My participation in endless conferences about the business of development has left me ever-more confused and disillusioned by sophisticated development speak and PowerPoint presentations. How has the global development industry succeeded in reducing the impassioned fight for freedom and human dignity to a search for single-issue solutions, typically technology or market based, that can be packaged neatly into fundable projects? How can we reverse this, and what role can foundations play?
I think back to our struggle against Apartheid in the 1970s. We rejected the unquestioning obedience and fear of our parents. Our Tahrir Square came in 1976. We were triumphant, but unrelenting repression smashed our fledgling aspirations. We began the painstaking work of organizing our people at a community level far from the radar screens of the Apartheid regime.
It was around the bread and butter issues of our people that we created the tsunami that toppled Africa’s most powerful regime. We co-created a vision and strategy that ensured local ownership and grassroots leadership that would withstand the most ferocious attacks of our enemy. We never drew up a business plan or sought out some generous donor. We never entered the struggle for development as a career. We were volunteers driven by passion. We were outraged by social injustice. It made us fearless.
Today, I am confronted by activists in South Africa wanting to discuss a budget before they have a meeting or a campaign. A whole development industry has spawned a class of poverty consultants. Global development assistance has been packaged into projects. A new obsession with evidence-based funding has razed the projects with promise, the “green shoots”, to conform to a narrow basket of indicators used to assess “best practice”. Business rationalities demanded by donors have often reduced the problems that civil society and NGOs wish to solve, to no more than graphs, figures and business plans.
The emphasis on supply-side innovation and business models fails to understand or locate the role of the people. The poor are “victims” to be given a charitable hand out of their poverty. Many of these initiatives and models, despite perpetual debate and revision in relation to method, create cycles of dependency, failing to address sustainable innovative means of bringing about permanent change. These models ignore the resilience of the billions of poor who make tough decisions every day as they support their families on less than $2 per day.
Ten years of working at a global level has shown me the fault lines in the modern system of development assistance. The rush to seek single-issue solutions to complex problems fails to recognize or respond to the overarching structural social and political factors that connect them. Typically, the search is for a new technology or a market-based device that could change lives dramatically.
Worse still, recipients, desperate for financial support, take donor aid knowing that the chances of programme success are minimal. Countless hours are spent collecting useless information to satisfy bean counters in foreign capitals. Even where bilateral aid has been tied to a commitment to democracy by recipient countries in the belief that it will strengthen the success of funded programmes in health and education, we fail.
In third-wave democracies, such as those of sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe, democratic transition has tended to worsen inequality and corruption and has failed to redress the very factors that brought it about. Similarly, the high expectations of “impact investing”, harnessing the market for social benefit, may not have the desired impact as programme sponsors capture public benefit for private gain, as the microfinance experiment in India demonstrated. Increasingly the desperate search for new markets is not inspired by altruism but by the trillion dollars that self-proclaimed “gurus of development” argue sits at the bottom of the pyramid.
Then we are confronted by the caricature of a constant stream of celebrities to countries in the South to “raise awareness” about social issues. The support they drum up is often concentrated in activist networks of the North, which hold sway over global debates about human development and environmental protection. In multilateral forums, human rights activism has almost become institutionalised in ways that are self-limiting and non-threatening to political power blocs.
It ignores the “elephant in the room”, that our governments, under constitutional obligation to ensure that the basic needs of our people are met, command public budgets that far outweigh the financial resources of foundations. Our challenge is to make them more accountable and efficient in delivering the basic quality services that citizens are entitled to. If a fault line emerges and an attempt is made to set up parallel systems, then government-driven propaganda is often reduced to an “agitator” thesis against “foreign funded” NGOs and the people continue to suffer the consequences of poor delivery.
An independent civil social sector is an essential pillar for building democracy. It is in government’s own interests to support it through public funding, but it needs to be kept at arm’s length, free from political interference. Skeptics might question the viability of such a model, but now, here in South Africa, we have Constitutional bodies such as the office of the Public Protector and the Human Rights Commission that operate free from political interference. They regularly and effectively hold government to account, but cannot exist without the due and much needed support of government.
Civil society represents an important voice of our people that needs to be heard and responded to. It is part of building an active citizenry that can participate in shaping society. Governments that fail to hear the pleas of its citizens and find comfort in denialism are setting the DNA of a failed society. Social conflicts and eruptions will surely arise, and as we know well from our past that tsunami of mass protests cannot be suppressed with just police and military force. It fundamentally needs a political solution. We should welcome the critical voices of civil society.
In this context, the question that begs asking is: What is the role of foundations in highly unequal countries in the South?
In South Africa today the biggest breakthrough in ensuring access to quality education and health has been the role of social justice organizations in mobilizing and using the Constitution and the courts to enforce basic human rights. That is how victories are won day-by-day in relation to access to ARVs, the end of mud schools and the right to textbooks in our public schools.
At the heart of public innovation lies a capacity to aspire. For individuals, a sense of imminent possibility in life is the motivator for personal growth and development. Collectively, this sense of possibility is nurtured in socially cohesive societies that generate substantial life choices for people. Ironically, then, the greatest opportunity for foundations operating in highly polarised societies is to create a sense of viable opportunity for individuals and society. Investment in social justice mobilization that drives the demand side is a critical element of success in the development equation.
Our societies are characterised by a demographic youth bulge. Increasingly, young people are being defined in terms of deficit: They are seen as uneducated, unemployable, unruly and menacing on the margins. They are characterised by what they are not, not by what they are or could be. Ultimately, a sense of victimhood gives rise to an entitlement mentality that further divides the rich from the poor.
We need to foster a lattice of new connections that begins to bridge the poles of society and create pathways out of poverty. When the connections are formed through genuine entrepreneurship, they lead to innovation. The breakdown of social and economic barriers enables new and more efficient markets to open up and livelihoods to be built.
It reminds me of organizing migrant workers in “hostels” in South Africa. Largely illiterate, marginalised, and living in brutal conditions of repression, they had nothing to lose. They built power at the point of production to bargain on job security, wages and working conditions. But having won these rights, they realised that to separate the struggle on the factory floor from the broader struggle for political freedom was not only undesirable but impossible in an Apartheid South Africa.
We need a new political narrative. We need to break out of the tired activist-versus-establishment paradigm. New approaches to social transformation must harness the reinforcing nature of innovation, social connectedness and positive identities. How this might be done requires more thought and development as more foundations begin to engage with the challenges and learn from those that are already doing so.
We need to stimulate innovation in both the public and private sectors that sparks critical thinking and capitalises on the energy and creativity of young people to prevent disillusionment and apathy. A vital constituency is young people who have begun to emerge as leaders in their own communities, but whose social and economic distance from the mainstream means they cannot participate fully as citizens. By connecting them and growing their ability as public innovators, we can build a strong national and transnational identity of leaders grounded in local realities and committed to public innovation and social justice.
Another constituency is women engaged in agriculture. Empowering women’s leadership and raising incomes and rights is a critical path to delivering sustainable development. The role of women must be at the centre of the development debate. When this happens we will see the change in our global village.
As the new Apartheid rises in the world, dividing the global rich from the majority of global poor, there is the opportunity to engage in a new debate on what works that connects the boardrooms and conference centres to people on the streets and villages of our world.
The choice is whether those who already have power in government, business, foundations and civil society have the courage to confront the realities of poverty and inequality with a different paradigm of thinking- one that places the interests of the poor and the marginalised, the youth and women at its core. DM