2021: a year of challenges, renewed hopes and unexpected joys


As 2020 came to an end, the world breathed a sigh of relief, feeling certain that one of our hardest years was finally behind us. Unbeknownst to us, many of our biggest challenges had just begun. As a result of the pandemic, years - even decades - of developmental progress had been unravelled in a matter of months. Fresh challenges fell on top of old ones, compounding  them and making previously achievable targets fall by the wayside, abandoned in the face of more desperate needs.

However, despite this unravelling and global uncertainty, 2021 brought with it remarkable learnings about the potential of the collective when united against a common goal. The global response to the pandemic showed what we are capable of in the face of unprecedented times; collaboration, partnership that transcends differences, and an overwhelming sense of urgency. If we were to apply the same immediacy in our response to other global issues such as the climate crisis, there are truly no bounds to what we could achieve.

I believe we should go into 2022 with fresh vigour and renewed hope. As anyone who works in global development knows, from our greatest challenges spring our most profound lessons. Our fiercest problems will always drive our most creative innovations. 2021 has been a pivotal year, and as the world re-orientates itself, the collective asks: do we really want to go back to ‘normal’, in a world where normal was failing both our people and our planet?

As we step into a new year, there are a few key learnings, reflections and insights I would like to share from an extraordinary year, and from my work with Sage Foundation and our partners.

In the fight against climate change, ‘hope’ is one thing we cannot afford to lose.

Deep in the Amazon rainforest, where the fight against climate change and deforestation rages on, the Huni Kuin tribe have a surprising belief: ‘Hope dies last’. I was fortunate to meet with them in the run up to COP26, where they told me that hope is fundamental to our cause, if we’re to take on one of the biggest environmental and humanitarian disasters our planet has ever faced. This extraordinary tribe has seen seismic change before anyone else, but they know that Nature itself is full of hope. It’s resilient. It can regrow and replenish and repair, but we must take action before the loss is too great. 15% of the Amazon has been lost in the last 30 years. Together, we knew we had to ensure the voice of the Amazon is heard and considered by leaders ahead of the most pivotal COP26 in history. We created a campaign which urged leaders and changemakers to think of this mighty forest, so they could make the right choices. If we save it, then we can save our planet’s future.

Whenever I feel overwhelmed by the scale of our planet’s challenges, I think of the unwavering joy of the Huni Kuin. I remember that if a group of people whose homes and precious habitats are being torn from under their feet can still be hopeful, then the world must undoubtedly be hopeful too.

Even during a year that’s felt relentless in its challenges, there are more pockets of hope to be found. Especially if we look to elevate some of the world’s most creative solutions. Through my work with Sage Foundation and Sage Ventures, I have pledged to find, fund and scale innovative ideas that promote a circular future. One of these is Kubik, an idea which sprung from the convergence of two problems: firstly, the world’s escalating plastic-waste issue, and secondly, a desperate need for affordable and resilient building materials across Africa, where 100 million new homes will be required in the next 10 years. I am proud to be a Co-Founder of this exciting venture, which launched this year and turns plastic waste into low-carbon, low-cost buildings in emerging markets. The construction of these resilient buildings requires 5 x less C02, they’re 40% cheaper and they’re made from 100% plastic waste. I hope to be able to support and prioritize more holistic ideas just like this.

When I visited Burundi with UNICEF, I found even more cause to have hope. Here I saw some of the remarkable initiatives which are uplifting some of the communities who’ve been devastated by climate change. Until 2015, Burundi was a carbon sink, and although the country has contributed so little to the rising CO2 and rising temperatures, they are being engulfed by its effects. Over 100,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes last year due to rising water levels, and some of these floodwaters just never receded. However, there are remarkable examples of resilience, empowerment, and circularity.

I met with displaced women who have sought solutions from the opportunities that exist within their environment. With support, they’re developing safe, clean, and affordable solar energy that’s dramatically changing the lives of those within their community. The program has generated an income that has meant they can build other life-changing services including classrooms, welfare facilities, and even climate mitigation measures. They assured me that if women are given the right support, they can uplift their entire communities with them.

I also have great cause for hope when we look to the future of fundraising, which leads me to my next insight:

The future of fundraising is already here.

My good friend and colleague Chris Fabian leads UNICEF and ITU’s Giga project, which aims to connect every school in the world to the internet by 2030. To achieve their goal, they are launching the UN’s first-of-its-kind NFT collection, in partnership with Snowcrash labs. They’ve worked with artist and data visualization scientist Nadieh Bremer, and they’ve created 1000 NFTs to build an extraordinary kingdom of illustrated connectivity, which will be sold in January 2022. The purchase of each NFT will go towards unlocking a future of connectivity for hundreds of schools, and will give the owner access to a digital community that tracks the project’s progress in real time. I truly believe that this initiative heralds a new future of learning and fundraising, as we find innovative new ways to fund development and further the reaches and impact of philanthropy. I’m delighted to be an Advisor on the project and I also hope to be the owner of one of the NFTs after the sale in January.

As I look back across the year and the projects that I chose to support, there is one area of impact that really stands out: education. Our developmental issues are always interconnected. And when we seek to find multifaceted solutions to our planet’s biggest problems:

Education is always a monumental part of the solution.

The most fundamental area of focus is to ensure that girls can attend school safely and can complete their education. When girls have to drop out - even for a short time - their parents are much less likely to allow them to go back, as they don’t see the return on time & investment. In 2021 I made it a priority to ensure that girls in the some of the world’s most vulnerable areas would be able to attend; whether that’s supporting essential renovations that allowed 6000 girls from Yerwa Secondary School in the Borno state to go back after COVID, or allowing displaced children in Palestine to return to classrooms. SAGE Foundation was able to respond to a plea from my home country of Iran, where the construction of an essential new girl’s school had ground to a halt due to lack of funds. The school will provide facilities for 240 girls in the 2022 academic year, and is named 'Dabirestane Dokhtaraneh Setareh', after my late great grandmother.

When we look at the statistics, it’s clear why we must keep girls in school. There are over 12 million children forced into underage marriage every year. There are over 4 million child brides in Yemen alone. This figure is likely to worsen as the pandemic has pushed so many families into poverty, and kept so many children out of school; many of whom will never be allowed to go back. Girls who miss out on a secondary education are 6 x more likely to become child brides, which snatches them of their potential. Every child should be allowed an age of innocence, and every girl should be allowed to be a girl. To mark International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, Sage Foundation created a film to raise awareness of this issue, alongside raising essential funds for UNICEF.

When we look to Afghanistan, a country that is struggling to adapt to another significant upheaval after generations of conflict, education takes on an even deeper level of significance. Sage Foundation is proud to support Charmaghz Mobile Libraries, a Kabul-based non-profit which turns old public buses into mobile libraries. These libraries provide a safe space for children to read over 400 books in Dari, Pashto and English, with topics ranging from science, history and storytelling. They also serve as a place for children to think critically, play together, debate and ask questions. With over 210,000 visits, they are the most visited library in Afghanistan. When life changed suddenly in Afghanistan, Charmaghz’s library buses ground to a halt. They lost all their funding and support, but through a fundraising campaign and the bravery of their team, they were able to get back on the road.

Another area of education that I decided to support was gender equality, and the fight against the rising cases of rape, sexual violence and human trafficking of girls across Nigeria. I came across WARIF, Women at Risk Foundation (WARIF), a non-profit founded by Dr Kemi DaSilva-Ibru MD, who taught me that the pandemic had significantly worsened rates of GBV, which were already startling to begin with. In Nigeria, 1 in 4 girls under the age of 18 had been subjected to sexual violence, but only 5% of cases were reported. WARIF has developed a long-term strategic approach to get to the very root of the problem: gender inequality.

A key insight from my work in this area is simple:

The fight to achieve gender equality cannot just involve some of us. It must involve all of us. It will take all our collective might.

In partnership with Sage Foundation, WARIF launched our second school program to educate both girls and boys in Abuja, Nigeria. The girls are taught practical ways to protect themselves, to exercise their right to say no, and to speak up. The boys are taught to treat girls as their equals, and to call out any incidents they see. Through Sage Foundation, I am proud to drive this effort to drive health, education and gender equality, and to work towards a world free of rape and sexual violence. Involving boys and men in activism against GBV is the only way we’ll bring it to an end.

Lastly, I’d like to say that even amongst so much chaos and uncertainty, I have seen and felt so much joy across the world, radiating from people who have risen from the most challenging of circumstances.

Empowered women are truly joyful women.

I am incredibly excited to be collaborating with ‘Land For Women’ in 2022, founded by my dear friend Giles Duley. I met with them in Rwanda to mark the beginning of our partnership. I spent the day on the farms with two different cooperatives, many of whom are survivors of genocide and sexual violence. However, what truly unites them is their radiant energy, and their sense of pride and joy. The work they do is intense, but thanks to the initiative, they don’t need to pay the land owner to be able to work there and farm, and they aren’t told how or what to grow. They’re able to use their own traditional techniques and practices, and to pass their knowledge down to the next generation. They showed me that no one knows the land better than the people who work on it. They hold vital knowledge and expertise on how to adapt, mitigate, and reduce climate and disaster risks. The project has enabled them to empower themselves so much that it beams through each of their individual personalities. I can’t wait to see them again in 2022.

Looking to the year ahead, I am reminded of the resounding words of Desmond Tutu, whose passing has left a great void - “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” As we grapple with what feels like an ever-moving raft of challenges, it has never been more important to remind ourselves of what we are each capable of giving back to our world. I would like to thank you all for your phenomenal support in 2021 and urge us all to look for the little bits of good within each other, irrespective of our differences.