Interview with Reuben Coulter Director of Ecosystem Development, Faith Driven Investors

Interview with Reuben Coulter, Director of Ecosystem Development, Faith Driven Investors – Part 1

Arleen: Tell us about yourself and how you developed your passion for impact investing.

Reuben: My first experience outside of Europe was a trip I made to Africa when I was 17. I went out as a very naive and enthusiastic volunteer. My hope was that I was going to teach English at a local Christian school and support the work of an orphanage while I was there. It was in Mozambique just after the war and the country was devastated. There were some very well meaning and well intentioned missionaries. But very quickly I realised that their work wasn’t sustainable. I realised that all of their work, the moment they left would fall apart, because they hadn’t developed or engaged local capacity. It was an eye-opening moment for me as a 17 year old passionate about making a difference in the world. Firstly, the huge need, but also secondly, the wisdom that we need to be able to address some of the problems that we face. So I left there and went and studied Molecular Microbiology which led me into a clear path in public health. And really my interest was some of the infectious diseases prevalent in Africa and Asia, eg. Malaria and HIV AIDS.

When I left university I was looking for a job that would allow me to travel, have adventures and to use my skills. I found a job with the Christian NGO Tear Fund. The opening they had for me was in Darfur where the genocide happened in 2004. Post genocide, a team of us went into Darfur to help the people who had been displaced. 500,000 people were murdered and 2 million people fled their homes and wound up living in these refugee settlements. And our job was to come alongside the settlements and help provide clean water, sanitation, education for the people, and ensure that in these very difficult circumstances, they could survive. That was an incredible and really daunting two years. It grew my faith and drove me to my knees. I was only 21 and it threw me into the deep end. I worked with Tear Fund for many years. They have a saying: “We’re spiritually passionate and professionally excellent.” I really believe in those two things and I’ve endeavoured to do that throughout my career. After Sudan I moved across to Liberia and worked in Liberia just after the war there. And again, supporting communities as they went from the refugee camps and re-establlished their towns and their villages.

What was really incredible about that was that we worked with the local leaders saying: “We can help you and support you, but ultimately, this is your community and you need a vision for your community. And you need to lead the change that can happen and we come alongside you and provide some of the support. But you own this. And a huge part of our job was working with the local church so they would take ownership and leadership and see their role beyond just the spiritual and pastoral element, but also a wider social and economic element. On this journey, while I witnessed the vital role that the not for profit sector could have and their vital role in crisis, I also recognised it’s limitations. The most significant of which was that it could protect people. It could look after their basic needs. But the not for profit sector is not very good at lifting people out of poverty. In fact, that’s the role that business plays. More and more I realised that we didn’t know how to engage with the economic sphere, and if we really wanted to make a dent on poverty worldwide, we needed to engage with business and with investment and understand how to use that for good.

The last 12-13 years of my career has been working in the space of economic development. After Tear Fund I came across the World Economic Forum (WEF). And many people know the WEF from their Davos conference that they host in Switzerland once a year. It convenes the government and business leaders to look at some of the big problems in the world, from climate change to conservation to inclusive economic development. I went there to see how I could be an influence and help shape the agenda at the very top levels of politics and business. I spent four years there leading the Africa portfolio really looking to bring together business and government. My particular interest and passion was around economic development and job creation on the continent of Africa. That was great, but you also realised that many of these forums can become talk shops and produce wonderful policy papers, but not necessarily produce grassroots change on the ground. I was really keen to apply what I’d learnt and bring together the world of the policy maker with the world of the ordinary person on the front line because often these roles are disconnected.  

Arleen: What I really appreciate with what you’re saying is that the people we’re trying to help have to carry responsibility. Often they want to carry this responsibility, but they don’t know how and they haven’t been given the means. Do you agree?

Reuben: Absolutely, and I think that one thing we fail to recognise is the capacity of people even in the most desperate of circumstances. And often those of us who come from Europe and North America may look at them and see them as poor, maybe uneducated and often illiterate, and think that we have lots of expertise, knowledge and wealth, and we are coming there to help them. We may have things that they lack. But they also have things that we lack.

They have a deep local knowledge and context. They have a rich culture and unless we really engage with that, what we do just won’t be sustainable. And this has been the experience over the last 50 years of development. We’ve come in with our resources and built schools, we’ve drilled wells and we’ve dropped in all sorts of incredible infrastructure…and it falls apart because local people don’t understand why it should matter to them and they haven’t been part of the process. So when we leave and say, “And now it’s your responsibility to take care of it. Understandably, they’re not engaged and they’re not bought in, and things fall apart. I want what we do to last ultimately for decades and for generations. And of course, those of us who are Christians want to have an eternal legacy and not just a short term impact. 

Arleen: Reuben, you obviously have a lot of experience at working in these settings. You’ve talked about some of the things that don’t work well that have been well meaning, but falls apart when we leave. From what you’ve seen, can you talk to us about some of the things that you have seen that have worked, or look like they could have the potential to work for the long term?

Reuben: There’s a really vital process that I call ‘cultivating.’ Most of us want to come in during the seed planting stage, or preferably in the harvest stage where we can reap the results. But anyone who does any farming or gardening knows, the very first job you do is dig up the ground, pull out the weeds and prepare the soil. Often we skip that process (=step) in development wanting to see transformation. What we do is we come in and see what already exists and what is already flourishing. Inevitably, if we look closely we will find those few key individuals who are passionate, who are called by God and really seeking to make a difference in their community. How do we come alongside of them and first begin to walk with them in their journey of renewal. All of us have a world view or perspective. Some of which God has given us and opened our eyes to. But all of us have limitations to our existing paradigms and maybe what we’ve picked up from our culture which isn’t of God. Renewal is really the process of finding what is good and what is of God and identifying what isn’t good and what isn’t of God and helping remove the weeds and cultivating what is really worthwhile. And that process of cultivation can take time. It can take many years of working with church leaders, business leaders and people in government and helping them understand that their faith isn’t a matter of a “some day faith”, but actually it’s a whole world Monday to Friday experience and how we live that out. That’s the first step – renewal.

The second step is discipleship. All of us are called to leadership and need to grow and become more like Christ. And that’s a challenging process. In my life, and I’m sure in your life Arleen, that we find difficult to change, or that we don’t want to change. That process of discipleship is engaging in God’s word and engaging with God’s Holy Spirit and asking Him to put things right in us.

The third element is community. Too often we try and do these things alone and I’m a real believer that we are given friends and others alongside us to shape us and encourage us and occasionally critique us. It’s really important that we build that community and our role of cultivation is really looking at how do we renew, how do we disciple and how do we create community, which is really the foundation of all transformation.

Arleen: Just a bit of a recap Reuben. When we talk about transformation, you’ve got to be willing to be on the ground and get your hands and feet dirty.  Absolutely (Reuben). This flies in the face of people from first world nations strategically planning, even with the best intentions, but haven’t taken the time to actually go and speak to people, to see what they need and to see what’s working. I think that’s tremendously important. This is a massive lesson. But also, as I hear you, I realise that impact investing that’s going to have effect has to be long term. Is that correct?

Reuben: Absolutely! Most investors have quite a narrow focus and mindset. Their role is to say: How do I deploy this capital and see an acceptable financial return in a limited period of time. Impact investor takes a wider view and asks: “How do I see, not just financial return, but also social and environmental return? And those of us who are Christians, we’re also looking at a spiritual return a spiritual impact as well? That’s when we start viewing our investment through a wider lens, but also our time horizon changes. There may be a limitation and we may need to see a return on our capital within a five or ten year period. But certainly we’re operating within an eternal framework. So we should be taking a longer perspective.

To achieve what we want to achieve in the world we also need to understand what that looks like in a multi-generational context. A really great analogy is the change that happened during the First Industrial Revolution. In the UK where I live, there was incredible innovation and change happening all across the country. New technologies were coming on board. People were moving from the rural areas into the cities and a few people were really prospering as they harnessed this new technology. But conditions for the ordinary person were pretty dire. Life expectancy was about 45 years in the UK and this was only 250 years ago. Children as young as four were working in factories and enduring horrendous conditions. Bristol, where I live, was one of the ports central to the slave trade. More than half a million people were traded through here in barbaric conditions. And in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, a group of Christians began to re-engage with their faith and re-imagine what the world should look like. They took that with them into the political sphere, the economic sphere and into the social sphere. We saw people like William Wilberforce in politics leading the charge to abolish slavery. We saw the Lever brothers, Christian brothers who were the predecessor of Unilever. Their faith helped them rethink how their business model was going to be run. They said: “We need to provide help and education and support for our workers because that is our christian duty.” So there was this massive shift in the world and the foundations laid by those pioneering christians are with us today. 250 years later, many of the things that we take for granted, eg. that children shouldn’t work in factories, are because they changed the legislation and changed the mindset. Slavery is abolished because of their pioneering work. So my question is, “What are the foundations that we’re laying for the next 250 years?”

Arleen: That’s a great question Reuben, and it leads me to say that when we talk about spiritual impact, seeing how many people come to Christ is important, but it’s not the only indicator.

Reuben: Yes, it’s one of them, but God wants us to flourish as whole people and so he wants to see our economic, spiritual and our social flourishing.