Gayatri Kanungo, Senior Environmental Specialist at World Bank Group, manages a diverse portfolio of projects dealing with environmental challenges across the globe and leads programmes that implement nature-based solutions…
Q: What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
Influences that shaped my academic ambitions came from varied directions during my formative years of growth – be it from my father, my grandfather (a freedom fighter), my aunts and uncles who were doctors, or friends of the family holding prestigious positions and, all of whom wanted to make a difference to our way of life! The key turning point in my life was when I finished my PhD at Cambridge and went into a self-discovery mode to determine my path forward. My experiences during the stay abroad included understanding the vast field of biotechnology, some wonderful travels discovering nature and different environments, meeting people from diverse backgrounds, meeting scholars who worked with passion and, most importantly, living an independent life in a developed world! But importantly, I began to seriously wonder about the interconnectedness of science and nature, particularly as my doctoral work on biologically producing pharmaceuticals also allowed me to look into the potential negative impacts of release of pharmaceutical waste into the environment. These experiences were subtly driving me towards a professional life outside pure research laboratories and to pick up opportunities in the field of development that could connect me with the environment and people in India! Needless to say, this brought with it a dilemma and some hard decis as I struggled to gather the courage to leave the wonderful settings in Cambridge and head back to India to explore and establish a career that could feed my passion.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
All journeys have challenges and I faced a fair share at various stages of my educational and career paths. A few to highlight include: Adapting to the field of development work. A challenge I faced was when I switched from post-doctoral academic work to the international development arena. This required a lot of reading relevant resource material (almost a second masters!), formal and informal discussions with colleagues, seeking mentorship and most importantly, setting myself simple but realistic learning goals. Writing skills to match the needs of the work. While writing was something I always enjoyed, I put particular emphasis on learning the subtle nuances to help understand differences between, say, an academic research paper and a policy note. This is easily learned with diligence and practice. Nowadays there are a lot of soft and hard skill courses that one can avail to enhance capacities. I say make use of them. Developing a strong network and support at the workplace. A strong network of peers and colleagues, both inside and outside the institution, enables healthy cross-fertilization of knowledge and can become a robust support system. This needs effort, patience, reaching out and good communication skills. Through observation and practice I learned to: better connect with people from different cultures with empathy, understand cultural biases objectively, listen more and respect differences in opinion, and importantly share knowledge with humility both for visibility and leadership.
Q: What do you do as an environmental specialist?
Currently, I work for the World Bank in the Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice managing a diverse portfolio of projects dealing with environmental challenges across the globe and leading programs that implement nature-based solutions.
Q: What problems do you solve?
Nature and its ecosystems are central to healthy human existence. Keeping our planet healthy and resilient, therefore finds significant relevance, particularly after the devastating impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Globally complex interactions including climate change impacts are leading to increasing vulnerabilities in nature and jeopardizing livelihood prospects for millions of people across nations. Land degradation is increasing at alarming rates in several vulnerable ecosystems. Thus, nature matters for development. Humanity is embedded in nature, and is entirely dependent on it for survival, wellbeing, and economic prosperity. Biodiversity, land and the ecosystem services they support such as food and raw materials, water filtration and climate regulation, underpin development. Together, this natural wealth, along with produced wealth and nonrenewable natural resources provide the base for generating income that drives economic growth. My focus has been on enhancing green, resilient, and inclusive development through a broad spectrum of actions that can help address the drivers of nature loss and harness nature’s services across sectors such as agriculture, disaster risk management, water management and urban development. For example, actions in conservation and restoration of nature, institution and capacity building, as well as analytics and tools that help provide evidence-based knowledge. There is increasing understanding that degradation of land and water resources transcend institutional and geographic boundaries. Integrated management of this mosaic of land-based production systems – watersheds, pastoral and rangelands, protected area habitats, and dry forestlands – can offer an effective solution to strengthen countries’ resilience to natural disasters and climate change. I continue to promote strategic investments in nature-based solutions. In short, I feel what we the people can do to ‘Nourish our ecosystems, nurture our biodiversity, enable reliable food and enhance resilience’ will positively translate to ‘better environment, better production, better nutrition, and better lives’.
Q: How does your work benefit society?
At the core of sustainable development is ‘Nature and the people that inhabit it’. The world faces dual crises of nature loss and climate change that unfortunately threaten and have a disproportionate impact on the poorest and most vulnerable populations. But investing in nature offers solutions to reducing poverty and protecting the biosphere and stability of the climate system. Better managed forests and landscapes, sustainable agriculture practices, efficient harvesting and management of water, reducing marine plastic pollution and greening urban spaces – all impact society and us who live in it. Nature-based solutions can address several societal challenges, including food and water security, human health, disaster risk and climate change. Working collaboratively with countries to meet their relevant national priorities and commitments is central to my work – both analytical and on the ground – all of which has direct implications on enhancing ecosystem resilience and people’s livelihoods & wellbeing.
Q: Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I feel fortunate to have worked on diverse and interesting programmes on restoration and protection in several countries. My work in sub-Saharan Africa however is close to my heart and gives me immense joy. Let me give you an example of our work in Ghana which recently received recognition for delivering demonstrable and transformative results at the national and community levels. Located in the heart of West Africa, Ghana’s arid Northern Savannah Zone is characterized by high poverty, vulnerability, low climate resilience and severe land degradation within its ecosystems. Through an innovative programmatic approach, the project combined a package of soft and hard investments and community-based interventions to change the trajectory of unsustainable land management on and off farms towards adoption of sustainable land and water management practices for achieving resilience and food security in vulnerable Ghanaian communities. Working with the government, the project has helped Ghana (i) provide a proof-of-concept for adopting integrated landscape management that brought for the first time agriculture, water, land and environment sectors together for joint action, (ii) experiment in community incentive mechanisms to successfully pilot an innovative method for payment of ecosystem services that encouraged adoption of economical trees (cashew, mango, & mahogany) on farms for additional incomes and, (iii) promoted gender equitable & inclusive actions to build financial capacity of local Ghanaian women for their empowerment and well-being.
Q: Your advice to students based on your experience?
For the new generation of students and young professionals, I have four take away messages: Recognize and follow your passion: Always find time to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses – be it in your personality or academic endeavors. Knowing them well will help define the strongest career path for yourself and sustain your passion in the longer run. No one is good at everything, so prioritize what works best for you and take inspiration from others to better yourself. Adapt and persevere: the world is changing, problems are changing, solutions are changing – so don’t be afraid of change. Learn to adapt and innovate! There is a lot of joy in innovation, experimentation and risk taking. And I honestly believe that ‘Success’, both needs and, follows perseverance. Lead by example: As they say, ‘be the change that you want to see’. Leadership is a wonderful combination of knowledge, creativity, decisiveness, inspiration and humility. None of these traits are beyond reach. Work towards them and, on them. One of my favourite quotes that best describes this for me is- “A leader knows the way, goes the way and shows the way”. And last but not the least: Find time to be environmentally conscious and nature friendly in your actions!