A radical shift in gender-equity funding is long overdue


We are nearing a year since unprecedented financial commitments toward gender equality were made at the Generation Equality Forum (GEF). The 5-year commitments are aimed at realising a complete change in the landscape of gender equality by 2026. It will be impossible to achieve this ambitious change if historical patterns of grant-making continue.

Committing to over $40 billion to end gender inequality, the numbers alone coming out of GEF, hold the promise to be game-changing. Before the Paris meeting, the largest single funding commitment for gender equality was the €77 million put forward by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs MDG 3 Funding in 2008.

However, while large in scale, the GEF commitments stand poised to repeat past and ineffectual strategies of disbursement. Specifically, only an estimated 5 per cent of the pledges from GEF are dedicated to women’s rights organisations. Additionally, a large scale of the funding is not ‘new funding’ as some commitments were repeated. The €510 million ($620 million) pledged by the largest institutional funder, Government of Netherlands was an initial pledge of the 2019 SDG5 fund.

A shift in mindset: embrace Ubuntu

If the GEF funding is truly to achieve equal rights for women and gender-diverse persons, it would need to embrace the practice at the heart of African feminist funding, inspired by Ubuntu, an African philanthropic practice rooted in mutuality and collectivism. This model of philanthropy emphasizes the power of purposeful grant-making. This focuses on direct funding to African Women’s Funds and for feminist and women’s rights organisations and formations working on the ground and are committed to transformative and lasting change.

African feminist funding is grounded in philanthropy that is just and dignified. It centres on feminist mantra of the personal is political, transforming power relations – particularly archaic gender norms, beliefs and practices, and fundamentally challenging the status quo of ‘trickle down’ funding. With a deep appreciation that people’s lives are complex, the issues they experience and how they are experienced is multi-facetted and intertwined, this philanthropic model applies an intersectional lens to issues to be strategic about how to deploy resources.

This model of funding rejects the historical strategy of reserving big gifts for states and multinationals while trickling tiny amounts to on-the-ground feminist groups and individuals. Philanthropy that is just and dignified re-centres priorities and attention to the labour, voices, and actions undertaken by frontline workers in gender activism. In other words, the African feminist funding model puts resources where the action is.

Examples of Ubuntu beyond African feminist funders

It is essential to note that African feminists are not alone in embracing this model of philanthropy. We have seen the rise of funders pledging resources under these principles. One recent and visible example is the philanthropic efforts of Mackenzie Scott. In an open essay, Scott highlighted that her funding philosophy is governed by the belief that it would be better if disproportionate wealth were not concentrated in a small number of hands, and that solutions are best designed and implemented by the communities that understand their issues and relevant interventions to respond to these issues. This funding model espouses notions of equitable and trust-based partnerships. It abandons the charity mindset and acknowledges the agency of the communities.

However, current moves by many big charity organisations ignore a fundamental truth about humanitarian giving, as well as the other pillars of patronage that is just and dignified. As feminist funder, FRIDA eloquently noted, ‘philanthropic giving exists because of inequality and exploitation.’

Philanthropy has a colonialism problem

The model that big philanthropy has employed for more than a century is that which hoards wealth and power while being deeply extractive. It does so by making unilateral decisions about who will be funded; imposing burdensome and performative requirements for that funding; and conducting its business in the dark, without accountability.

Just and dignified philanthropy, on the other hand, places change agents and activists at the core of decision-making and implementation. An example of this is participatory grant-making, which explicitly includes those directly affected in a more transparent and accessible decision-making process.

At the centre of this transformative funding model, is the focus on understanding and supporting feminist movements. The model recognises feminist movements’ central role in implementing change with historically few resources. Going a step further than simple participatory grant-making, this model engages in a highly consultative process with frontline women human rights defenders, movement groups and previously disadvantaged groups.

Essentially, this is the answer to achieving true system change – decentralizing the power of decision-making from the funder to the doer and putting in place true accountability in giving.

Amidst a global pandemic that has destabilized old patterns and called for new solutions, the GEF commitment opens the door to a new blueprint for grant-making; however, it needs to take a step further and explicitly unpack where the funds are going to, and ensure it is going directly to the change agents that are key in implementing gender equality and transforming society. Institutions implementing the historic GEF commitments should take a page from African feminists and embrace this philanthropic model that is truly ground-breaking!

Ndanatsei Bofu-Tawamba is the CEO of Urgent Action Fund – Africa. Jean Kemitare is a Ugandan feminist working as Programmes Director at Urgent Action Fund – Africa. Mmabatho Motsamai is a development practitioner who believes in reducing inequality through effective inclusive governance systems.

Upcoming issue: Decolonising philanthropy

The word ‘decolonisation’ was coined to describe the withdrawal of colonial powers from territories they had occupied. What forms have decolonisation practices taken among foundations? Should philanthropy be making reparations? And what significance does decolonisation have for philanthropic institutions when they are geographically distant from the former colonies? These are among the questions to be explored in the next issue of Alliance. Guest edited by Shonali Banerjee, Centre for Strategic Philanthropy, Cambridge University and Urvi Shriram, Indian School of Development Management.

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