International development with a focus on social, agricultural, and environmental issues


By Sarah Bernardo

Winrock International is a global leader in international development with a focus on social, agricultural, and environmental issues. Named after Winthrop Rockefeller, the organization grew out of the visions of both Winthrop and his brother, John D. Rockefeller III. Today, Winrock International supports US-based and international development projects in 45 countries around the world.

The Blum Center recently sat down with Amit Bando, Senior Director of Winrock’s Clean Energy, Environment, and Water group; Erin Hughes, Director of Regional and Country Planning; and Jennifer Holthaus, Program Officer, to discuss their experiences and the new projects on the horizon for Winrock. They also shared with the Blum Center seven ways that students can prepare themselves for a career in the international development sector.

What is the mission of Winrock’s Clean Energy, Environment, and Water group? How does your role contribute to this vision?

Amit Bando: For our group, the mission primarily is to empower those at the bottom of the pyramid. We are very focused on rural and agricultural communities which include people who are typically “off-the-grid,” or not connected to a major energy network. We work domestically in the United States and in 45 countries around the world. The issues we address include access to clean water, access to energy, land use, and protection of forests.

Within Winrock, our role is to focus on the resources mentioned and to work with other branches of the organization to address interrelated issues like gender, trafficking, and youth education.

Erin Hughes: The environment is also seen as a key actor. Our mission is to ensure conservation for the benefit of people, not just conservation for conservation’s sake. We aim to make good use of resources and promote conservation by engaging community members so that they’re benefiting from these practices.

Jennifer Holthaus: Globally, Winrock has about 700 employees in 45 countries. The Clean Energy, Environment, and Water group involves roughly 300 people. Amit’s role is to lead the work for this group and coordinate all the different funders which include US government organizations, private companies, and foundations.

Bando: What makes Winrock International unique is that we work with communities directly and with decision makers spanning the local level (e.g. the provincial and municipal) to the national level. This work requires us to bring in the private sector, local community groups, and NGOs. We want projects to be sustainable after we leave, so we encourage practices such as co-management of resources as well as the creation of job opportunities and business models that allow the initial beneficiaries to continue working and expanding their circles.

Lastly, all of our work is very data driven. We do a lot of analysis on what’s working and what’s not working and take that back to the next round of our projects. That’s why we are excited to work here with UC Berkeley since this same iterative, data-based approach is used.

Which project has impacted you the most during your time at Winrock?

Education for Income Generation was a five-year project in Nepal which focused on helping marginalized youth increase their income. The project was impactful not only because we provided entrepreneurial literacy, but also because we tied it to income-generating activities like vocational training and market-based agriculture. We provided literacy and numeracy, but also showed them how to be an entrepreneur by teaching them about income, profit/loss, and developing simple business plans.

Education for Income Generation was life-changing for the 74,000 beneficiaries we worked with in midwest Nepal. We were working with extremely marginalized people, such as young women who never had job opportunities because of gender discrimination. Through this program, these women were able to learn to read, send their kids to school, and help their kids with homework.

Bando: It’s important to recognize in a country like Nepal that there is a benefit that goes beyond any specific project. The beneficiaries of the Education for Income Generation program are marginalized people who do not have a lot of equity, so they cannot go to the banks to get money. Since banks are more likely to lend money to cooperatives, Winrock developed a separate project that allowed farmers to work in cooperatives. We then helped these groups receiving funding that they could distribute to their members.

With our wide spread of projects, Winrock International is working in 70 of the 74 districts in Nepal, and we have been able to help 250,000 farmers. The project-level work we’re doing has a huge impact on the sector and the country.

The John D. Rockefeller 3RD (JDR 3RD) Scholars Program supports independent policy research. Our program worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to fund an independent research team in Myanmar in 2007. At this time, Myanmar was still very much closed to the world. We convinced the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries, and Rural Development in Myanmar to hold an open grant competition. We were worried that no one would apply, but we received 11 applications.

The winning team of the competition was led by Dr. Ai Thanda Kyaw. Kyaw’s team took 660 household surveys and returned a very clear picture of the impacts on poor households of the government’s practice of aggressively culling chickens to stem the spread of avian influenza. After the report was released, the government went in a different direction regarding their culling practice. Dr. Kyaw is now Winrock’s country director for our USAID-funded program in Myanmar. That’s the kind of policy and research impact we want to have in other countries. We want to see governments consider data, and we aim to use a bottom-up approach to influence change.

For Enhancing Capacity For Low Emission Development Strategies (EC-LEDS) we have been working with municipalities in the Democratic Republic of Georgia. Currently, we are working with 14 different municipalities in Georgia. Georgian officials asked Winrock to show them how to use energy more efficiently in institutions, such as fire stations, schools, supermarkets, and shopping centers. Winrock approached this project with the concept that it makes business sense to improve energy use and use water more efficiently. We wanted to focus on the  business side of things first, and then hopefully, that’ll have huge impacts for climate change. Based on our work in the municipalities, the ministry of the national Georgian government asked Winrock to develop a nation-wide policy on climate change which has now become the country’s Low Emissions Development Strategy.

We didn’t do this work top-down, but rather built up the case and showed the government our data-driven analysis to encourage a change in their practices. A lot of the work we do at Winrock follows this model. We generally start at the grassroots level and support capacity-building for individuals, researchers, policymakers, and political actors.

What challenges have you faced in the Clean Energy, Environment, and Water Group, and how did you overcome them?

Holthaus: With the JDR program, something I’ve learned is how long it takes to start something new and get it off the ground. Getting other staff to know what the program is and be on board basically took us ten years. Now, we have nine new research teams being incorporated into five projects. My advice is that it is worth sticking it out and making a long-term commitment. You just have to be careful not to burn out so that you can see it through.

Bando: Because we work internationally and domestically, there are a lot of knowledge transfer opportunities, and typically people think that the knowledge goes from the US out. However, I think there are even more opportunities to transfer knowledge in from other countries. A lot of us who work in this field share this sentiment, and I think there isn’t enough emphasis on that.

Hughes: We had a recent exchange with Cuban Farmers who came to the US. Several years ago we also had a reverse Farmer-to-Farmer–like exchange in our Forestry Project in Russia. Instead of US volunteers sharing their skills or expertise abroad, Russians volunteered to come to the United States to teach Americans about forestry equipment, so that the companies could adjust their machines to withstand cold winters with the hope of selling their product in Russia.

Bando: Funders and the public at large often don’t know how important this transfer of knowledge is. For example, it was complete happenstance that the US Forest Service found out about a Nepalese forest management tactic. In Yosemite, the US Forest Service used to have uncontrolled fires. Nature has a way of starting small fires that die out and clear out the underbrush, but Yosemite didoesn’t allow these small fires. The Forest Service looked to Nepal for a solution. The Nepalese government had been managing the Himalayan forests for a long time with very simple, traditional means. Once a year, the King allows the people to go into the protected forest to collect branches and leaves for their thatch roofing. No one really calls this good forest management, but it has been working effectively for millennia.

Looking forward, what’s in store for Winrock? Are there any new projects that you’re particularly excited about?

Bando: Finance–the ability to finance deals is important to learn. Our focus is on the ultimate beneficiary, which could be, for example, a farmer sitting away from the grid who has little to no access to the market. How can we make it possible for that farmer to borrow $300 for a solar pump or $2500 for two solar panels that to increases their productivity? Their outlook can change and expand dramatically with such a loan.

Holthaus: Winrock sees a lot of work coming down the pike on renewable energy financing. The levels we’re seeking to facilitate and open up options for range from small farmers (micro-finance) to national governments. We want to help accelerate markets for renewable energy technologies which can increase peoples’ incomes. For these kinds of endeavors, a neutral entity like Winrock is often needed to bring the various market players together.

Bando: Another focus is land management issues. There are lots of areas which need protection and better management. Conservation financing can greatly benefit this process, so this is another topical area that would be helpful for students to know if they’re interested in development.

What advice do you have for students interested in entering the energy or water sector? Are there particular subjects you recommend they explore or certain skills that they learn?

Bando, Holthaus, and Hughes:

  1. Writing. People don’t realize how important it is to be a good writer. We often work with people for whom English is a second language. We need someone who can communicate with our ESL field staff without using jargon, but can also communicate clearly with the Rockefeller family members on our board as well as donors. They also have to be able to produce professional, published material.
  2. Monitoring and evaluation, impact evaluation. It’s important that people in this field know how to conduct evaluations. They also should have a firm grasp of the quantitative skills involved with monitoring and evaluation, such as utilizing spreadsheets and basic statistics.
  3. Technical skills. There are a lot of people who are majoring in broad areas like International Relations. If you’re just a generalist, you may not have the rigor of the science or the technical depth. Knowing how to conduct an experiment and having solid science skills is important. You can always add other skills, so don’t be scared of exploring one area in depth. The ideal model for technical knowledge is a T-shape: pick your passion and go deep in that area; then you will have the ability to pick up other skills on a surface-level. The Global Poverty & Practice and Development Engineering minors at UC Berkeley are great examples of academic tracks that allow students to do practical studies grounded in development work. Also keep in mind, that “technical” doesn’t have to mean coding and spreadsheet analysis. Having technical skills is more about having the mind for scientific inquiry and holistic rigor.
  4. Survey work. If you have any chance to do survey work, do it. Our projects have  to collect data from the field to see if things are working, so we encourage students to gain survey work experience through internships or courses.
  5. We’re big advocates of a second language. Being bilingual is immensely helpful.
  6. Many of our colleagues in Winrock’s US Office were Peace Corps volunteers. Gaining a similar overseas experience can be beneficial.
  7. Be a good speaker. You can do all this work, but you won’t be able to do anything if your communication skills do not include the ability to speak. Public speaking is a vital method of presenting information.


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