In community philanthropy, relying on existing local institutions is the answer

‘Assuming the fact that local communities have a better understanding of what their exigencies and needs are, is what ‘shifting the power’ really means’ says Gerry Salole in Johannesburg. InterviewEspañol

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Gerry Salole Francesc Badia i Dalmases
21 December 2016

This interview is part of a series done in Johannesburg at the World Summit of Community Philanthropy (1-2 December 2016).

Francesc Badia: Thank you for having Open Democracy here in Johannesburg, on the occasion of the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy. ‘Shifting the power’ is the driving idea of the conference. The world is upside down, and increasingly fragmented, divided… this idea of shifting the power to the people, to the local, to the community, how does it work?

Gerry Salole: It is obviously not a new idea. Many people who would live in a place have a better understanding of the context than outsiders. They understand the problems, they understand the solutions, they know what will work, and what will not work. But, even though for many years we have known that local people understand the context, we have been giving lip service to the idea of local agency, of local ownership. In the 60s and 70s, in the development world, we suddenly discovered that we should ask the people, acknowledging that they know what they want. But we were packaging many NGOs, international NGOs, and development agencies; we were very sophisticated at coming to a village and saying: “ok, we want to talk to the people, let us hear what your problems are”. And yet, it was very stark to see that, in every instance, if it was an agency working with schooling children, they went on saying that talking to the children meant talking to the village, and that the need of the children of the world were then schools. If it was a water organization that provided access to water, then potable water became the most important thing.

FB: True. This has been allowed to go on for decades…

GS: Of course. People are really sophisticated, and smart to respond to the exigencies of the outsider. An expert comes in, and has something to sell or offer, and they buy it. But it has been lip service, it is not really asking people to be in the driver’s seat. And frankly, for centuries now, we know that ordinary local communities are the ones who deal with problems first, the ones who are in the front line anyway. I think the time has come when we need to develop some models where local ownership, local governance, being on the local ground, can become a vehicle for doing real things in communities.To work in communities where people are in charge, I mean, where it is not the outsiders’ expert perspective what rules. I think it is a marriage between a model of good governance and small funding, and a model that really recognizes that assets belong to the community. They are already there, and can be attracted by the community. And assume the fact that local communities have a better understanding of what their exigencies and needs are. It has taken too long for us to get to where we are now. So this is what I think ‘shifting the power’ really means: it is time for local people to have a say.

FB: As you were saying, there is a far too long tradition of focusing on the development of local communities from a “top-down” perspective. In the new model you are mentioning, what is the role of the local institutions? We see village councils, local communities, even chiefs being considered as the institutions that should play a central role. How do you see the institutions evolving in this context?

GS: I don’t see chiefs necessarily being the institutions. I mean, in some cases, of course they are. There are certain institutions in Africa, and I think across the world, that have to do with reciprocity, with self-help, with solidarity. So, if you are looking for the institutions in Africa that really work, you will find them at some village-level, where people are supporting neighbors. In supporting neighbors, people are pooling resources, pooling money; they are finding money for school uniforms, for paying kids to go to school, for repairing disasters that ever occur in families, for providing soft loans to people who need money, the rotating credit associations, the burial associations, ROSCAS... They exist in Latin America, they exist in Asia, it is a human characteristic to pool resources together. If you want to expand that, you need to put good governance on top of it, which is I think what the community foundation model is about. It is a marriage of a modern governance system with a very agile and distinctive tradition. And I think this works all over the world. It works in the United States, it works in Asia. And in this crazy upside-down world as you put it, we are going to have to rely more and more on people. We know that the first responders are usually neighbors. We might as well try and find ways of empowering them. And I think the development agencies, the international development agencies, the bilateral aid of that sort, are in trouble. Their model doesn´t work and they know it. Throughout many years of work and with lots of resources, they have not found a way of getting resources out to people in a way that makes sense. So there is anxiety in that community to look for the right solution. And I believe that is what the Global Fund for Community Foundations is doing. It is taking a couple of steps in that direction.

FB: So, maybe, there has been a problem with evaluation? Of course, when you are putting some money in this particular project, in this particular community, there is a need of measuring what you are achieving. And there has always been a controversy about how to measure results because sometimes, by giving priority to measurement you end up missing the real goal of your investment. It's a complex dynamic.

GS: Yes, I think that has to do with what we were talking before we started the interview. We were talking about democracy and how democracy is beginning to look very strange. And that’s partly because we overemphasize elections and electoral campaigns, and voting, but not what happens in-between. We have, in a way, objectified elections into democracy in a funny way. And I think we’ve done the same with overemphasizing the measurement. You know, some things are worth measuring, and they should be measured. And if you have enough of an open mind, you can measure them well. And I think what needs to be more sophisticated is the way you know that something has worked or not. It is not always a matter of numbers: it is a matter of an instinctual understanding of what’s happening. I think the obsession, the objectification, the glorification of the evaluation at all costs is a mistake. However, there are many things that are worth measuring. And my sense is that, when you are making very small grants, you know very quickly if and how they work, you are able to assess that quite quickly. And it is usually in the recognition that somebody is now doing something they could not do before, right?

FB: Along with the evaluation issue, comes the sustainability issue. Increasingly, there is a requirement to diversify the sources of funding, asking always: how is this going to be sustained? Is this going to be depending on philanthropy in a permanent basis? Maybe over-depending on philanthropy is not good but, then, many projects are simply not going to be eligible, they are simply not going happen…

GS: This is a very difficult question. If you’re bringing a business mindset to a problem, you could cut through a lot of relish. But it is not bad if somebody says, ‘well, if you do this, if I give you these resources, do I have to give them to you tomorrow, do I have to give them to you the day after tomorrow?’ And indeed, if something is not likely to weed itself from constant dependency, then the question is: ‘is it worth doing it?’ And in the world that I work in, there are lots of people who are beginning to say: ‘sustainability of an investment is very important’. And, at the very least, after you have given the resources, you want to leave an institution with strong morale rather than a weaker one. And in the past, that has not always been the case. Sometimes, when the money is gone, you are left with a weakened infrastructure, it’s made it worse, it’s made corruption, it’s been too easy to get the money, the objectives were not clear... But having said that, we also don’t want to fetishise business, just as we don’t want to fetishise democracy or fetishise evaluation. There are some things that do not work with the business world. And there are some things that need subsidies. And there are some things that you can do with philanthropic capital that you could not do with any other capital in the world. Philanthropic capital should be used, in my opinion, as risk capital. It is where you can afford to make experiments. If you can’t experiment in this, what on earth are you going to do? And so, what we are not good at, all of us, collectively, is in talking about failure. We don’t find it easy to talk in a scientific way about the experiments. And I think we need to be better at saying: “we are experimenting, we don’t have the answers.” We should not pretend to have the answers. We should be very open and assume that we are testing. And yes, we are testing things that have to do with people’s lives, that have to do with their lively goods. So you have to be very careful. But you should be very open, if you experiment. It is a learning process, there is no point pretending that you’re not experimenting, because you don’t have the answer, you don’t know for certain if that will work. And if we were accepting more that the people we are working with –the poor, the vulnerable— are just as aware as you are that you are experimenting, and that you can make a mistake. It is foolishness to pretend I have the answer by saying: ‘if you do this, it will solve your problem’. You have to say: ‘let’s try this, let us be open enough, and if this isn’t working we will change it’. It is the context that should be king, not the philosophy of the agency, or the mindset of the leaders, or things like that. If you want to shift things, we have to become more honest to each other. And I don’t hear many people talking about experimentation. They are afraid of using that category, because it looks as if you don't know what you are doing. But a scientist who wants to see real progress in his discipline is never afraid of talking about experimentation.

FB: This is very interesting. But, since we are here in Johannesburg, let’s turn into Africa. Here, the Community Funding approach has worked out quite strongly and successfully. Why do you think the model seems to work better here than in other regions like, say, Latin America?

GS: …well, as I was saying, because, at least in Africa, the institution that has survived all the colonialism, the urbanization, the post-industrial period, the post-war, and then the post-cold war, and so on… is this very informal institution of the self-help burial community, or the rotating savings and credit association (ROSCA). So, the recognition that cooperating with neighbors and pooling resources gives you the capacity to buy something in bulk and then share it, is already in the DNA of the communities. So there is this kind of understanding that, in the end, you fall back on your own resources. The difference between that and somebody bringing in resources from outside is very big. You own what you sweat and put together yourself. You own it. It will not get wasted. So, we need to give the money that comes from outside the same symbolic weight that you give to the money you make yourself. If we do that in community philanthropy, it’s a win-win.

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