Acknowledge the power imbalances and act!

 

This piece, written by Jenny Hodgson, GFCF Executive Director, originally appeared on the European Foundation Centre website.

 

As the United Nations prepares to release a new set of Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, which will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), it is perhaps a good time to reflect on the current architecture of the international development sector. The good news is that, according to United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, the MDGs have reduced extreme poverty by half although the benefits have not always been evenly spread geographically and there has been less success on key goals relating to women and children.

However, in the pursuit of poverty alleviation and other global development objectives over the last few decades, the donor community has at the same time contributed to the creation of a global development “industry”. This has turned many NGOs (global and local) into highly skilled proposal writers, budget-jugglers and masters of development jargon, who compete with each other to serve the needs and requirements of external funders.

The impact of international funding has also distorted our sense of time (a five-year development project can be considered long-term) and created lines of “accountability” (a slippery, multi-directional word much bandied about in development discourse) which drive upwards and outwards, and result in hefty reports landing on desks in London, Brussels or Washington, far away from the very people that the development sector is meant to be serving.

 

Community philanthropy: Offering an alternative model of development

It was this frustration that, 17 years ago, led to the creation of the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF), Kenya’s first public foundation. KCDF was established by local civil society leaders who were exasperated by what they saw as years of international development programmes in Kenya undermining rather than fostering local agency, in which people were relegated to the role of “beneficiaries” with “needs”, rather than as citizens with assets who could play an active role in their own development. They also saw how Kenya’s rich systems of mutual giving, as well as its growing middle and wealthy classes, were never part of the local development equation and wanted to create a local institution that could both build up the capacities of local organisations and at the same time, harness local assets and resources in new and strategic ways. It is the same frustration that is today fuelling the creation of the Haiti Community Foundation, a project inspired by the perception that despite the millions of dollars in aid being channelled into the country (particularly following the January 2010 earthquake), most of it was going to international organisations, with little investment in building Haitian institutions that could serve people over the long-term.

These are just two examples of a new breed of locally-driven and locally-shaped community philanthropies and indigenous foundations that are emerging around the world. Although this “family” of institutions – which includes community foundations, national foundations, issue-based funds and other grassroots grantmakers – may differ in terms of context and origins, they are all seeking to model new types of philanthropic behaviour and practice by harnessing local resources and traditions of giving, blending them with new institutional forms. They do this in a number of ways:

  • By using small grants to support initiatives and build the capacities of grassroots groups, which tend to slip under the radar of most international donors. Small grants are also highly effective when it comes to building up a local donor base in places where public trust in institutions is low: they can be easily and transparently tracked rather than disappearing into institutional costs (nothing symbolises the “mystery” of development and puts local donors off more than the four-wheel drive car!), and they are also proof of the fact that development doesn’t always require big money but instead sustained and targeted support that can catalyse local action.
  • By building up a local support base. This is not just a funding strategy (although it certainly changes the power dynamics with external donors when an organisation can bring its own locally-sourced resources to the table) but also derives from the belief that development outcomes are more lasting when people invest their own resources.
  • By playing this double role as both a hub for local asset development and a developmental grantmaker, these organisations are able to act as a bridge between different sections of a community, linking resources and needs, as well as goodwill and good ideas. This unique, horizontal “linking” role is one that most other NGOs are rarely positioned – or encouraged – to play, so entrenched are they in issue-based silos (another distorting effect of mainstream development, whereby everyone is a specialist and generalist organisations are seen as “lacking in focus”).
  • Finally, these organizations are often rich in social capital. When a community philanthropy organisation in Romania or Nepal has a support base of thousands of local donors, no matter how small the individual gifts, that surely says something about how embedded they are in their community, and how much the organisation is seen as part of that community rather than a construct introduced from above. Although the budgets of these institutions might be small, this aspect of local trust and buy-in is often something that gets overlooked, with international aid directing large amounts of money to competent NGOs on the basis of administrative / proposal-writing / English language capacities.

 

A changing landscape for aid: What role for donors and civil society?

The emergence of these new types of community philanthropy institutions is happening at a time when issues around ownership, flows and governance of resources are being seen as more critical than ever. As the established architecture for international aid is changing, so is the landscape in which it has traditionally operated. For traditional international donors, whose influence is already starting to diminish with the arrival of new forms of South-South cooperation (which often requires much less in terms of compliance), I would suggest that it is time to do some real soul-searching about the kind of legacy or footprint that they want to leave behind in developing contexts where they have already been active for decades. Some food for thought:

  • Think long-term and think holistically (even if just a little!). Of course, numbers matter particularly given the growing preoccupation with metrics in development, but there is also something short-sighted about only concentrating on the tangible, the countable, and the “bang for your buck.” Often, development projects seem to me like someone deciding to decorate just one room in a house, self-contained and beautiful, with all mod cons, but forgetting to check whether the plumbing works, the foundations are intact etc. How about investing in partner organisations so that they can plan for their future as a longer-term social good and so that when you leave, you leave them in good shape.
  • Local people-centred institutions matter. International development needs local NGOs but when they are shaped too much by external funding they might not be the kinds of NGOs that local people really want. Local civil society organisations can play an important role in negotiating with other institutional players (state, corporate etc.) but their ability to do also depends on some degree of legitimacy / local buy-in.
  • Acknowledge the power imbalances and act! I have lost count of the number of times that I have heard of a staff member in a community foundation who has moved on to an international NGO, where they will no doubt earn a bigger salary and greater prestige. There is something wrong with an aid system where international organisations end up poaching the best local talent and where local organisations are perceived as less “valuable” than international ones.

As the international aid community and its civil society partners reflect on the MDGs and look forward to the next round of development goals, it seems a good time to engage in some critical introspection, as well as some creative thinking. Civicus recently convened a conversation of activists aimed at exploring the extent to which civil society is “fit for purpose” in the context of current global challenges and the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy, which got going last year, brings together a range of public and private donors interested in better understanding how more horizontal forms of asset development can foster more sustainable development and what role international donors can play. These kinds of conversations are both timely and essential if international development is going to engage constructively around real issues of power and ownership.

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