Meet Jyotsna Puri

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 40 No. 12, December 2020

Jo Puri studied at the Army Public School, Delhi, where she honed her public speaking skills, and trained herself to focus on thinking about more responsible policies around the globe. She is currently the Director, Environment, Climate, Nutrition, Gender and Social inclusion at a United Nations’ organisation in Rome. Previously she was the Head of Green Climate Fund’s Independent Evaluation Unit. She has 24 years’ experience in evidence-based policy and evaluation in agriculture, environment, health and poverty alleviation. She is also an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York and is an academic advisor at the Indian School of Public Policy in Delhi. She sits on several boards and was recently recognised as one of 16 women leaders globally championing the cause of restoring the earth, by the Global Landscape Forum. She speaks to Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary, about her journey, her current involvement with climate solutions and her work to create a more responsible economic order for a planet in the grip of a climate crisis of magnificent proportions.

Who was Jo when she was a child?

An army kid, moving around all the time, with both my context and perspective constantly changing. 

Was that tough on you? 

Yes and no. My family was my anchor. But then again, I was different. Some called me a geek because my nose was inevitably in a book. But ours was a traditional family and my mother would constantly herd me into the kitchen to learn some skills. She never quite succeeded, though she did manage to domesticate my brother! 

Was it tough to adapt to life growing up as an independent thinker?

Not really! I managed to adapt easily to my circumstances, but I think others sometimes found it difficult to fit me into their mould. I like thinking out of the box, but it’s not always easy to either recognise the path one should take or understand why this is an inexorable force.

In September 2020, before joining the International Fund for Agricultural Development as Director, Jo cycled for a distance of 630 km. across South Korea! Photo courtesy:Jyotsna Puri.

What about friends? Was it difficult to repeatedly make friendships, then move away only to start making new ones again?

I had friends, but never a ‘best friend’ situation. This was hard anyway for an army kid. My personal obsession became reading. I would devour books that transported me to different worlds. This nudged me towards writing, which I still enjoy.

You must have seen India the way few city people ever could.

Yes, every transfer was an adventure. We were in Assam and down south, but Kashmir is where my happiest memories were. It helped that my dad was from Jammu where my grandparents lived. We all would cycle around the Dal promenade in Srinagar. And then there was the incredible Dachigam, its oak and walnut forests, Dagwan river and the incredible hangul deer. All those memories make me who I am.

Who were the primary influences and heroes in your life? 

Different people at different times, but when I think about it, perhaps it’s in all likelihood my grandfather, my father’s father. He was a professor of English and Sanskrit and spoke six languages including Persian, Latin and Greek. I remember him quoting freely from the Gita, the Bible and the Quran with equal facility! He played tennis and was head of the Dramatics Club. He was a true renaissance man. Because of him, I can read Urdu and Gurmukhi! I think I still want to be like Prof. Dilbagh Rai Puri, Bauji, my grandfather.

Jo delivers the keynote speech at an event organised by the Evaluation Community of India in New Delhi prior to the pandemic, focussed on evidence building towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Photo courtesy: Jyotsna Puri.

Heavens! Even I want to be like him, Jo! Switching tracks, did you have to break glass ceilings to get to where you were? I’m thinking Kamala Harris!

I think every woman trying to make a difference in a man’s world faces implicit or explicit sexism throughout. Glass ceilings are never really well defined. And most of us are born with them so it’s hard to see them for what they are.

I remember once in the middle of a technical presentation in a large multilateral organisation, I said, “Let me go back to the earlier side to explain the curves,” and promptly a male colleague’s voice responded: “Great… I really like your curves!” There was silence in the room. One has to make snap decisions in such circumstances. Do you gloss over the remark, or make an example about it there and then? It’s not an easy choice.

Mercifully, some of this has changed and women are demanding and getting more respect, though admittedly we have a very, very long way to go.

Bittu, women are still disproportionately subjected to such slights, but young women today are more outspoken than when I was growing up. They are braver and know their minds. I rather suspect that like anyone dealing with others in positions of power, you must pick your battles. I still do when faced with insensitive people, because I want to win a war, not a skirmish. But it is a tough one because if you keep letting go of such transgressions, they become part of the norm. Ask any woman and she will confirm she bears at least a hundred such cuts, many of which are old scars. This transcends other divisions around the globe: rich and poor, north and south. Even the best intentions on this front are unlikely to percolate effectively for quite a while. Women have to work harder everywhere and more so because they have to break behaviour patterns – many of which are entitlements. In this sense I am lucky – I have a partner who is more feisty and scrappy about these than I am, quite often. Someone said it right – choose the right spouse/partner. For women, it’s really the most important decision. 

How does it feel to deal with the non-profit world where the heart is most times all that is given, with process and method largely given short shrift?

I think we need heart because hearts feed purpose. But we cannot afford to use the fig leaf of heart to condone shoddy planning, or shoddy implementation of good plans. We cannot allow people’s halos from doing good, rigorous work and destabilise efficient implementation.

Jo with a lemur while on a field mission in Madagascar, where the Green Climate Fund runs a technical impact assessment programme. Photo courtesy: Jyotsna Puri.

What is your take on Homo sapiens refashioning the biosphere in our image? Will economists adapt to the imperative of change?

Bittu, even in the climate space I believe anthropocentrism rules. It is a travesty that life and death decisions continue to be made on the basis of benefits for humans. This is ironic since humans have defined a completely new geologic period called the Anthropocene, defined mainly because of the disasters we have wreaked! THAT should have been a wake up moment for us. But it hasn’t been.

We have the IPBES report and the COVID-19 pandemic before us and our solutions involve killing millions of minks in Denmark, while allowing the international wildlife trade to expand. What gives?

The anthropocentric view of life will have to change. Every policy is subservient to the demands of Homo sapiens. We have to change the way we function if we want to stave off the next pandemic. But currently, there is a huge lack of imagination. 

And Joe Biden, POTUS Elect for the U.S.A just appointed Michael MacCabe, former DuPont consultant, as head of the all-important Environmental Protection Agency?

I guess this kind of schizophrenia will take time to identify and hopefully be called out. Remember Joe Biden has also made pubic his decision to bring the U.S. back to the Paris Climate Accord table and for the U.S. to become a leader in the climate space. Most recently, John Kerry has also said that Paris is not enough.

We can only hope that the pressure of change will win the day and if that is the case, then we should pray that an ‘insider’ will act to effect the changes we want. Appointing people who know the language to beat them is not a bad strategy.

You are a strong proponent of measurement, but can ecosystems even be evaluated in economic terms? Can natural ecosystem decisions actually be made on the basis of measurement?

Bittu, there is a huge chasm between what countries commit to and what they actually deliver. An almost insurmountable challenge. Words don’t cut it. We need figures, measurable results, measurable investments, and crystal clear policies.

Frankly, the EPA had its teeth extracted by the Trump Administration and now we can be sure that a bright spotlight is going to be shone on every decision taken.

But we cannot escape the fact that a value has to be placed on ecosystem services, because when you say something is priceless, economists take that to be “valueless” leaving what you want saved in the danger zone. Till we know how to value and make decisions on things that are unmeasured, I am afraid we are stuck. Just as an example, human connections are priceless. We all know that. The Amish (a group who lives in the U.S. and who don’t use technology) therefore don’t buy insurance policies from agents. This is because they know that during times of crises, the absence of outside help or money will mean their own community bonds will become stronger. Unless norms such as these develop, the market and money will rule our decisions unfortunately. And this is why we depend on other tools for building these norms – policy, religion, tradition can all be very important tools too.

Jo was a crucial part of a session on climate finance at the 2019 Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP25) held in Madrid last year, discussing transformational change, country readiness, private sector and local stakeholder engagement. Photo courtesy: Jyotsna Puri.

What is your take on India on the power generation front and its flirtation with coal?

It is not just ill-advised, it is dangerous for India. I think the subsidy for coal, fully inventoried, works out to over US$200 billion! Planning now for phasing out is important because global norms around clean energy and its desirability are changing rapidly and India could soon be a pariah if it continues in this direction.

How would you define impact investing and what propelled you into the world of impact investing? How would you measure the impact of investments by way of support for an NGO?

Impact investing is exactly that – investing for impact. Unfortunately, most private sector today invests for profits, not for (social and environmental) good.

The non-profit sector should also be held to this standard.

What about Climate Bonds? Can they work?

It’s in its early days. The idea is to get different actors, government and private to be incentivised to take positive climate action geared towards common solutions. It’s a mechanism design problem. No single organisation can achieve this. Do you know that there are heat bonds being floated now? The problem for all such bonds is going to be verification of measurements and how to plug leakages (which means that a company could move its non-environment friendly practices elsewhere).

Absolutely! Some corporations are now running the policies of the countries in which they are based!

True. China is a classic example. The same holds true for several corporations in Europe and the United States. Their incentives have been financial. Scottish Enlightenment thinker, Adam Smith said self-interest is vital to economics. Not selfishness, but self-interest. It is in my self-interest to breathe clean air and that same air is breathed by everyone. So, collective action and self-interest are entwined. This is something we need to make clear to anyone who talks about Adam Smith and the invisible hand. Indeed the norms in governance need to change too.

Do you believe women should take charge of our planet since men are doing such a hatchet job on it?

I am not sure it’s the gender that matters. Eventually, we must all work towards fashioning governments that represent people and that aren’t profit centers. We must work towards developing these ‘norms’. That we have a crisis at hand means we can fashion, in almost a schumpeterian fashion, a new way of working.

To give you an example, before the “Great Crash” there was no standardised method of account, or measurement, so it was impossible to compare one company to another in terms of financial performance. After the Great Depression, a single system of measurement became the norm.

Perhaps the “Great Crash of the Biosphere” will similarly throw up a new form of measurement. We need the analogues of the Great Crash to lead a transformation now. We are in that second take off now. The activism that started with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is coming to a head.

We will have to create a standardised measure to know what a corporate’s or government impact is on the environment and on our climate. And it must be a common global standard.

Jo with Jeffrey Sachs, author, economist and Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, where Jo is an adjunct associate professor. Photo courtesy: Jyotsna Puri.

So who will set the norm for the standards?

Interesting question. There needs to be a coalition of the willing. And this coalition has to consist of corporations, thinkers, innovators, indigenous people, young people and academics so that we have what economist Marianna Mazzucato calls moonshot ideas and ‘mission-oriented policies’, policies that combine the greatest science for the greatest problems of our times!

Jo, what gives you reason to hope?

In my everyday life I meet very inspiring people who are making a difference despite everything. The mystery of why this has not evolved into global action keeps me up and kicking. I want to make it happen and I am hoping that we can and will act as a herd, not as individuals alone. Every single day I see people shaking off their shackles and that, in combination with the fact that the biosphere is a magic self-repairing ‘machine’ that fixes itself, gives me hope. 

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