Local agency and power in philanthropy and development

PSJP, the Ford Foundation Office for Southern Africa, and the Mott Foundation (South Africa) are exploring the themes of local agency and power in philanthropy and development through a series of conversations with practitioners in the field. These conversations involved two sets of dialogues in South Africa and a consultation session at the 2018 African Philanthropy Network Assembly.

We are sharing the convening reports from each of the conversations here in order to further engagement around these themes.

The first convening entitled ‘What alternative models of development and philanthropy do we need to build local agency and power?’  brought together 37 individuals from the philanthropy and civil society space was organised in June 2018 in Johannesburg. The purpose of the convening was to (i) reflect on the limitations of mainstream development aid and philanthropy in addressing the power structures that perpetuate poverty, marginalisation and violence and (ii) discuss alternative models/approaches in development and philanthropy that enable local agency and challenge existing power dynamics – focusing both on what exists as well as what needs to change. This discussion, which spanned just half a day, was the first in what is hoped to be a series of conversations exploring this topic in more detail.

The second conversation was organised in September 2018 in Johannesburg entitled ‘Philanthropy, Local Agency and Power: Alternative Strategies and Approaches’ and convened 30 participants working in the civil society and philanthropy sectors – including funders, activists, and critical thinkers. The objectives were to reflect on the limitations of existing philanthropic practice in enabling local agency and power in South Africa, share experiences of interacting with philanthropy, both positive and negative, and distil lessons that could point towards alternative ways of working. The convening also explored and interrogated the assumptions and ideas underlying some alternative strategies and ways of working that emerge in conversation, and which could provide lessons for consideration. It sought to establish the appetite for ongoing engagements to learn together and to advocate for and popularise emerging and effective philanthropic strategies and models that enable local agency and power.

The third piece seeks to reflect what we have heard and what we are learning from the three collective discussions with some attention to the emerging recommendations. It should be noted that the discussions were the first part of an interrogative process and were designed to flesh out initial thoughts exploring what philanthropy could and should be doing differently as well as reflect recommendations for what the next steps in this exploratory process could include. This paper explores some of the complex ways in which philanthropic practice and behaviours undermine local power and agency in the struggle for justice and dignity and reflects on alternatives ways of supporting transformative change where agency and power lie with people most affected by the injustices.

We welcome you to join the conversation and share your comments on the reports. We also welcome practical solutions of how to do things differently in philanthropy and development – in South Africa but also the rest of the world. (There are some lessons that we can all learn from.) If you are a philanthropic organisation or an NGO that is working in ways that see enabling the space for local power and agency to determine people’s own development agendas, please share your work and strategies with us, which we can publish as blogs. For more information and/or to share your thoughts and ideas on these reports contact info@psjp.org