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Philanthropy cannot be divorced from environmental and climate justice

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Shelagh Gastrow provides advisory services to the philanthropy sector, higher education advancement and non-profit sustainability. She works with individuals and families on how to integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and universities through programmes to develop their financial sustainability whilst promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work has gained public recognition locally and internationally.

The power of philanthropic endowments is that pressure can be brought to bear as to what damage their recommended share investments are doing to our world and communities. It is simply more than ridiculous to invest in a company that damages the environment and then to use income from that investment to try and fix the problem.

For many, the existing crisis is a health crisis and an economic crisis. But in reality, we have to look further and it is no doubt a crisis related to environmental degradation that has led to this and future problems that humankind will face. We have become so extractive and divorced from the world in which we live that we have almost ruined those assets that sustain us – the air, the soil, water, the land, plants and forests, and most forms of animal life. In our greed to live a life bigger and better, we have eroded our own humanity.

According to the Global Footprint Network, we are “stripping the earth of its natural resources at a rate that’s increasingly leaving the planet barren and inhospitable”. Our governments have instituted systems of carbon trading to mitigate part of the problem, but as a very wise friend said to me: “You can’t negotiate with nature. The use of fossil fuels, not only for our energy needs, but to produce plastic materials in particular, is leading us into a deathly spiral. The world is changing fast and we are facing huge risks to our quality of life and even survival.”

The private philanthropy sector is comparatively insignificant when it comes to the resources that it has at its disposal. In South Africa, those resources are small in comparison to the funding available to companies and government. Yet, it has power and many in the sector are jointly exploring their role in the changing world, hastened by the Covid-19 crisis that has been a powerful slap back by nature and a warning related to our unsustainable human behaviour.

Increasingly philanthropy is exploring support for partner organisations that are active in the environmental justice space.  They are looking at how we can create more sustainable lives whilst dealing with poverty and inequality.  There are organisations advocating for a move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy; there are tree planting programmes; research and advocacy around the management of fishing, marine pollution and the quality of our marine environments to sustain life; and research into human consumption patterns that are simply not viable going forward. Civil society groupings in South Africa are recognising that we face a larger threat than Covid-19 and have established the Climate Justice Charter to demand a paradigm shift.

It is important to note that the destruction of our environment has an economic impact in that the cost to our citizens is enormous. Covid-19, which emerged from a cocktail of poaching, smuggling and eating pangolins, has now destroyed the global economy. Barbara Creecy, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Forestry, recently suggested that philanthropy starts to look at the biodiversity sector in light of its role in the tourism industry along with bio-prospecting whereby industries can develop based on partnerships with indigenous people and their knowledge.

Yet, to ensure biodiversity, we need to secure the complex systems of our eco-infrastructure such as air, water sources, forests and wetlands.  These are assets that we have at no cost, but maintaining them also provides employment. She has called on philanthropy to support “the front line” to ensure a safe and just space for humanity to survive.

Philanthropy can provide leverage and the power of philanthropic endowments is that pressure can be put on financial advisors and asset managers to start exploring with their philanthropic clients what damage their recommended share investments are doing to our world and communities.

According to Lindy Rodwell van Hasselt of the Lewis Foundation, funding for the environmental sector has in the past been totally inadequate and there is still no real funders’ network in South Africa to drive support for this cause. However, she points out that “the ‘so-called environmental sector’ is not in fact a sector but the responsibility of every person, corporate, industry, and in this case funder no matter that our mandates impel us to fund”.

She has pointed out that philanthropic foundations can start to explore and review the value chain of their philanthropic mandates. For example, while the founding document of a foundation might focus on education and the funding has been used to support school feeding schemes, it would be important to note that this was dependent on food production, requiring healthy soil and a water supply. Philanthropy could well ask how it can secure these basic fundamental elements for the feeding scheme, the school, the community and agriculture?

Rodwell van Hasselt uses another example of work undertaken by the WWF with SABMiller which “was taken through a process of considering where their water, hops and grains come from for their breweries. Risks were identified and a plan agreed to limit water needs all the way down the value chain. They reduced the level of water required to manufacture a beer, promoted better farm and irrigation practices to increase yield per unit of water. They invested in projects that clear invasive vegetation, creating 24 jobs in the process, and have revised their guidelines to farmers providing grains for brewing”.   

The basic elements of our environmental health should be considered in all aspects of philanthropic funding. To support this and to shift the paradigm, foundation boards could start by bringing younger people onto these boards as they tend to be more aware of the kind of future they face. Foundations could also run training programmes for their grantees to create awareness of how current systems impact on the environment and how to mitigate environmental risk which could worsen existing levels of poverty and food insecurity.

Philanthropy also should understand the intersection of the environment with social justice and human rights. A key organisation in South Africa, the Centre for Environmental Rights, was established in 2009 “by eight prominent environmental non-government organisations, with the support of more than 40 smaller civil society organisations throughout the country, to provide legal and related support to communities and civil society organisations”. In this respect, according to Section 24 of our Constitution and South Africa’s environmental legislation, our citizens have the right to a healthy environment and environmental protection.

There is still the immediate challenge of ensuring that the environmental organisations that we have in South Africa be sustained, as most non-profits in the country have taken a beating during the Covid-19 crisis.  The environmental movement has involved decades of effort to reach the level of awareness that has emerged in the last few years and the loss of those advocates and the weakening of the cause could reverse this progress. There are still huge corporate resources backing the climate denialists!

Importantly many in the philanthropy space are starting to follow the money. They are starting to apply impact investing principles and participating in shareholder activism. The endowments held by philanthropic foundations in South Africa and globally run into billions of rands/dollars. Shareholder activism means that representatives of philanthropic foundations can enter the hallowed halls of corporate annual general meetings and ask the hard questions relating to good corporate citizenship and the role played by the corporate sector in relation to environmental degradation.

Another South African philanthropic entity, the Raith Foundation, has also engaged in shareholder activism. The foundation determined to engage companies in its investment portfolio around “accountability and transparency in ESG issues in particular”. They met with mining companies and obtained copies of their social and labour plans that were shared with grantees who operated in that space. A key victory for the Raith Foundation was the impact it made with Standard Bank when it drew attention to the negative impact of its potential investment in coal-fired power stations.

A new key player in the shareholder activism space is an organisation called Just Share that uses “advocacy, engagement and activism to support active ownership and responsible investment which drives good corporate citizenship by South African-listed companies”. The organisation was established to support civil society organisations and to provide a coordinated response in the civil society sector to issues of responsible investment.  Its work focuses on three key ESG issues and the intersection between them: inequality, climate change and diversity and transformation. Unpacked, ESG refers to environmental, social, and corporate governance that are the three fundamental elements in measuring the sustainability and social impact of an investment in a particular corporation.

As an example, Rodwell van Hasselt points out the collateral damage of investing in coal. Using a study of the coal industry in Mpumalanga, it is clear that the impact of this fossil fuel involves considerable air pollution, heavy metals in the soil and acid mine drainage causing water pollution. People living near coal mines have heightened levels of respiratory health problems and increased levels of early death. She asks: “Is an investment an investment if it destroys the planet?”

Philanthropy can provide leverage and the power of philanthropic endowments is that pressure can be put on financial advisors and asset managers to start exploring with their philanthropic clients what damage their recommended share investments are doing to our world and communities. It is simply more than ridiculous to invest in a company that damages the environment and then to use income from that investment to try and fix the problem.

There is still the immediate challenge of ensuring that the environmental organisations that we have in South Africa be sustained, as most non-profits in the country have taken a beating during the Covid-19 crisis.  The environmental movement has involved decades of effort to reach the level of awareness that has emerged in the last few years and the loss of those advocates and the weakening of the cause could reverse this progress. There are still huge corporate resources backing the climate denialists!

Taking into account the link between environment and social justice, for those seeking to fund an organisation that is promoting environmental justice there are many opportunities in South Africa and extraordinary programmes to support. DM

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