Helene Gayle

Dialogues on the Environment: Q&A with Helene Gayle

Helene GayleIn this ongoing series, I talk with thought leaders about ideas in my book Nature’s Fortune and trends in the environmental movement.

Next in the series is my conversation with Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE, a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty. Under Helene’s leadership, CARE has strengthened its focus on the intersection of poverty and the environment.

Mark Tercek: Where is CARE focused today? What are your top goals? 

Helene Gayle: CARE’s overall goal is working to eliminate extreme poverty globally. In that context we put a special focus on empowering girls and women, who bear the greatest brunt of poverty, but who are also our greatest hope for bringing long lasting prosperity to their families and communities. As the saying goes, if you educate a girl, you educate a nation. We also increasingly are placing a high priority on building resilience and helping communities we work in adapt to the massive changes caused by climate change and environmental degradation.

Mark Tercek: In your view, what is the environmental movement doing well? How can we improve?

Helene Gayle: Some of the things that the environmental movement is doing well include:

  • engaging grassroots and building a domestic constituency and movement.
  • helping Americans see the health links with environmental issues.
  • bringing the field perspective of environmental groups to our policy makers.
  • and generating better data to back up arguments that often previously were based only on principles.

However there is room for improvement. The environmental movement could do a better job incorporating the message about the connection between poverty and environmental degradation, and building that message at the grassroots level. That will help environmental advocates see the human face of environmental issues – internationally as well as domestically –– and understand how that connection shapes priorities.

For instance, understanding what poor populations value in the environment (which may not be what is deemed “globally valuable” by supporters in the global north) or the challenge poor people face when trying to balance immediate needs to feed a family and the medium and long-term need to protect environmental resources. When a child is starving, a family may not be able to think about long-term sustainability or damage to ecosystems that support endangered species. You can help the environmental movement see that dilemma so we can come together around global and local solutions that address short term challenges as well.

Mark Tercek: How are we doing complementing the efforts of CARE and other humanitarian organizations?

Helene Gayle: Community collaboration around climate change a few years ago was tremendous. There was considerable unity around a message and shared goal, despite some differences in the details of policy. We would love to see more focus on gender, women’s roles and the importance of promoting gender equality and power dynamics in decision-making and control over resources –– not just at the community level but also at the household level. We would also like to see more focus on the human rights aspect of natural resource issues: put people first and help the environmental community see the value of that in the long term (while in the short term, poor communities have needs to meet).

The environmental community has an opportunity to create and leverage partnerships with the development community on social issues, rather than trying to develop new expertise of its own. Besides not duplicating efforts, this can also help generate trust with communities (both local and “sector” communities) who may have previously distrusted environmental organizations who they felt didn’t have their interest at heart. Recognize where each has expertise and rely on others’ expertise.

Mark Tercek: Broadening support for conservation is crucially important. What advice do you have for enlisting a more diverse group of supporters? 

Helene Gayle: Help development groups see the linkages of how environmental groups are supporting a poverty fighting agenda. Be open to the trade-offs that might be required for us to meet both poverty and environmental goals.

Mark Tercek: I argue in Nature’s Fortune that focusing on nature as an investment opportunity can build more support for conservation, provide a source of capital and an opportunity to scale up. What risks and opportunities do you see in this approach?

Helene Gayle: There are plenty of risks when we encourage “investment” or commoditization of natural resources, as power dynamics may mean that poor people (who are often marginalized and have less power) are sidelined by more powerful interests when money is involved. Any discussion of investment or putting monetary value on the environment must start with the populations who rely on those resources.

Mark Tercek: The challenges to both our fields—human development and the environment—are enormous. Do you ever get discouraged? What keeps you motivated? 

Helene Gayle: What keeps me motivated is going out to the field and seeing programs that incorporate a focus on both people and the planet, and seeing how mutually reinforcing they can really be.

Helene D. Gayle is president and CEO of CARE USA, a leading international humanitarian organization with approximately 10,000 staff whose poverty fighting programs reached 122 million people last year in 84 countries. An expert on health, global development and humanitarian issues, Dr. Gayle previously held senior positions with the Centers for Disease Control and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she focused on HIV/AIDS and other global health issues.

Dr. Gayle serves on several boards, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Rockefeller Foundation, Colgate-Palmolive Company, Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Initiative, and ONE. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Public Health Association, the Institute of Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Gayle currently serves on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships and the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board. Dr. Gayle earned a B.A. in psychology at Barnard College, an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.P.H. from Johns Hopkins University.

Read Mark’s interview with Gretchen Daily about natural capital and Mark’s interview with writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben.