By Jane Wales
In our increasingly globalized world, it is easy to expand our focus ever wider to issues and projects in all corners of our globe. Yet, philanthropy, wherever it is implemented, requires an understanding and appreciation for the local context – an awareness obtained through careful study, patience, an open mind and a listening ear. One size does not fit all in philanthropy, and many failures have stemmed from a failure to recognize this truth.
In a session last week at the 10th Anniversary Global Philanthropy Forum Conference, we turned our eyes southward to our nearest neighbors – Mexico, and the countries of Central America. Over the past decade, these societies have done many things right – they have built functional democracies, supported the emergence of a strong middle class, and implemented sound economic policies. But, as Kevin Casas-Zamora of the Brookings Institution pointed out, staggering challenges remain. “A drug-trafficking tsunami has befallen the region,” he said, resulting in widespread violence, regional instability, and enormous impediments to economic development. In 2010 alone, Mexico experienced more than 50,000 drug related murders, seven times the figure in 2006, and has also seen the expansion of other serious crimes including kidnapping, robbery, and extortion.
Despite all of this, there is hope that we can reach a new moment in the region, and there is a role for philanthropy in getting there. Cristiana Falcone of the Inter-American Development Bank urged philanthropists to promote policies to protect citizen security, and to support the development of creative social justice programs focused on violence prevention for at-risk youth. Kevin also called for philanthropists to fund rigorous research into realistic options for dealing with the illicit narcotics trade – because there are options – and to then weigh these options dispassionately. Our current approach, “the war on drugs”, has many flaws, but lacks clear alternatives. Kevin also pointed to need for more sophisticated use of information and communication technology in law enforcement. The introduction of up-to-date interactive databases, GPS devices, and more would dramatically improve the ability of the security forces to maintain order and prosecute criminals. Philanthropists should actively facilitate the adoption of this technology and technology training of police forces in Central America.
In a later session, we heard about the challenges of working in post-conflict countries. Carne Ross, Founder and Director of the Independent Diplomat, spoke of the extraordinary rapidity of change in the level of influence of various players on the global stage. It is no longer a chessboard where states move in predictable ways within clearly defined rules – it is now more of a Jackson Pollack painting, where billions of actors are interacting constantly and anyone can have an influence. John Prendergast, Co-Founder of The Enough Project, shared examples of the ways in which philanthropists and activists have worked together to successfully implement agile advocacy campaigns that have helped to prevent or mitigate humanitarian atrocities. In the case of South Sudan, the absence of violence following the referendum points to the success of good old-fashioned diplomacy backed by new and dynamic advocacy. As John said, “The fact that there was no smoking gun - THAT is the success.”
Speaking specifically to philanthropists, Scott Gilmore, Executive Director of the Peace Dividend Trust, argued that, “whatever you’re doing now, you can do it in a conflict zone and have a bigger impact.” He pointed out the double dividends of working in conflict or post-conflict zones – that a job in a conflict zone pays twice: it not only feeds a family, but it also builds long-term stability. There is no doubt that we are at a turning point when it comes to philanthropy in areas of crisis. To be successful in these challenging parts of the world, we must be willing to take great risks. But with these risks, come great rewards.
The impact? Lives can be saved, societies can cohere and democratic states can govern.