Today, the 1st of June was a particularly busy and interesting day here at the Foundation Week’s Brussels Square. Out of the many sessions, two caught my attention because of the work that I have been involved with both a personal and professional level.
The first was on ‘New partnership models, new opportunities: Working with the World Bank to broaden impact’. This session was organised by the World Bank-International Finance Corporation. It sought to explore cases where collaboration or partnerships have been scaled up to find innovations and solutions for development. It is perhaps a cliché now that no single institution can address developmental challenges alone. The Bank realises this and yet the big elephant in the room seemed to be the unequal relations between the Bank and its partners as well as the assumption that the Bank is not staying the course with the organisations that it has either helped create or supported. As one participant put it, ‘it is just wrong for us to expect institutions to be independent after a few years of their existence-when even human beings only become independent at 21 years of age.
As an African myself, the Bank has not been one of our favourite institutions because of the structural adjustment policies and other frameworks that further underdeveloped the continent during the 1980s. So I was not surprised by the bashing of the Bank; and yet such an approach normally misses the common ground between the progressives in the Bank and those outside. I came out of the session somewhat convinced that today it is perhaps not the Bank that is at fault but rather the lack of dialogue between the Bank and its partners that has produced this level of suspicion. Building mutual and honest relationships seems to me to be one of the keys to unlocking the developmental traps. And these relationships can be at different levels; Bank and partners; Bank-member states; foundations-Bank; foundations-Bank-communities, etc.
This relationship building leads me to venture into another session that I attended today on community foundations. With a beautifully crafted title, the session was called ‘Not just a poor cousin: Understanding the unique role of community philanthropy in driving development’. Those that know me and my writings would attest to the fact that this is my favourite subject area. I have written extensively on this, yet I remain amazed by the amount of new research and data on this sector. This session was organised and presented by the Global Fund for Community Foundations. A presentation of research findings into community foundations was presented which sought to link data from administrative functions with various aspects of evaluation. A few findings are worthy repeating here. The study found that;
- Community foundations are young and small;
- Size isn’t everything; it’s the functions that matter;
- A key function for community foundations is to build active communities;
- Community foundations don’t precisely describe their work as working on social justice even though when analysed along those lines, most of them are found to be working on social justice matters;
- Small grants are beautiful as a developmental tool;
- Obviously I am simplifying the report here. Nevertheless, I came out of the session with the following observations;
- A community’s world view determines as well as defines its sense of self and the functions it fashions for itself. This also defines how that community crafts its trajectory. A study like this therefore needs to delve much deeper into explorations of the very foundations of a community and the lens through which it defines its identity. Only through such foundational explorations will a sense emerge on how community foundations fashion themselves and what they perceive themselves to be. So whether they are big or small will be immaterial if not understood within that community’s worldview. While therefore I like the idea that small is beautiful, I also think that big is better.
- The question of trust seems to come out strongly in the report. It was one of the areas that the discussion also focused on. In the report, there seems to be a narrow focus on what trust entails. The report focused primarily on how communities or donors trust organisations. This is well and good but it only covers one aspect of trust. It does not even begin to unpack the various dimensions of trust. It might be useful to break down the various levels of trust-to answering questions such as who is to be trusted, why and by whom? In addition, it might be useful to address the level after organisational trust to how community foundations can build trust within and among members of the community, for example, between boy friend and girl friend, mother and daughter, father and son, wife and husband, neighbours, community and the state, etc. This it seems to me would be the greatest contribution that community foundations can make. It is only when communities have trust for themselves that they can begin to trust organisations and institutions. After all community foundations are supposed to be made up of community members. Thus the report needs to link organisational trust with community trust.
- The report does not refer to the state in development, yet the very notion of development cannot be meaningful without state involvement. Conceptually, the state exists for development and any initiative that seeks development has to address the question of the state. This is more so today when one of the greatest ideas to shape the decade would be the return of the state.
These are few of my observations that I wanted to put out for discussion. There are obviously more but these are critical for me in discussing community led and driven initiatives. Let there be no illusion that community foundations are the panacea for the problems of development. No they are not, but they serve a purpose that needs to be supported. It is like a system-if one aspect of the system malfunctions, the whole system seizes to be effective. The message of the report therefore is well presented and resonates well, but it must not be read at the exclusion of other parts of the development system.