Acts of philanthropy, or ‘love of humanity’ are at the forefront of society these days. Rising rates in impact investment, strategic philanthropy, and crowdfunding all point to a growing desire to see radical social change around the world. Yet today, for many of us working in the philanthropic sector, there is the question of intentionality and ethics within these innovative funding ideas seeking to ‘love humanity’. Is the primary desire to create real systemic change for all people? And if so, is philanthropy willing to trust global grassroots knowledge and let others lead to achieve this?
For insight, I turned to Suzanne Bowles, Global Partnerships Strategist at Tostan, an organization with an internationally recognized human rights program in West Africa. Suzanne shared with me how Tostan has shown for 26 years that its three-year community empowerment program leads communities through a values deliberation that changes attitudes and beliefs about deeply entrenched cultural practices. Tostan’s theory is that attitude changes, made visible in meetings and at public declarations to end female genital cutting and child marriage, precede behavior changes such as rural women running for office in record numbers and a reduction in gender-based violence. Bowles went on to explain to me that even with Tostan’s history of these powerful declarations and emerging results, it isn’t always enough for big funders to decide they want to help scale Tostan’s programs. Bowles is sometimes surprised when experienced philanthropists struggle to see the value in a community-led long-term play, which prioritizes dignity and respect for those they are seeking to empower in West Africa.
“Two years ago I sat in the office of a major foundation in the US – a big, well-known one – with a Tostan colleague who had traveled a long way to share a community-led Peace & Security program. My colleague described how 120 rural peace committees led by women and youth resolved 1,200 conflicts in just 18 months. Patriarchal regions of West Africa were asking these committees to come resolve other conflicts. This movement was leading to cross-border peacekeeping meetings in zones of historical conflict. What was the foundation’s response to this inspiring story of mobilization? ‘West Africa is a relatively peaceful place compared to other parts of the continent. You will have to show us that a major conflict would occur if we don’t fund you.’ ”
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