ICRAF’s Tony Simons: Building better bonds to fund landscape restoration

Tony Simons, director general at the World Agroforestry Centre, addresses an audience at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany in December 2017. GLF/ Pilar Valbuena
Monica Evans
29 May 2018

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — As a postgraduate forestry student at Britain’s University of Cambridge in the mid-1980s, Tony Simons became student rep on a committee for engagement with the private sector. When he began attending the meetings, he was struck by the tensions and misunderstandings at play between academia and the companies with which they engaged.

“It was two groups talking past one another,” he said.

He also saw how this disconnect was getting in the way of opportunities for collaboration that could have been extremely valuable for both sides. “I was really intrigued by how this could be solved,” he added. Since then, a passion for making connections between the private and public sectors to create transformative and profitable change has been a defining feature of his career.

Born in New Zealand, Simons grew up “very much in connection with both wilderness and farming.” After completing his Ph.D. at Cambridge, he became a Senior Fellow at Oxford University, exploring the role of trees in smallholder development throughout the tropics.

“I had 150 trials in 55 countries, and it enabled me to see what worked in one place and what didn’t work in another — and how the different sectors, public and private, did or didn’t work well together.”

Then, the university put him on a two-year leave of absence to head a research program at ICRAF (the World Agroforestry Centre) in Nairobi, Kenya. “And 24 years later I’m still here!” he said laughingly. “I forgot to go home!” He’s now ICRAF’s director-general, and he sees the need for private sector engagement in sustainable forestry and landscape restoration as more pressing than ever.

Landscape-level restoration projects in developing countries are traditionally financed through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries’ Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) programs, philanthropic funding, and national governments themselves.

CRUNCHING NUMBERS

But that’s “such a small part of the finance pool that is available,” Simons said. For every dollar of ODA that developing countries receive, “there’s $3 of remittances from workers living overseas, there’s $6 of foreign direct investment, there’s $24 of domestic private sector spend, there’s $35 of developing country government spend, and there’s $1,000 of private capital available,” he estimates.

“And the private philanthropy money is probably 25 cents to the ODA dollar. So if we can use those philanthropies and ODA to leverage and catalyze and connect the other sources, that would be a huge advantage.”

As such, the title of the discussion forum he’s hosting at the Global Landscapes Forum Investment Case Symposium hosted by the World Bank in Washington at on May 30, “Creating “Bonds” at the Landcape Level,” has a dual meaning. It speaks to the concept of sustainable land bonds, whereby investors front money for environmental or climate-aligned initiatives and receive dividends.

Additionally, it references the need for bond-ing: building connections between various actors, because one single project or one single investment is not going to be able to underpin the whole complex process of landscape restoration, Simons said. “So having these dialogues to come to common vocabularies and understand the different perspectives is really important.”

“What we’re trying to do in [the discussion forum] is provide examples of where we’ve got not just the blending of finance, but the blending of development, where you’ve got the private sector, the government, the local farmers and the philanthropists all trying to bring together how they can leverage and de-risk each other’s investments,” he said.

“We’ve got to find occasions to bring these groups together. And I think this symposium is a great opportunity to do that.”