Philanthropy and development unusual: Whose voice? Whose agency?

The Ford Foundation office for southern Africa co-hosted a roundtable discussion with the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace (PSJP) on: “What alternative models of development and philanthropy do we need to build local agency and power?” The discussion was aimed at unpacking and debating some of the limitations that mainstream development aid and philanthropy have had in addressing the power structures that perpetuate poverty, marginalization and violence. In the global south, colonial power structures are often replicated in development and donor practices, undermining the agency and voices of the communities they serve.

The group was diverse with participants from private foundations, corporate social investors, independent consultants who work with donors and civil society organizations, African grantmaking organizations from different parts of the continent, and civil society organizations. There were also members of PSJP from Brazil, India, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States.

The initial idea was to convene a small group, including “unusual” suspects who are not often involved in these spaces. The response was overwhelming, and showed the relevance of the topic. While this should not have been a surprise, it was a confirmation that the sector is not having enough of these conversations. The tendency is for development practitioners to have donor-bashing conversations on their own, and for donors to have their exclusive/no-solicitation meetings in their own spaces. There are very few spaces for frank and honest conversations between funders, grantees, and beneficiary communities.

If nothing else, the conversation highlighted the need to have more of these convenings if we are to do things differently and in a meaningful and impactful way for the communities we serve. From the discussions, it was evident that the days of doing development “at” rather than “with” communities may be coming to an end, and both philanthropy and the not-for-profit sector may become irrelevant and harmful to communities if they are not careful.   Philanthropy needs to take stock as it suffers a social crisis and is not trusted by the very communities it seeks to serve. The concerns of philanthropy disorganizing communities and not strengthening organic forms of organizing and giving were raised. A community grantmaker from South Africa shared that she was asked to leave by two communities she has worked with for many years, as they felt she no longer understood their vision.

The speakers held no punches, and the debate was vibrant and honest, and called on all of us to embrace discomfort if we are truly interested in seeing change. There was a very strong call to provide alternatives to mainstream philanthropy and development. Foundations and their staff are seen as very risk-averse, tend to do things to protect their own interests and jobs, and to support those who look and think like them and make them look good. Someone asked if foundation staff are collaborators in promoting “injustice”. Power imbalances are also a major challenge. Community agency is not acknowledged (“no community has nothing”), and this often leads not only to patronizing communities, but to dependency. Funding patterns have also distorted the ecosystem, and people rush to fund “sexy” things and big organizations, but people’s basic needs are still not met.

The general concern was that we keep having these conversations but nothing much is being done to change the way development is delivered. Some suggested that the conversation be widened, and to incorporate voices of young people who have fresh and more radical ideas. This requires courage and a willingness to let go of power. There was also a call to think differently about philanthropy in the global south, and recognize that there are multiple forms of philanthropy that are different from those in the global north. This lens helps us appreciate community agency and capacity.

While the meeting did not generate any concrete ideas for a way forward, it generated some energy and interest among many of those who participated. There is genuine interest in seeking alternatives, and we will be exploring ways of keeping the conversations going over the coming months, and finding ways of connecting with the brave people who are already doing things differently, and hopefully spark seeds of change for the rest of us.

Some quotable quotes from the meeting:

  • The current models of development are ego-driven. The strategies are top-down and we often drive our own agendas.
  • How do we get money to people and not institutions?
  • We can’t do development naively, communities are not virtuous. There are high levels of gatekeeping, greed, and capture, that must be considered.
  • There is a growing distance between people who give and those who receive.
  • How do people with money underwrite risk and invest in potential?
  • Evidence-based approaches don’t work yet we continue to invest in them.
  • Should we “kick” the box and consider something more limitless?
  • We need to listen to and engage the voices of courage. We must be able to embrace discomfort.
  • The alternative is not going to start with us, we need to engage the voices that are not in the room.
  • Philanthropy has a place to play but focuses on wrong things.
  • We need more simplicity, complexity does not deliver.

Vuyiswa Sidzumo is a Program Officer at Ford Foundation, Southern Africa.