Philanthropy’s two cents: how some foundations are contributing to development policy dialogue

David Crook

David Crook

Today in Mexico City, the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation holds its first ministerial meeting. The ministers, bilateral donors, multilateral agencies, NGO leaders, private sector peak bodies and foundations in attendance expect an event billed as the space to institutionalize effective development cooperation at the global level.

Though much of the attention has rightly focused on more and better inclusion of civil society in development governance and cooperation moving forward, foundations’ contribution to the global cooperation project will be introduced in the form of the Guidelines for Effective Philanthropic Engagement.

Led by the global Network of Foundations Working for Development (netFWD; housed in the OECD) and with the support of WINGS, EFC, Rockefeller Foundation, myself and colleagues at Stars, the Guidelines are meant to act as a bridge across the collaboration divide separating foundations and governments in particular.

Under three broad headlines – Dialogue; Data/Knowledge Sharing; Partnering – the Guidelines offer an early blueprint for foundations with an appetite to collaborate to engage with governments in a meaningful way.

Read the Guidelines here.

Read an early blog on the relevance of the Guidelines here.

The Guidelines have undergone wide consultations, including an intimate ‘focus group’ discussion held by Stars under Chatham House rules to receive feedback and gain greater insight into the ‘collaboration aspirations’ of UK foundations that support international development.

Participants’ reactions broadly fell under four critical questions to the Guidelines’ authors. The more salient, provocative and representative responses follow.

Who are the Guidelines speaking to?

  • Who is ‘we’? All foundations? A coalition of the willing?
  • Who is this for? It feels very government-driven, and our relationships are rarely with governments, they are with civil society.
  • Development is about people. If we want these Guidelines to win hearts and minds, they need to answer what the impact will be on people, not just talk about governments.

What do UK foundations think of the Guidelines themselves?

  • It’s right to recognize foundations as ‘independent’ and to list our comparative advantages in development.
  • The Guidelines could be divided into ‘what would improve our practice as foundations’ and ‘how better to engage with governments’. The latter ‘might not be for everyone’.
  • They’re generally constructive, and nothing feels that controversial. But nothing feels really exciting either.

Why is a set of cooperation guidelines necessary for the sector?

  • If foundations are going to be more effective development actors, we need to do some things better. Cooperation is one of them, and this document provides a route to cooperation that resonates with and reinforces our own mission.
  • It’s important for development actors to understand the roles of others, but the degree to which it results in ‘rather prescriptive guidelines’ is unclear.
  • From the point of view of a very small trust, ‘the Guidelines are great’; we could first use them to reflect on our own practice, and they might help us to think about working with other networks and coalitions to achieve our aims.
  • Our sector should not be dictated to; we are the only free-will, experimental thing that still exists in international development, and it needs to stay that way.
  • There is a leap of faith here: we can choose to see this as a tool to constrain or limit our sector, or as a way to help us amplify our impact.
  • This isn’t about us being ‘Liza Minelli in the Oscars selfie’; we’re making a proposal about how we could work with governments, but we should make it clear that governments will be expected to do things differently as well.
  • These Guidelines make it easier for inclined foundations to find each other, and for inclined governments to find those foundations interested in collaboration.

How would the Guidelines be implemented?

  • Foundations may simply not have the time, capacity or budget to invest in ‘living’ all of the Guidelines.
  • It will be a challenge to get foundations to ‘walk the talk’, without undermining the energy and dynamism of the sector.
  • This feels like a ‘nudge’ in the right direction, buy my fear is, in practice we’ll be brought into the bureaucracy – in-country meetings between governments and foundations every few months.
  • If this could result in greater enabling environments for civil society organizations, that’s great, but I’m less clear how that would really happen.
  • This effort could move towards a set of indicators so foundations can identify where they stand and where their collaboration aspirations lie.
  • Perhaps the way forward is for philanthropy to have its own sector guidelines, before we bring in other actors?
  • If the only thing that comes out of this is greater collaboration between foundations, then that would be useful in its own right.

The Guidelines have since been refined, and will be formally recognized at the GPEDC meeting this week.

With this political legitimacy, advocates and allies of the Guidelines will be expected to move to a more practical discussion, building momentum towards field-level ‘country pilots’. This will be the real test; whether the Guidelines will be orphaned once they are pushed out into the world, or whether foundations writ large and governments will recognize enough of themselves and their aspirations in the document to actively embrace them.

David Crook, is development director at Stars Foundation.

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