Global Leadership Summit

Raj Patel knows best

Headshot of food activist Raj Patel, who shares six lessons on how to leave the world a better place than you found it

You might not know who Raj Patel is, but he cares deeply about you.

The London-born author, activist, and academic has spent much of his life contemplating how to keep you and the rest of the world well fed. Equal parts intellectual and at ease, Raj is as quick with a joke as he is to offer a booming critique on social inequity. Watching him deliver point after point with eloquent urgency, it’s difficult not to get swept up in whatever it is he’s saying. Because you can be sure he’s always saying something worthwhile.

More than a prolific writer and thinker, Raj is a podcaster, a professor, a food policy expert, and a political economist. He’s worked for the World Bank, interned at the World Trade Organization, and consulted for the United Nations—and openly protested against all three. These days, his focus is on fixing the world’s food system.

That’s what we expected to talk about when we met with Raj at our Global Leadership Summit on The Future of Food. But a funny thing happened over the course of that weekend. We realized the lessons he was sharing could be applied far beyond the context of food. Whatever you’re passionate about, whatever meaningful change you want to see enacted, Raj has assembled a framework for how to leave the world a better place than you found it.

So, in the spirit of starting small and starting here, try this: Apply his advice to a cause close to your heart, and see if any of what Raj told us rings true for you. Because the truth is, you don’t need to know who Raj Patel is, agree with his views, or even like him to learn from him.

Pro tip:

If learning from a thought leader like Raj Patel sounds like your kind of summer vacation, we have the ultimate destination recommendation: EF’s Global Leadership Summits. Next up in 2023, current and future changemakers will come together in Berlin to tackle the topic of sustainability.

LESSON #1

Find strength in the feeling that things aren’t always fair.

Like many people, Raj can point to a lifetime of choices and exchanges that have led him to his current career, but he credits a childhood experience abroad (and how that made him feel) with opening his eyes to injustices happening elsewhere in the world.

“When I was five years old, my parents took me to India, the land of my ancestors. And we were in Bombay, in a car, in the monsoon,” he says. “We pulled up at a stoplight and the monsoon was hammering down on the roof of this tin car.” Outside the car was a girl who couldn’t have been more than 12, with a crying infant in her arms, asking for money.

Overhead shot of a busy street in India, paired with the text “That’s not fair”—a mantra for anyone looking to leave the world a better place than you found it

“I had never seen anything that quite reached me and touched me in that way. Soon, I was crying and howling, wondering, ‘Why is it that she’s outside and we’re inside? Why is she wet and we’re dry? Why is she hungry and we aren’t? Why do we have money and she does not?’”

For Raj, the moment unlocked a feeling that still fuels him today: this idea of, “That’s not fair and we can do something about it.” He’s adamant that he isn’t alone in this sentiment, and convinced we’ll all benefit “the more we try and reconnect with the universal human sense that there’s something wrong with the world and that we can fix it.”

So instead of trying to forget that feeling—to unsee what unsettles you—follow Raj’s lead. Embrace the mantra of “That’s not fair” and use it as motivation to make things better.

LESSON #2

Forget the fact you’re just one person.

Once you’ve found a cause or issue that moves you, Raj says the next feeling is usually one of paralysis, or “I can’t help this,” but, he contends, you can.

“The most debilitating thing you can think is, ‘I’m just one person, what can I do?’” Raj believes you are more powerful than that. He says the first step is realizing you have never been just one person. “You’ve always been a product of a family and of society. Although we may entertain ideas about an individual going off into the world and surviving by themselves, humans and primates don’t do well without language, without society, without kinship, without love.”

To help people reconcile what’s at stake, Raj co-opts a method from fellow food activist Brahm Ahmadi, who begins conversations about changing the food system with a simple request: Tell me about who you love.

When pressed on how well our loved ones are really doing, “a conversation about love becomes a conversation about big, societal issues,” Raj reveals. “And then the next step is: ‘You love your grandma. What won’t you do to make sure that her life is better?’ Then all of a sudden, you realize this is a social problem and I can do something about it. I’m not just one person; there are a lot of people in my situation.”

A photo of London-born author, activist, and academic Raj Patel giving a speech on how to leave the world a better place than you found it

If you look at the movements that happen around the world, “it’s a lot of people saying ‘That’s not fair’ and getting together and realizing they can do something about it.”

When you’re trying to solve systemic problems, Raj knows there’s no magic bullet or single solution that will fix everything. Rather than feel overwhelmed, he offers sensible counsel on where to begin. “You start with who you love. You start in the community that matters to you, with the issues that matter to the people around you. And you start with people who are like-minded, making change happen so the ones you love can survive and thrive.”

You start in the community that matters to you, with the issues that matter to the people around you.

LESSON #3

Reframe the problem you’re trying to solve.

In the short time we spent with Raj, he proposed that climate change was not just about the weather, but a web of social systems ranging from international trade to colonialism.

Whether or not you agree with his statement isn’t the point—what’s important is the type of correlations he’s making. In Raj’s mind, if you don’t consider how vast the problem is you’re trying to solve before you propose a solution, you’re likely putting “a Band-Aid on a broken system.”

When it comes to his life’s work, Raj makes it abundantly clear that more food isn’t the answer to ending hunger. “We have enough food to feed everyone right now if we wanted to,” he laments. “But people are not able to buy the food that’s in front of them. I’m not sure it’s possible to say it plainer than that. The reason people go hungry is because of poverty.” Raj is persistent in his message that the global food crisis is “about power and about who is in charge and who gets to say who eats and who doesn’t,” stressing that the systems at hand are much more pervasive and entrenched than we think.

Chances are the issue you are looking to fix is far smaller and less complex than feeding the world. But that doesn’t minimize the clarity that can come from looking at the bigger picture. To inspire lasting change, maybe a wider purview is what’s needed.

Raj Patel meeting with students at the EF Global Leadership Summit on The Future of Food, where he spoke about how to leave the world a better place than you found it
A close-up of Raj with the text “No blind optimism” that sits above another tip on how to leave the world a better place than you found it

LESSON #4

Get the right people in the room.

To grasp Raj’s next lesson, we’ll first introduce you to Malawi—a landlocked country in southeastern Africa. In the year 2000, 55% of the children there were malnourished and the average life expectancy was only 46 years old. In spite of this, in the years since, they’ve been able to evolve from a starving community into a group of grassroots activists who not only farm differently, but who have reversed centuries of sexism to ensure their children don’t go hungry.

“You can’t have blind optimism,” Raj says. “But if you have an optimism grounded in the work that is happening at the grassroots level—where you have farmers in Malawi who were able to effectively combat malnutrition in their villages by doing everything from sequestering carbon in the soil, to getting men to cook and increasing gender equality—when you see that, it would be wrong not to be optimistic about the possibilities of change.”

Villagers in Malawi, Africa, where local farmers are experts on how to leave the world a better place than you found it

He points to what the Malawians accomplished as proof you should involve the people who are most affected by a problem first. “I work with movements of poor people, people who have ideas themselves about how to end hunger, and those ideas seem to be much more successful than the ideas that come from the development experts,” he explains. “They are professors of their own poverty. Rather than being told what to do, they drive the solutions.”

So, if you find yourself confronted with an unfamiliar struggle, Raj advocates getting closer to the people for whom things are unfair, and putting your privilege in their service. And if the injustice you’re facing is your own? You’ve been crucial to the solution all along.

LESSON #5

Don’t be afraid to change everything.

Up to this point, Raj’s recipe for social change involves a lot of critical thought and organizing—of people and ideas. His advice on how to take action, when it comes time for that, is a bit simpler: change it all.

“Allow yourself to imagine transforming everything,” he urges. “Don’t think about just a small tweak. Think about who you’re going to do it with, think about the experiments, and realize that you are more powerful than you have been led to believe. You can break all kinds of rules around how society should be organized.”

As far as Raj is concerned, breaking those rules is the only way to improve things like the food system. “You have to think about the transformations that need to happen so that poverty ends. That’s a much bigger thing to ask. But it’s okay to be more powerful than merely a consumer. I think that’s maybe what’s scary. We’ve been told so often that our parameters of choice are you can pick this particular ethical thing. You can pick one of two parties to represent you in Congress. You can have Coke or Pepsi. But that’s not power. Power is being able to reframe the terms on which the debate is carried out.”

Raj Patel on stage at EF’s Global Leadership Summit, speaking to students about how to leave the world a better place than you found it

For too long, Raj believes, we’ve been told we can only have incremental solutions. He’s not buying that answer anymore, and neither should you. “We’re not just consumers; we’re citizens, we’re social animals,” he says. “And we can change society just as society has made us.”

That’s a big ask to put in front of anyone. Raj himself admits it. But one way he thinks you can make this step easier is by seeing new places and meeting more people. “Travel helps you see the dimensions in which your world can change. There are so many ways in which you think, ‘I didn’t know you could do it that way.’”

The more places and people you see breaking the paradigm of how you’ve been told things should be done, the more prepared you are to change everything and rebuild your corner of the world for the better.

When you see how different the world is from what’s normal and comfortable, you also get a sense of possibility.

LESSON #6

Embrace discomfort as a rule.

As it turns out, travel is more than just a way to discover how other people approach global issues. It’s also an effective strategy for staying uncomfortable (which is a good thing).

“They say travel is the best education. They’re not lying. I’ve gone places where I don’t understand the language and what’s going on, and I see stuff and it unsettles me and it sends me to the toilet more than I would like. [But] comfortable is basically the opposite of learning. When you’re comfortable, you don’t have to worry about pushing yourself in any way. When you’re uncomfortable—physically and mentally and just the air that you breathe and the noises you hear and the smells that you smell—that can make you bigger.”

Beyond simply making you a bigger person with a more complete understanding of what the world is like for others, travel can give you a sense of purpose, direction, and possibility.

“I came to understand my place in the world and what I had to do in the world only after I saw how different the world was,” Raj says. “Because when you see how different the world is from what’s normal and comfortable, you also get a sense of possibility. You get a sense that not only can the world be radically different for different people, but my world can change. I can take a hand in making that change happen. You only get that sense if you recognize what it is that might be done, the different dimensions, the axis in which the world can be different. And you only experience that by travel.”

Another solo shot of food policy expert and political economist Raj Patel, who’s an expert on how to leave the world a better place than you found it

The end of Raj’s advice. The start of your story.

So there you have it—six lessons, a sort of treatise on creating meaningful change, and a lot to think about—courtesy of Raj Patel.

Does this mean you have to go out and overhaul everything today? Of course not. Maybe the only thing you need to aspire to is traveling responsibly and being an active participant in the communities around you. Doing that will certainly change your perspective, and leave the world a better place than you found it.

A reassuring visual Raj mentioned during our time together is how even in the darkest moments, “it is possible to find flowers of hope sprouting through the pavement.” Similar to that show of resilience, we hope a few of his ideas will stick with you beyond today, wherever you choose to take them.

Raj Patel giving a speech on how to leave the world a better place than you found it at the EF Global Leadership Summit in 2017

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Kim Hart

Kim is a senior copywriter at EF. In a past life, she wrote about everything from online poker to deodorant. (She likes writing about educational travel better.) When not at work, you can most likely find Kim on the internet or eating cheese.