The OECD and a number of private foundations have formulated a set of guidelines for philanthropic engagement in development. The exercise is praiseworthy, but the result so far is not. The principal challenge will be for foundations to limit their autonomy in order to increase impact and effectiveness.
During the last week of March, representatives from across the philanthropic sector convened in Istanbul, Turkey under the umbrella of WINGS (Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support), to discuss among other issues the contentious matters of collaboration and coordination. Unlike the traditional public aid agencies, who have discussed such matters for years in the OECD, private foundations working in development have yet to properly engage in such deliberations.
For the public donors, the discussions on coordination and aid effectiveness culminated in 2005 with the adoption of the Paris Declaration. Although its implementation has been uneven across the field, the declaration itself was an important step towards increasing accountability of the donors, raising cooperation and evading fragmentation, while being attentive to ownership of beneficiaries. A few private foundations actually partook in the High Level Meeting on Aid Effectiveness in Paris in 2006, but so far no attempts have been made to gather foundations in development around a set of principles or rules such as the Paris Declaration.
That is until now. In October 2012, the OECD launched a new initiative called NetFWD (Global Network for Foundations Working for Development), bringing together private foundations in development. For the past months, this group has worked with member foundations to construct a set of principles or guidelines shaping philanthropic action and behaviour in global development.
The GEPEs, or Guidelines for Effective Philanthropic Engagement, to a certain extent, build on existing attempts to regulate general foundation work, such as the Council on Foundation’s ‘Principles of international charity’ (2005) and the European Foundation Centre’s ‘Principles of good practice’ (2007). But their specific focus on the group of foundations working in global development sets them somewhat apart from these initiatives. What have these foundations agreed on then? What do the guidelines say?
All bone, no meat?
The GEPEs are a relatively short framework divided into three sections on dialogue, data/knowledge sharing and partnering. Commendably, the importance of coordination between foundations and governments, empowering of local actors, and engaging in partnerships across the foundation sector, is stressed in the guidelines. Also significant, the framework attempts to address the interaction not only between foundations but also between foundations and governments. Such a dual purpose is praiseworthy.
Still, it leaves much to be desired. Unlike the Paris Declaration, the GEPEs do not properly engage in accountability (a pertinent issue in a sector where accountability is usually only an obligation towards a board), ownership, harmonization or alignment. They do not have specific plans for action nor indicators of success; they do not intend to measure progress. As such, there is still a long way to go from the vague formulations of dialogue and partnership in the GEPEs to the Paris Declaration’s very tangible plans of actions.
More autonomy, less impact
Insights from the process of preparing the GEPEs emphasize the difficulty of bringing foundations together around a shared set of principles guiding action in the field. They also explain why the current framework appears fairly feeble. ‘Principles’ was too strong a name for the foundations involved; instead ‘guidelines’ was adopted to highlight the voluntary nature of the framework. In the same line, central concepts we know from public aid agencies’ principles on aid effectiveness such as accountability, ownership, harmonization and alignment were too much for the foundations to swallow and had to be removed. It is an open secret, it seems, that many foundations in global development value autonomy and independence of action above coordination. Regrettably, such attitudes reduce the impact and effectiveness of their programmes and projects.
An important question is whether we actually need a new ‘Paris Declaration’ solely for private foundations working in development. The short answer is yes. The long answer is that while the existing principles for donor action and behaviour (such as the Paris Declaration) contain fundamental values, mentioned earlier, they were not construed with private foundations in mind. The unique approaches to, modalities of, and logics carried into development by foundations must be taken into account in preparing such a framework.
There is a need for a set of principles influencing foundations’ behaviour in international development to ensure the greatest impact and effectiveness of the work being done. Not just guidelines, but principles. Yet such principles need to evolve from foundations themselves. The work done by the OECD and the netFWD group in developing such a framework is laudable. It is critical to keep in mind, however, that such principles cannot be forced through by any international body, whether OECD, UN or any other.
Importantly, the purpose of the GEPE process is not to streamline private foundations with the approaches, cultures and practices of public aid agencies but simply to increase the poverty-reducing effect of philanthropic grantmaking. A first step towards such a framework, then, must be for foundations working in global development to acknowledge the importance of coordination to increase impact and effectiveness. Even if this means limits to autonomy and independence of action. It is, after all, with the objective of increasing human welfare that foundations engage in the work they do. This purpose should never vanish from sight.
Adam Moe Fejerskov is a PhD candidate at the Danish Institute for International Studies. firstname.lastname@example.org