Global Philanthropy Forum: Toward a New Social Contract with Whom?

IMG_6769My first time attending the Global Philanthropy Forum and I am not disappointed. The conference theme ‘Toward a New Social Contract’ was provocative from the beginning. Rousseau’s concept of the social contract was the ground from which flowered our modern notions of citizenship and nations. What can be the meaning of the social contract at a global conference?

In her opening remarks, Jane Wales makes clear her intent to expand our collective thinking about the realities of globalization and the inherent ties that now bind us all to one another, not just to those in our own country.

Rajiv Shah, who heads up USAID kicked off the conference with bold excitement about the new charge of aid agencies to partner with the private sector. While his examples glossed over the real danger of aid becoming overly linked to corporate promotion that may decrease rather than increase local control, Shah asserted a refreshing intention to re-focus USAID on listening better, partnering more, and building local capacity.

Perhaps most impressively, presenters and participants cheered the headline themes but pushed back against rhetoric to explore the nitty-gritty of making things work. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, general secretary of the World YWCA reminded Shah that women are not victims, but need to be engaged as participants in development. Srivalli Krishnan, founder and CEO of eFarm based in Chennai, India reminded everyone that ‘putting capital to work’ requires a lot of on-the-ground-preparation such as their training for small farmers to increase yields and sell for maximum profit.

Tony Blair echoed his belief in the dawn of a new era of cross-country, trans-continental links when he stated, “Globalization is a fact, not a debate. The debate is how to make it work for the many, not the few.” He too pointed out our wrongheaded obsession with what to do, when what is required is laser-like focus on how to do.

The fact that conference speakers and panelists included leading philanthropists from Africa, Asia and Latin America, disrupts the notion of “donor countries.” As outgoing president of the World Bank Robert Zoellick noted, the term ‘third world’ is no longer a meaningful descriptor. Solutions can come from anywhere.

One clear highlight was the evening panel entitled ‘The New Egypt and the Core Responsibilities of Governance’ with Hossam Bahgat, founder of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the incredible couple Barbara Lethem Ibrahim and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, all of whom are at the forefront of shaping post-Tahrir Egypt. They shared heart-wrenching stories of sacrifice and hope. Keen activists that they are, they used those stories to illustrate the challenges of building a functioning democracy and the partnership and patience they need from those of us who would be allies. Almost all of the speakers talked about the value of partnerships between corporations, foundations, and aid agencies. While this is not new, it is clearly gaining steam.

And Jacqueline Novogratz threw a firecracker into the middle of that discussion with the release of Acumen Fund’s latest report with Monitor Institute entitled ‘From Blueprint to Scale: The Case for Philanthropy in Impact Investing.’ Novogratz did something few leaders of emerging, much-hyped and adored fields are willing to do: she told the truth. Namely that investable deals are scarce and that very few are making any money in impact investing. But by being honest, the report may bring more people to the impact investing table. Rather than pitting philanthropy against impact investing (old vs. new), Novogratz recognizes the role philanthropists have played as angel investors, willing to take initial risks for enterprises that may take years before they are ready for private capital and scale. The strength of the report may be the discomfort it causes impact investors as well as philanthropists in calling for each to leave behind distrust and ideology to work together.

Key take-aways from the conference: the centrality of women as community-builders and problem-solvers; the importance of donors and grantees acting as partners; philanthropy (and development) fundamentally being focused on local capacity-building; innovation of processes and collaborations and not just products.

Overall, the conference challenged orthodoxies on all sides. It acknowledged that no sector can do it alone. Neither can any one country. And it pushed us to think about our social contract with one another, as human beings and global citizens.

This piece is cross-posted on the @Alliance Magazine website which can be found here.

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