Lessons in giving from the global south

If we can look beyond the US model of giving, diverse and innovative philanthropy is going on under the radar all over the world, writes Arthur Gautier

In the global conversation around philanthropy, the American model dominates, and for good reason. Until recently, there was little to rival the range and quality of knowledge stemming from American universities - or the interest shown by the public in figures such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Mark Zuckerberg. It is a testament to the country’s history where elite and mass philanthropy have often foreshadowed government welfare.

In Europe, where welfare states are prevalent, philanthropic research was much scarcer. Yet the region has long relied on private giving to fund innovative solutions to unmet social needs. Philanthropy has provided a key contribution to medical research, education, poverty relief and the arts, among others.

In other regions, we have even less knowledge of giving patterns. With this in mind, we interviewed 10 so-called ‘frontier philanthropists’ in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Kenya, South Africa and Hong Kong, who are part of the Empower Families for Innovative Philanthropy platform, founded by the Edmond de Rothschild Foundations. Our goal was to uncover the motivations and strategies developed by these entrepreneurs and family businesses to foster social change, as well as the specific challenges they face.

Two key takeaways emerged from our study in the form of dilemmas faced by these families: whether to collaborate with governments or not; and whether to run their own programmes or to fund existing organisations. Their responses yield lessons for us all.

Private foundations need champions among elected and senior officials who share the same willingness to achieve positive changeIn several countries where these frontier philanthropists are active, government interventions are often associated with bureaucracy, governance concerns, weak institutions and a lack of legitimacy. At the same time, wealthy philanthropists are sometimes considered as unwelcome funders of initiatives that could undermine state action. We expected global south philanthropists to stay away from the state as much as possible, so it was surprising to find eight out of 10 families we interviewed actively collaborated with governments.

There are three reasons for this. First, governments can remove hurdles faced by programmes on the ground, notably in terms of security or access to infrastructure like roads and airports. Second, governments can provide additional funding. Third, government support is necessary to expand and roll out programmes that were successful on a small scale, in order to serve more people.

Indeed, given the scope and urgency of social ills such as limited access to clean water, lack of primary education for girls and unaffordable eye care in many developing countries, philanthropists need the government if they want to scale and deliver a long-lasting social impact.

The families we interviewed used their business background to leverage existing ties with key government officials, but this time for philanthropic purposes. Effective collaboration is even more crucial in emergencies, such as the devastating earthquakes that afflicted South Asia in the 2000s. This is what Ali Siddiqui, CEO of the Mahvash and Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation, realised in 2005 after the Kashmir earthquake. His foundation’s camps for internally displaced persons secured police guards thanks to effective, in-person negotiations with the local police.

In fact, more than the state apparatus per se, private foundations need champions among elected and senior officials who share the same willingness to achieve positive change. Mutual trust and a deep understanding of the cultural and political context give global south philanthropists an edge over foreign donors and international development agencies.

“It is important to see officials as good people working in a sometimes dysfunctional system,” noted Nicola Galombik, executive director of Yellowwoods, a family-run holding company in South Africa.

Rich, diverse and innovative philanthropy is going on under the radar all over the world, quietly improving the lives of millionsThe second key takeaway is how frontier philanthropists operate. While some 75 to 90 per cent of foundations in the Western world are grantmaking (and only a minority are operating), this ratio appears inverted in emerging nations. We were struck by the strong involvement of philanthropists on the ground, in addition to financial support. Many run their own programmes and some even build and operate top-tier facilities such as universities, hospitals and museums, because public infrastructures in healthcare and education, for example, are usually insufficient and too expensive to cater to whole populations’ needs. This is the rationale behind AmanAmbulance, the Aman Foundation’s own network of 80 ambulances with doctors providing 24/7 emergency medical interventions in Karachi, Pakistan.

Sometimes no NGO at all is doing the type of work philanthropists want to support in a given area. While the NGO sector is thriving in countries such as the Philippines, India or Jordan, there is a dearth of trusted NGOs with professional staff in some other parts of the global south. Private foundations are forced to carry the operations themselves if they want to achieve their philanthropic goals.

Rather than a handicap, this can be an advantage. Family philanthropists are often entrepreneurs and business leaders, and can capitalise on their skillset to achieve tangible results and even mobilise staff and board members from their own enterprise. They can train and transfer knowledge to NGOs to build management and leadership capacities in the long run. Getting involved on the ground beyond traditional chequebook philanthropy is also a way to set an example, and inspire other public and private funders in their home countries, ultimately leading to more impact for every grant awarded.

Are there any downsides to this hands-on approach? Some fear that philanthropists exert too much power if they are both funders and operators. There are also concerns that overconfident entrepreneurs-turned-philanthropists may think they can solve problems in a snap, overlooking the complexity and subtlety of social ills. But initiating a new programme to address unmet needs is different from clinging to it forever. Global south philanthropists are often eager to gradually transition responsibility for the programme to the government.

Rich, diverse and innovative philanthropy is going on under the radar all over the world, quietly improving the lives of millions. We should acknowledge the contributions of high-profile billionaires from the US, but we also need to shed more light on the giving traditions from all continents. Tomorrow, it could well be that Asian, African and Middle Eastern philanthropy will raise the bar for the rest of the world.

About the writer

Arthur Gautier is executive director of the ESSEC Philanthropy Chair and a research fellow at ESSEC Business School in France.