Foundation and her family’s Gross Charitable Family Foundation, Ms. Gross has been a donor and a thought partner with CSD since before its inception in 2015, enabling initiatives aimed at improving education and health outcomes in some of the world’s most marginalized communities, including the Connect To Learn initiative which has supported over 1,300 girls on secondary school scholarships and equipped their schools with technology resources in 10 sub-Saharan African countries and Myanmar, and the 1 Million Community Health Workers campaign which has helped scale-up access to healthcare in Africa. For this piece, we ask Ms. Gross to share some of the motivations for her work and what she hopes to see in the future.

CSD: Why do you think it’s important to invest in sustainable development? 

JG: There is an idea from Pope John Paul that Development is Peace. The two lie hand in hand. I will always be a peace seeker. Each year approximately $1,700 Billion is spent globally on military. If a fraction of that was used in development to lift people from poverty and exclusion, the world would be in a much better place.  I am a founding member of Ethics in Action which is a group that meets at the Vatican over a period of two years. We have formed in agreement that the challenges to Sustainable Development stem from moral dysfunction. In a room full of academics, various religious leaders, and experts in various fields, we address the Sustainable Development Goals and discuss global approaches to creating a more inclusive and moral economy in which every person can cooperate to take care of our home and all of its people.

CSD: How do you choose what specific activities to support? What inspired you to get involved with Connect to Learn and CSD?

JG: I traveled to Sauri in 2014 with Julian Lennon and we visited Uranga Secondary School and spent an afternoon with the girls on scholarship there. We were both struck by their optimism and hope for not only their own futures but those of their classmates as well. One girl in particular said that she wanted to go to University to become a teacher so that she could then come back and teach those in her village. The mantra, “See one, Treat One, Teach one,” has been a very important idea for me working in sustainable development which I see championed by my mentor, Sonia Sachs. While we are working on solutions, generating new policy for future endeavors, and backcasting in a certain sense, we also are involved in current projects, and almost always are mentoring someone to continue the work. I loved seeing the girls inspired to give back to their communities and to continue educating future generations.

Another girl had talked about being raped on the long walk to school. They asked Julian and me if we would help them build a dormitory so that they all could evade these issues. We of course donated the money and the dormitory was built within a year. The girls are now able to focus solely on their education whereas in the past, they may not have gotten the same opportunity. Most girls are responsible for all of the household chores, not getting as much time to study as their brothers.

I was overjoyed when Radhika approached me about the program to teach [recent Connect To Learn scholarship graduates] a trade with a business sense in mind. Because University may not be an option for all of the girls, mentorship needs to be provided to ensure each girl can provide for herself and her family if she chooses to have one.

CSD: What impacts have you seen so far, and what impacts do you hope to see in the future? 

JG: Both my own foundation, Blue Chip Foundation, and my family foundation, The Gross Charitable Family Foundation  are working on scaling up the Community Health Workers nationally in Ghana. I was able to witness the success CHWs had in their community in many Millennium Villages, including Bonsasso, Ghana. I’m proud to partner through Center for Sustainable Development with Ghana to scale this initiative up nationally. I’m hopeful it will be a model not only for other African Countries, but perhaps for the United States one day. We will have many things to learn from the success of developmental projects in the future.

CSD: From your perspective, what is it that people really need to know about this work?

JG: I created five short films and a book through my foundation, Blue Chip Foundation together with an organization called VII Foundation. We documented the success of the Millennium Villages Project. I’m hopeful that our voices will reach others recognizing the humanity in development. So often we lose the human element when we are talking about development through text and statistics. In our documentation, the viewer can witness interventions that were successful and scalable around the globe and realize the transformative power that development has had on the lives of individuals in each community.

CSD: Today we see more support than we used to for community-based solutions for issues ranging from gender equality to public health to climate change, but there is still a lot of work to be done, both in terms of shifting attitudes and making impacts. What challenges do you see ahead, and which do you think will be hardest to overcome?  

JG: To see the investments by national and local governments that we need in universal health coverage, universal access to primary and secondary education, universal access to basic infrastructure including clean water, sanitation, and modern energy services, we need high income countries to honor the pledge they made in 1970 to provide 0.7% of their GDP for Official Development Assistance. We all know that may not happen in the US, so finding other solutions for financing are critical. There is a new campaign I am working on with Professor Sachs called Move Humanity in which all of the worlds billionaires and millionaires will be asked to donate 1% of their net worth to initiatives that fall under the SDGs. The world’s billionaires’ total worth is 7.7 Trillion Dollars. If we tax 1% of this total net worth, we could finance the gap left by those countries not contributing enough to ODA. Quite frankly, a combined wealth of 7.7 Trillion makes them an extremely powerful country. Collectively, high net worth individuals should start to be treated and taxed as such and held accountable for moral responsibility to sustainable development as global players among the countries of the world. Making this mental shift will be difficult, but it is possible. If the voices of the marginalized rise up and demand this change in legislation to implement a tax on the wealthiest individuals, we have a shot.

If we are not successful in any of our efforts to change the direction in which we are headed, I think when New York is underwater that might be something that shifts the attitude of the general population concerning the work that needs to be done. All that I can do on my end is partner with the right people, provide whatever skills and resources I have,  and work together with other organizations, institutions, and governments to ensure a disaster like that doesn’t happen. We still have a little bit of time. I believe in the people I work with on a global level.

CSD: Are there any emerging approaches or ideas that you are particularly excited about? 

JG: I am most passionate about a new African Fund for Secondary Education. In my opinion, the sector we could improve upon in the Millennium Villages Project was Education.   I have a deep obligation to see this rectified now with the Sustainable Development Goals in our movement to end extreme poverty. It’s absolutely essential for Africa that this Fund raises 5 Billion a year to ensure equal access to secondary education for all.

CSD: What advice (if any) would you have for someone who is interested in getting involved in supporting these issues, but isn’t sure where to start? 

JG: I will always say to contribute whatever skills you have available to an organization or team. Skills improve and increase with time lending each person to be a more valuable asset toward any issue they might be passionate about. The best way to help yourself in your path if you are entering the field of development is by helping others.


**This article is an excerpt from an expanded piece that will be forthcoming on the Earth Institute’s State of the Planet blog.

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