Fishsticks & Change

April 19, 2010

“We have only one world.”  So sang the members of Vocal Motion 6, a Namibian acapella group that performed for us tonight here at the 9th annual Global Philanthropy Forum.  The voices of Vocal Motion 6, a group that strives to effect social change through music, concluded our first full day here at GPF.  Like the volcanic ash that left many of our memberes stranded in airports, Vocal Motion’s lyrics remind us that we are indeed a global community, deeply connected to one another and the earth that sustains us.

This year at GPF we reflect on what drives social change.  Through exploring four basic necessities of life – food, water, health, and climate – we are learning how creative individuals and creative techniques are allowing us to address the challenges posed by their unequal distribution and impact.

But to effect change at the scale we seek, we need to use all of the tools at our disposal.  The opportunity to leverage markets, technology, policy and human ingenuity was the focus of an early panel. Megan Smith of Google.org called for a “mash-up” of our expertise to maximize impact.  Particularly through using social networks, she said, we can bring resources to each other.  By combining and leveraging the comparative advantages of design, markets, technology, and the public sector, we can achieve much greater social good.  Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, shared with us the five core principles for effective design: Put People First; Embrace Constraints; Seed the Movement; Open Up; and Change.

With these principles, Tim has provided a wonderful way for us to organize our own strategy of giving and our own approach to impact, regardless of our knowledge of design.  Matt Bannick of the Omidyar Network urged foundation leaders to diversify the financial instruments employed in pursuit of their mission statement, specifically, program related investments (PRI’s), using their assets to complement their grant giving. Carol Larson of the David & Lucille Packard Foundation highlighted the importance of the traditional, but no less crucial, priorities of trust, teamwork, a long-term view and the willingness to continue learning and modify our practices as we go.   The better we are able to constantly “recalibrate”, the more agile and nimble we will be as agents of change.  She provided examples of leveraging one another and helping to shape policy.  See the webacast and you will learn about fishsticks and refrigerators.

The GPF is about learning from one another, enhancing our impact.  But it is also about contributing to philanthropy itself.  An example we explored was that of a new model of collaborative giving in a post-conflict or post-crisis setting.  Five foundations have joined forces to finance a Philanthropy Secretariat within the Office of Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  Its mandate is to align giving with Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS).  The GPF, for its part, agreed to test and refine this model to see whether it could be exported to other post-conflict states.  Reeta Roy, President & CEO of the MasterCard Foundation, asked how and if this model for philanthropic engagement could be exported to Haiti, noting the enormous need there for organizing all actors (philanthropic and other) to collaborate in a unified framework. For the model to be exportable, three key elements crucial to its success in Liberia would need to be present: one, an enormously inclusive and broadly consultative process for developing national priorities and a strategy for implementation (a la Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy) – as it provides a clear framework outlining development priorities within which philanthropists can work.  And second, an entity similar to the Philanthropy Secretariat within the President’s office in Liberia, designed to act as a resource and coordinator for donors and social investors interested in investing.  And, finally, good governance is required.

Over lunch, I spoke with Louise Arbor, President & CEO of International Crisis Group, about the links between violent conflict on the one hand and the interaction among such stresses as poverty, disease and resource scarcity on the other.  Quoting President Roosevelt, Louise listed four main freedoms: freedom from fear, from want, of expression and of religion.  In relation to conflict, she noted that peace deals tend to address freedom from fear, but pay very little attention to alleviating freedom from want – essentially poverty – a result of unequal access.  Here, on issues related to peace and security, there is an increasing space for philanthropists and civil society to take action.  “We now have civil society actors who are sufficiently engaged to step up in State-to-State conversations,” and make their voices heard.

But stability and social cohesion are hard to achieve when over one billion people in the world now go hungry every day, and over two billion are malnourished.  Yet, foundations give only 20 percent of their grants toward food security related issues, and governments give far less. So, our afternoon plenary focused on providing food security.  Panelists agreed that solutions lie in policy reform and good governance, but that they will be complicated. Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, addressed the need for the reform of food aid – especially because it ultimately hurts the small farmers in the country receiving it, by devaluing their crops. Robert Zeigler of IRRI mentioned promising new technologies that underlie his optimism, albeit guarded, on the state of global food security.  This month, IRRI is rolling out a transformational set of rice varieties that are completely tolerant of flooding.  These new rice varieties can withstand two to three weeks of flooding, which will save millions of crops each year.  In addition to these new technologies, Soumen Biswas of Professional Assistance for Development Action emphasized that we need to continue building linkages between the market and the community, and the government and the community, so that increased crop yields can be appropriately absorbed, without overwhelming the system.

In afternoon breakout sessions, we heard experts speak on issues in health, water, nutrition, and crisis-response.  In a panel on meeting unmet needs to strengthen health systems, Marko Vujicic of the World Bank discussed the shortages in the global health work force, and the negative impact this has on health systems worldwide.  Recent estimates project shortages of 3-4 million health workers globally.  But addressing this issue does not necessarily require ground-breaking technology.  A recent schematic for hiring a health worker into the system was designed and piloted in Kenya.  By streamlining and standardizing the process, recruitment time dropped from 13 to 3 months.  In a session on safe drinking water and sanitation, philanthropists were encouraged to use their money to leverage untapped funding from governments on the ground.  Philanthropists can condition their agreement to fund 80 percent of a project, by requiring the government to fund the rest.  Further, panelists encouraged those active in the water and sanitation sector to think about the importance of WATSAN issues in relation to other global issues, such as health, education, and agriculture.  In looking at WATSAN through this lens, we can break down silos and secure more funding from more diverse sources.

After dinner, Terry Kramer of Vodafone introduced us to the winners of the Vodafone Wireless Innovation Challenge.  The program seeks to celebrate innovation and partnerships around mobile applications.  This year, 100 Million Stoves, FrontlineSMS Credit, and Sana were honored.  In light of their work, our closing plenary focused on leadership and social change – both embodied by the Vodafone Challenge winners.

The final session was moderated by David Keller and focused on leadership.  Jawad Aslam, CEO of Ansarr Management Company, emphasized that often the most high risk and difficult situations have the most tremendous opportunity for social return.  Geeta Rao Gupta, Senior Fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and former head of the International Center for Research on Women, has devoted her life to pursuing social change by advancing women and girls.  She defines true leadership as those who make shift possible – not heads of state, but people who “buck the tide” – pioneers who defy social sanctions and take risks for the betterment of the next generation.  She is optimistic that women and girls have a unique window of opportunity right now, and that we need to use it.  “We are no longer focusing on the why and the what in women’s issues, but the how.”

There was much to absorb today, and even more tomorrow.  We will pick up again on these themes tomorrow, to continue learning and recalibrating on how best we can aggregate our collective skills to achieve maximum social impact.

Until then,

Jane Wales
President & Co-Founder, Global Philanthropy Forum

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