The role of philanthropy for the SDGs is not what you expect

By Benjamin Bellegy, Executive Director, Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS); Michael Mapstone, Director of International, Charities Aid Foundation (CAF); and Lorenzo Pavone, Deputy Head of Networks, Partnerships and Gender Unit, OECD Development Centre

philanthropy-SDGsWhat will philanthropy do to get the world closer to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030?

When doctors see symptoms that are associated with common ailments, they are told to think that a typical disease, not an exotic one, is the cause. If a child arrives to a clinic with a fever, doctors first look for a common infection that could explain the symptoms, not Kawasaki. The general thinking is that the most likely explanation is often the correct one. When you hear hooves, for example, think that a regular horse is nearby, not a zebra. What does this have to do with philanthropy and development?

To many, philanthropy is a welcome source of funding for development programmes across the world. The size of philanthropic funds heading to developing countries is anything but trivial and has increased markedly over time: Recent OECD estimates show that philanthropy for development between 2013 and 2015 was around USD 8 billion a year, most of it directed towards health and reproductive health programmes, but also sectors like education and agriculture. The Foundation Center finds similar results for US foundations, estimating international giving at an average of USD 7.5 billion for the same period. Moreover, measures of generosity are increasing on a global scale, particularly in Africa according to the World Giving Index; with the expansion of the global middle class, the possibility for domestic philanthropy to play an even larger role in development is becoming even more salient. These sizable private resources are tackling social issues that other private international flows, like private investment, often can’t reach or aren’t interested in doing so. Because of all this, many are beginning to see philanthropy as a key financing source that could help close the SDG funding gap, estimated at USD 2.5 trillion up until 2030.

However, philanthropy for development is much more than just this particular vision. Philanthropy’s role also includes pushing unexpected changes, searching for local solutions at a small scale, reaching spaces that neither government nor existing markets occupy, and empowering people to engage in a variety of social issues. It is not just about the money: at the current rate, simple algebra points to the fact that it would take more than three centuries for philanthropy to close the SDG funding gap. And with the decline of citizens’ trust in both public and private institutions, a global clampdown on civil society has accelerated in recent years. What this means in practical terms is that even the regulation of cross-border financial flows has reduced the space for philanthropy to operate. Moreover, the global distribution of funds presents a real problem for civil society organisations, particularly those based in the Global South. According to CIVICUS, out of the USD 166 billion in official development assistance (ODA) by OECD-DAC countries in 2013, only USD 21 billion (13%) went to civil society organisations. Institutions like Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) facilitate international donations directly to grassroots civil society organisations, working to catalyse and support domestic philanthropy in the Global South, but the environment is not leaving room for philanthropy to fulfil its role.

Philanthropy’s growth and evolution are organic processes. They happen without proactive intervention. As economies develop, wealth grows and giving increases and professionalises. But it is also possible, and necessary, to accelerate and catalyse these processes to improve how private resources tackle development challenges. For this, development actors and funders should start considering philanthropy from a new perspective that underscores local giving.

Strengthening philanthropy’s ecosystem of support means creating the conditions for philanthropy to thrive. These conditions include: data to build transparency and inform decisions, advocacy for an enabling environment, campaigns to grow a culture of giving, technology to link donors and recipients, advice and capacity building to help make better use of existing resources, space for donor mediation and coordination, and standards that build trust within society. Networks of experts and practitioners, academic centres, advisories, and associations can have a very significant and concrete impact on boosting philanthropy’s volumes and efficiency.

This support ecosystem is an essential, although often overlooked, piece of the SDG equation. Investing in philanthropy’s development in developing countries should be included in development actors’ sustainability strategies, including international NGOs as well as multilateral and bilateral donors. By focusing only on the financial scale of international grantmaking foundations — instead of the wider scope of philanthropy in development — philanthropy’s actual role will be conflated into something it is not and cannot be.

While the SDGs provide a global framework for development, they are not a blueprint. This is where philanthropy — with its comparative strengths in flexibility and innovation — can best contribute to the 2030 Agenda. The advantage of philanthropy is discovery, not just scale. With a more enabling environment, and the rise of bottom-up cultures of giving in developing countries, philanthropy will help draw the blueprint that leads to the SDGs by fostering experimentation, supporting a risk-taking search for diverse solutions and working closely with other organisations.

In the past, philanthropy through the Rockefeller and Ford foundations played a big part in fuelling the Green Revolution, one of the greatest technological successes of the 20th century to boost food security in developing countries. Today, the GAVI alliance has immunised 65 million children with the help of a large donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Every day, philanthropists are working with civil society, governments and businesses to find solutions that cannot be shoehorned into one simple category. So it’s time to stop seeing philanthropy as just a source of money and embrace its complex potential as a champion for long-lasting development change. To expect differently is to miss the point. This time, thinking zebras, not horses, is the right course.

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