The morning plenary of Day Two of the Global Philanthropy Forum focused on Global Health with presenters from the Gates Foundation, the Global Health Council and the White Ribbon Alliance. For me, it illuminated a lot of the core tensions in philanthropy, what you might call philanthropy’s cognitive dissonance. Actually it would probably be better termed philanthropy’s lack of cognitive dissonance. The presenters were saying quite different things, often contradictory, yet no one seemed to notice.
The core of the issue was this: Tom Scott, Deputy Director, Global Health Policy and Advocacy Communications of the Gates Foundation, presented the Impatient Optimists campaign with a few videos and a series of points focused on the importance of telling stories. He noted that 75% of Americans polled by the foundation believed that there had been little or no change in global health in the last 25 years. As anyone who has seen the statistics knows, this is far from the truth. Global health is one of the big wins of the last 25 years. The Gates Foundation is therefore focusing on changing this perception by telling ‘better stories’ in an effort to drive support for increasing the flow of funds to international development and particularly global public health.
Here’s where things get sticky. One of the most prominently featured statistics in the Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists materials is the highly suspect and thoroughly debunked malaria incidence data for sub-Saharan Africa. This is one of the problems with the whole Impatient Optimists approach, as I’ve written about. Telling better stories based on flawed data is not really going to help us. Eventually the truth comes out, especially in public health, and the Impatient Optimists are discredited and those who believed them become cynics.
Interestingly, the other panellists both had comments later in the session that directly contradicted the Gates Foundation’s strategy. Quotation of the day goes to Jeff Sturchio of the Global Health Council who noted, ‘It’s important that we tell the truth.’ His comment was most specifically about the recently released, and controversial, numbers on maternal mortality. While Sturchio was specifically referencing the efforts of some advocates to suppress the new data — which showed dramatically lower death rates — in order to not lose the spotlight, the comment applies equally to everything about telling better stories. The true better stories are not the ones that tug more effectively on the heartstrings, they are the stories that are true. And until the Gates Foundation stops using the flawed malaria data, every ‘better story’ they tell must remain suspect. Interesting parallels with the current back and forth over the stories told by the microfinance industry, eh? (I should note that neither Sturchio nor anyone else noted that the ‘improvement’ in maternal health is unknown since the new numbers were based on an improved methodology for measuring the statistics, not from an actual comparison over time.)
Similarly later in the session, Theresa Shaver, President of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, responded to a question from the audience about extending the gains in public health. Her response was, ‘You have to be patient’ (emphasis mine). There seemed to be no reaction to how different this message was from Gates’ impatience. But patient optimism, I believe, is the much better and more effective approach — and apparently Shaver does as well.
So when will philanthropy recognize the cognitive dissonance? When will we accept that ‘better stories’ and effectiveness are not the same thing? Do we really need ‘better stories’ in philanthropy? I just don’t think that’s the problem.