Final reflections from the EDGE Funders Conference from our three bloggers

Our three bloggers from Vietnam, South Africa and Palestine reflect on the EDGE conference, on engaging with corporations and on how community philanthropy offers an alternative path for sustainable development

Nora Lester Murad, writer and volunteer with Dalia Association, Palestine’s community foundation, Dana Doan, Adviser to the LIN Center for Community Development in Vietnam and Fulufhelo Netswera, Tswera Community Foundation attended the EdgeFunders’ Just Giving Social Philanthropy Conference in Berkeley, CA, where they participated in a session on community philanthropy. They will contributed a series of blogs over the course of the conference (find the others here). 

Dana Doan, LIN Center for Community Development: “A Just Transition Is Only Possible With(out) Companies?”

The second day of the conference plagued me with a constant, badgering question. How can we achieve a just transition if we do (not) involve companies in our efforts? 

The opening plenary for the day started with a calmly delivered speech on all that has gone wrong in our world by the articulate and seemingly disheartened Dr. Walden Bello.  His speech ended with a quote accompanied by a drawing of a man’s face being sucked by an enormous squid, which was intended to represent Goldman Sachs, or perhaps capitalism more generally, sucking the life out of humankind. Despite the recommendations he offered to overcome the gloomy situation that has befallen us all, there was little to be hopeful about when Dr. Bello returned to his seat.

Only one of the three plenary speakers that morning left room for engagement with companies in seeking social and economic justice for workers. Sarita Gupta of Jobs with Justice said, “…we will have to confront corporate power in new and creative ways while wrestling our economy back…”  She advised us to think about the power we have and how to leverage that power. Both Dr. Bello and Ms. Gupta advised that, while the power imbalance remains we must learn how to think ahead of the companies, strategically, “instead of reacting to what could happen, we need to plan around what we know will happen!”

In the afternoon, I participated in the second of three collective discussions where participants, in small groups, are asked to debrief on their experiences during the conference.   At my table, there were eight of us – interestingly, we were all female.  This collective discussion was one aspect of the conference that I particularly appreciated and I took the opportunity to raise questions, including the one that really bothered me on that second day: “Can a just transition ever happen if we do not include companies in the conversations that are taking place during this conference?” 

A couple of members of our group admitted to questioning whether it was better, or not, to go into the belly of the beast to make change.  Several others said that they like this conference specifically because it allows them to talk these issues through with like-minded individuals.  My initial reaction is that we should be talking about how to talk with companies. Following Dr. Bello and Ms. Gupta’s advice, we can use these opportunities to prepare our strategy so that we can be prepared and ready when we do find opportunities to engage with companies. 

After our collective discussion, I attended a breakout session that spoke directly to my question – The Role of the Private Sector in Financing for Social and Ecological Transformation.  The workshop addressed two of my burning questions: Is it possible to work with the private sector to ensure social and economic justice? Does engagement with companies necessarily limit our ability to achieve alternatives to the current system?  I was glad to finally hear form organizations whose strategies included opportunities to work with companies.

Through the breakout session, it became clear that most of the experiences these organizations shared demonstrated reactive and defensive tactics rather than planned strategies. Several nonprofits talked about how they worked with companies who approached them with a desire to work together. The decision to engage was based on the company’s track record and whether both sides’ expectations for the project were acceptable.  Another nonprofit talked about company projects that were causing so much damage to their community that the nonprofit was forced to engage with them. This organization had such a horrifying experience that they can no longer envision the possibility of working in partnership with companies.

On the third, and final day of the conference, I joined Fulufhelo Godfrey Netswela from South Africa and Nora Murad from Palestine in presenting innovations in community philanthropy.  Much of my presentation underscored the role of companies in contributing to local capacity building and empowerment and LIN’s role in facilitating such partnerships to ensure that the community, as a whole benefits.

In Ho Chi Minh City, since Doi Moi and WTO accession, companies have accumulated tremendous resources, which many prove willing to share. LIN Center for Community Development introduces programs that facilitate partnerships with such companies and local nonprofits for shared benefit to our community.  In our mind, if corporate HR Managers, IT Advisors, CPAs and PR Experts coach their counterparts at local nonprofit organizations, it not only helps to build the capacity of nonprofits to achieve their goals but it also helps to build understanding about the choices and challenges companies and nonprofits are asked to make. Such understanding is what I believe can lead to better problem solving.

LIN’s model does not make much sense in Palestine, where companies and their staff are currently less resourced in comparison with the nonprofit community.  In Palestine, it is the international NGOs, the multilateral and the bilateral aid agencies that hold the resources that are needed to build local capacity. But, is there any potential for facilitating true partnerships with international nonprofit organizations to empower local nonprofits and the people of Palestine?  Thus, could or should the wrongdoers in Palestine be engaged to help make things right?

Clearly there is deep frustration and mistrust for the companies and institutions that are perceived to be the perpetrators of what is wrong in our communities or in our world.  What is not clear is how we can solve the enormous challenges of today if we decide to generalize or stereotype companies and institutions and if we intentionally choose not to include them in important conversations about social and ecological transformation.  As Ms. Maria Poblet, from Causa Justa: Just Cause stated during the opening plenary on Day 1, “We need to build unity across differences.” And we will need creativity and imagination to design strategies that build connectivity in order to achieve a just transition.  

Fulu Netwswera, Tswera Community Foundation, South Africa: Lessons for international donors from the community philanthropy field

First of May 2014 was the last day of the EDGE Funders Alliance conference here in Berkeley, CA. There are two observations I make of serious co-incidence about this day and about this conference and they are; one – May Day Rallies will be staged in major cities of the world reminding governments and big capital about the unfairness of the labour system and the sad plight of workers, and two – the theme that ran throughout this conference was that capital and corporates have exploited this planet and humanity to unprecedented and intolerable levels.

Today there is no plenary but only a number of parallel sessions that run till the conference concludes after lunch time. I report specifically from the parallel session in which I participated titled; “Innovations in community philanthropy from Palestine, Southern Africa, and Vietnam: How international donors can help and how they can hurt”. The session presenters were Nora Lester Murad on Palestine, myself on Southern Africa and Dana Doan on Vietnam.

The brilliance of the session was in the facilitation style and skills of Nora who requested all participants through a practical exercise to identify a need and to later give whatever they could in the session room. It immediately became very clear that everyone has a need and everyone has something to offer in life. This, as she explained later, was unfortunately how life is projected at the level of interface between the first and the third world, between international and indigenous/local communities. What is often projected is that local communities have nothing to offer and international/western community has everything to offer. This ideological inclination paralyses the third world and turns it into a passive recipient of grants and donations. Unfortunately still the donated funds are mostly also repatriated back into the very same first world communities that donate through hiring of “expertise”, equipment thereby serving the donor than the recipient yielding minimal tangible outcome.

The three papers that were presented in this session highlighted the following important elements:

 

  • The third world needs less and less “charity” because history suggests that charity and donations (IMF, World Bank, etc.) have over the past failed drastically in alleviating the challenges of the third world;
  • It is important that a new and balanced approach be found and utilised in the interfacing between first and third world. Such an approach should appreciate that indigenous people are the only people who can improve their own conditions, appreciate the knowledge, skills and competence that these communities possess which are central to their livelihood;
  • There is growing distrust of the state and of the third sector, specifically big international NGOs in the third world. The state is distrusted mainly because it is perceived to be corrupt and colluding with big capital against local communities. Third sector players are distrusted because although most of these organisations have worked long in third world communities, local communities generally still do not understand their role nor can they point at their achievements;
  • While there is no state in Palestine, in South Africa and Vietnam the state is unfortunately responsible for pathologies of dependence that goes with welfarism. In the absence of a state in Palestine; big international NGOs have appropriated this role to themselves with negative disempowering consequences; 
  • International community should cease to think that there are homogeneous set of values and principles throughout the world regarding sub-elements of development and recognise that what is important is that which communities clamour to achieve collectively in their quest for self-reliance and self-determination;
  • Elements of commonality between Southern Africa and Palestine are the dispossession of the indigenous people of important livelihood instruments like land and access to clean water, among other things, on which development hinges;

 

The presenters reflected on some examples of “local philanthropy” from the various third world countries, examples which they encourage international funders to consider:

 

  • Strengthening accountability of the third sector in the third world to and in communities in which the third sector operates. These feedback reports to local communities entrenches further moral support and restore confidence in the third sector; 
  • For purposes of instilling pride in local communities, it is important that communities raise their own funds no matter how small. “A shilling a day” Kenyan project was presented as an example that restores community pride and enables communities to demand accountability;
  • Examples of projects that have hallmarks of “economic sustenance” were provided to illustrate the importance of long term community driven and initiated interventions. The Ugandan charcoal project from Masindi Community Foundation was given as a useful and practical example of economic initiative with positive long term results and the LIN (Listen, Inspire, Nature) model for community participation initiative (CPI) for building financial sustainability for the NPOs was discussed.

 

Participants were requested to write on flipcharts important lessons that they take away from the session. These sessions would be typed and shared among the delegates who participated in this session to strengthen the ideology of continuous sharing which is the foundation of philanthropy.

The conference was a very big success. Many papers and practical examples of local and international philanthropy that matters were presented from all over the world. Feedback from interactions with participants suggests that the conference was a mixture of theoretical, philosophical, ideological and practical knowledge sharing. It was indeed one of the most beneficial philanthropic conferences I have attended. 

Nora Lester Murad, Dalia Association, Palestine – Valuable experiences no accident

I’ve been to tens of global meetings and I always find them energizing – both those that inspire and rejuvenate, and those that make be so angry I can’t help but act. I think I have enough experience to say without reservation that EdgeFunders’ Global Social Justice Philanthropy Conference was different than all the rest. For three intense days, funders critiqued the capitalist system from which their institutions emerged, and explored the incredibly inspiring work being done to address global inequality. Since I live and work in Palestine where hopelessness reigns, the mindfulness and intentionality of this group really struck me.

Now, at the airport on my way to return home to Palestine, I am organizing the many contacts I made into piles. I have a list of 19 people who joined a “dine-around” on the topic of Palestine. Few of them fund in Palestine, and a few more of them are exploring expanding their giving to Palestine. Most were just interested in hearing what it’s like to try to do social justice work in a place plagued by long-term oppression and crippling aid dependence.  I won’t be surprised if some of them visit.

I have a list of 13 participants from our workshop on “Local Innovations in Community Philanthropy: Lessons from Palestine, South Africa and Vietnam.” These folks shared their “take away” learning on flipcharts at the end of the workshop, which I will type up and send out. They hung around after the workshop, hugging and smiling, enthusiastic to figure out ways to value local resources through their work.

I have 24 business cards (though there could be some duplicates), most with notes written on them reminding me to send an article or to request more information about some fascinating innovation that I’m sure we can incorporate into our work. It will take days to follow up with them all, time very well spent.

But at the very top of the pile of folks I treasure meeting through EdgeFunders are two people I actually “met” before I came. Dana Doan and Fulu Netswera were speakers on the panel I organized. I was introduced to Dana by our mutual donor, Jenny Hodgson of the Global Fund for Community Foundations. Jenny believed that Dana’s LIN Center in Vietnam had done impressive work that could help Dalia Association’s efforts to expand local private sector philanthropy. She was right. Later, when the opportunity to present a panel came up, it made sense to build on the relationship we’d started with Dana. Fulu was introduced to me by Bhekinkosi Moyo, who was introduced to me by Neville Gabriel, who I met at a Synergos Institute meeting in Namibia several years ago.  Dana, Fulu and I had deep conversations about local philanthropy in preparation for our session. We co-created a format that let us focus on innovations in local philanthropy while recognizing the different contexts in which we work, and that helped us compare and contrast our experiences, leaving space for participants to share too.

It must be noted: Our really useful experience at EdgeFunders was not an accident. Once again, convening and networking funded by northern donors led to opportunities for meaningful collaboration among community philanthropy folks in the global south. I must also thank the Global Fund for Women for the travel grant that enabled Saeeda Mousa, Executive Director of Dalia Association and me to take part in the EdgeFunders conference, and for enabling the planting of seeds that, with our tending, will surely blossom into good things for our communities.

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