Alleviating global poverty: can charity and philanthropy do more?


Neelam Makhijani

Neelam Makhijani

Neelam Makhijani

Last week I took part in a panel discussion on the role of charities in alleviating global poverty, held to coincide with the UN’s first International Day of Charity. As moderator Matthew Bishop, chief of the Economist’s New York Bureau, stressed, philanthropy and charity can play a catalytic role. But while great strides have been made, and UN recognition of the importance of charities was encouraging, all the panellists agreed that systemic change is needed as we are not making as big a dent as we should.

There was a common focus on the importance of partnership working and a recognition that the main challenge remains getting different stakeholders to work together on an equal footing. Some positive examples of successful partnerships at a government level were given. Hugh Evans, CEO of the Global Poverty Project, highlighted the successes of the Gates Foundation’s work in reducing polio, which brought home to him how the best advocacy is when you can relate to what is happening on the ground and give feedback. He said that it worked because each player had something unique to bring.

But how can this be replicated at the grassroots? I argued that the charity sector needs to articulate impact proactively, and be transparent, if we are to make to make partnerships work. Philanthropists need to be in the middle of development. We need to speak the same language, and break out of the silos. Perhaps then philanthropists will not view charities as mere contractors but as institutions that need to be invested in.

Matthew Bishop talked of a clash of civilizations between sectors in the development world. Governments look at philanthropists as a deep pocket not as an equal partner, while philanthropists and charities look down their noses at government as stodgy. Navid Hanif, director of UNDESA’s Office for ECOSOC Support and Coordination, reminded us all, though, that this situation was like an arranged marriage – and we thus have to work together if we want to bring about sustainable change.

We explored the Giving Tuesday initiative and whether it could tap into the ordinary citizen’s desire for change. As Hugh Evans stressed, ordinary citizens often feel their role in influencing civil society is limited, which comes back to how we as charities demonstrate impact to those who give money.

But it isn’t just about the money. Selim Jahan, director of poverty practice at UNDP Bureau for Development Policy, spoke passionately about beneficiaries and the danger of defining charity as the kindness of strangers. Beneficiaries want to be able to make decisions and are in the best place to decide about their future. But they need to be equal partners. I whole-heartedly agree with Selim that attempting to make changes through top-down solutions is not enough. You cannot sustain dynamic change with dignity that way. Development cannot be dictated.

Resource-centric development is not enough. While funding is of course important, we shouldn’t approach it as give money today and solve poverty tomorrow. Successful development is also about mindset, policy, good governance, monitoring and evaluation. Bringing these things all together is what can make a difference.

There was some discussion about the role of venture philanthropy and impact investing, which I argued is not understood by most people, to whom it is just a lot of big words. We need to engage with this new generation of donors but we mustn’t undermine the power of traditional philanthropy; the different approaches need to go hand in hand.

Finally we grappled with the problem of how we can build on the International Day of Charity and spread the word. It comes back to partnerships. We need to get people together at the same table if we are to maintain momentum.

Neelam Makhijani is chief executive of the Resource Alliance

Tagged in: Collaboration Development Poverty alleviation United Nations

Comments (1)

Annabel Dickson

Hi Neelam, You argument about articulate impact and transparency is core to what we're doing. I wonder if you could share some of the responses you had to it? Did it resonate with charities and philanthropists equally, or one more than the other? Our experience is that both desire it but there are a number of operational challenges to overcome. many thanks, Annabel

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