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What is the role of philanthropy in Covid times?

Article published on Heidi nexs website on 05/25/2020 by Karin Jestin

US$ 10 billion and still going has been pledged by global philanthropy to combat the pandemic. Private generosity is on the rise. But while it can inspire state actors, it cannot replace them.

Shaken like many by the Covid-19 pandemic, the foundations sector has responded with unusual speed, committing to stand by the side of their grantees. On March 19, 40 leading US-based and international foundations pledged to loosen restrictions on current grants, to listen, and engage with grantees to generate thoughtful and immediate responses that will serve affected communities.

By now, there are some 750 signatories. And this initiative will hopefully be emulated by many others, as national associations of funders publish comparable recommendations (SwissFoundations did so on March 30).

This is a welcome move. It challenges the traditional transactional nature of grant-making (money for/against project delivery) and recognizes grantees as partners. Trusted partners whose capacity to adapt and to respond adequately and swiftly is valued and nurtured. Let’s hope that this landmark expression of support for civil society organizations will endure. For them, it means being able to protect and retain talents, to rethink and reorganize services, to strengthen their meaningful impact – in other words to build their own resilience and better serve their constituencies.

A shift towards health and humanitarian relief

Unsurprisingly, many donors have announced gifts to health care, vaccine research, and immediate social relief. As millions of people are losing their livelihoods with no safety net to rely upon, the World Food Programme now fears a doubling of the number of people worldwide facing hunger. The philanthropy news and analysis platform Candid, reported that by May 7th, the global philanthropic response to the COVID-19 pandemic had surpassed US$ 10 billion. That is more than double the combined sums raised as response to the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis, Hurricane Harvey, the Ebola outbreak, the Haitian earthquake, and the recent Australian bushfires, according to the author Andrew Grabois. It includes over 3000 grants by 653 funders to 2651 organisations (note the concentration of recipients). US$ 6 billion was contributed by US individual or corporate donors, including a US$ 1 billion gift by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey (of which US$ 12 million has been spent so far) and an over US$ 900 million gift by Google.

The role of philanthropy

While such an outpouring of generosity in response to immediate (and highly mediatized) needs is understandable, it can also be questioned, as Gea Scancarello, Heidi.news’ correspondent in Milan, did recently.

Are we allowing elected leaders to shirk their responsibilities towards their citizens? Philanthropy should not aim to replace the state. Frankly, it cannot, even if private generosity is on the rise. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Center’s for philanthropy estimates that philanthropic giving for international development between 2013-15, represented only about 5% of overseas development assistance of its member countries (USD 24bn vs. USD 462bn).

Reveal, demonstrate, advocate

Rather than replacing the state, philanthropy should aim to leverage public budgets and influence public policies. How? Firstly, as it can freely choose its object, by highlighting overlooked issues and realities.

For example, traditional beach cleaning led by civil society groups around the world were recently transformed into brand audits, where each piece of collected trash is examined to link it back to the original product or brand. This change helped expose the massive responsibility of well-known global corporations for the plastic pollution crisis.

Secondly, because it can afford to act swiftly and take risks, philanthropy is particularly well placed to fund pilots, test new approaches and help identify what works best. With support from the Plastic Solutions Fund, the same Break Free From Plastics Movement is piloting “Zero Waste Cities” where land filling or burning of trash is avoided, through both the reduction of trash and the introduction of separate collection streams. Reuse is hence viewed as a resource, building the way for a circular economy. With facts on one side and proofs of concept for solutions on the other, philanthropy can then support advocacy for change – i.e. lobbying of decision-makers. In other words, philanthropy reaches maximum impact when it supports its partners both to build the case and to make the case for evolving societal practices.

In a post-COVID context, what may that mean?

There is a vast array of subject areas where philanthropists can meaningfully engage. Let me highlight some issues the current health and social crisis has vividly brought home for me.

At the individual level:

Pending a vaccine, our immune system is our ultimate protection. Beyond genetics, its strength is linked to our ways of living, most importantly the way we feed ourselves. How can we promote healthy nutrition?

Confinement has exacerbated pre-existing social inequities and threatens the very livelihood of workers of the informal economy. Has the time come for universal health coverage and universal basic income?

At the societal level:

Lockdown has made apparent the truly essential jobs – in the care sector; in food production and basic goods supply chains; and in public utilities – often dominated by lower-paid employees. How can this recognition help us to build more fair and just societies, more resilient communities?

The recourse to digital tools progressed dramatically, opening up new possibilities, in our ways of working, learning, accessing services… At the same time, they also present new threats to privacy and civil rights. How can we therefore harness technology for good?

At the planetary level:

The pandemic epitomizes our global interdependency and strengthens calls for cooperation. At a time when governments are tempted, how to foster collaboration and evolve our global governance?

Zoonoses such as the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 are directly linked to growing human encroachment on wildlife and their natural habitats, as well as ever-increasing stock of raised animals. How can we therefore drastically reduce our meat consumption? How can we sustain the natural ecosystems of Earth and protect the global commons?

Whatever the topic of choice, I would invite funders to take a systems approach. To address not only the symptoms, but also the root causes. Work with organizations, not in light of who sits on their board, but in view of the smartness of their approaches and their impact. Now is the time to stand resolutely by their side and together, as trusted partners, to explore how to operationalize a just transition to a sustainable living on a finite planet.


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