“Mind The Gap” – reflections from Palestine on why participatory grantmaking is essential to #ShiftThePower closer to the people
I was dragging my luggage around the beautiful city of Cardiff, in Wales, or Cymryu, as said by the local people’s language. Every now and then, I would search for my phone in my purse, open the camera app, and frame beautiful looking Victorian buildings on the six-inch screen. I was in the city to attend the European Community Foundation Initiative conference, Building Bridges for Local Good.
“The world is in a bit of trouble on how communities are feeling”, said Jenny Hodgson, the Executive Director of the GFCF, as she moderated the panel “Community Philanthropy: Who calls the shots?” I grabbed my phone and tweeted that phrase. As I observed the room, the participants were reflecting on it as well.
It was very significant for me, because I come from Palestine, a country that receives the highest international aid per capita in the world. But this aid isn’t listening to local needs. Community priorities are already set in advance. I call it the proposal season, based on what seems to be trendy at the moment; area C, Gaza, youth empowerment, women empowerment, etc. Don’t get me wrong: some of these interventions are beneficial! But if local communities come together to decide on their own priorities, this allows for more just and equal development.
During coffee breaks, and while savouring the buttery welsh cookies, I learned that many community foundations in Europe give away their grants to their communities in the same manner as the traditional “Big Aid.” Many request their communities to apply for a grant by writing a proposal. I couldn’t help but wonder…why?
During the conference, many guest speakers emphasized the role of community foundations as being the entities that show and support a movement of people, since they focus on building capacities and trust. Community foundations employ community philanthropy to achieve social change, meaning that anyone can help, through either voluntary work, donations, or professional knowledge; community foundations pool all of these skills and distribute them to the communities.
An important takeaway I learned from that conference is that traditional development aid has made communities not trust their capabilities to make change, because as Barry Knight, adviser to the GFCF puts it, “Development aid looks at communities as a bundle of problems instead of capacity.” When you always focus on the incapacities of a community, and supply them with external resources, they will soon be used to only focus on their poverty, and lose the value of their own local resources. This is what is happening in Palestine: the civil society fabric has weakened because local communities have become so reliant on aid that they are often unable to think for themselves and develop solutions to their own community problems. Instead, they rely on ready-made packages of aid.
At the Dalia Association, the Palestinian community foundation where I work, we struggle with this issue. We have to conduct many trainings and workshops to “unlearn” this attitude. We show communities that they can come together, and mobilize their local resources to achieve their own durable, sustainable development. It takes time, but it is very successful because, in the future, this will build a stronger Palestinian civil society, with active citizens mobilizing local resources to meet their own priorities.
The rhythmic drumming of the Tube in London was a kind of focusing mechanism. I was out to explore the Tower of London (I was curious to see the place where King Henry VIII executed his Queens). I was reflecting on the conference and the kind and passionate people I met. Almost every minute, the train would stop; the speaker would play an automatic recording: “Mind the gap between the train and the platform.” The repetition of this phrase stuck in my head, until I reached my destination. I got out of the Tube and walked up the stairs while trying to locate myself on the map to walk to the Tower.
“Mind the Gap.” That’s it! Was there a gap between European community foundations, and other non-European community foundations? In Palestine, community philanthropy is 100% community controlled. In other words, the community decides on how to spend the grant, in a manner that benefits the entire members of the community, including men, women, youth, children and persons with disability. Could the “gap” be that most European community foundations are themselves still used to receiving money from big donors, and that the only way they know how to distribute a grant is in the same manner? Is participatory grantmaking something that most of them are unfamiliar with?
How can you achieve durable and sustainable development, without having a movement of people deciding on their own needs and priorities? Should European community foundations listen to communities more?
Maybe it is time for more European community foundations to adopt a grassroots approach to development? An approach that listens, or even puts decision-making in the hands of the people who are the closest to their community problems, and are better positioned to find solutions. The community controlled approach is messy and requires great effort, flexibility and understanding, but in the long-term, it is the only way to ensure strong and independent communities.
By: Rasha Sansur, Communications, Resource Mobilization and Reporting Officer at the Dalia Association. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.