EFC conference 2015: a growing sense of urgency in a critical year


Caroline Hartnell


A sense of urgency ran through the opening plenary of the 26th European Foundation Centre (EFC) annual conference, held in Milan last week (20-22 May). ‘Can we afford the luxury of the long view?’ asked Ellen Dorsey of the Wallace Global Fund, as she  urged foundations to take action to help prevent catastrophic global warming. This sense of urgency pervaded the closing plenary too.

‘I detect an appetite and vision for change,’ said Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, ‘philanthropy at its best. How can our combined power reshape our futures in the critical year of 2015?’

2015 is a critical year because key negotiations are under way this year on climate and sustainable development and what we need to do beyond 2015. For Toulmin, as for Ellen Dorsey, climate change is the big issue. ‘The costs of inaction on climate are far greater than the costs of action.’

But foundations can’t do this alone. Business and governments will not combat climate change left to their own devices – she instanced the way business lobbies in the US skew climate activity – so philanthropy must work with civil society. ‘We need to make sure governments set course for the low carbon transformation we need. There is no second chance.’ And once we’re on course, we will need to keep pushing for tighter targets and to combat pushback from vested interests.

The divest-invest movement is a great example of climate action, said Toulmin. Oxford University has just announced that it will partially divest from fossil fuel investments. ‘I hope that all of you with endowments are in the process of divesting and reinvesting your portfolios.’ But it’s the tip of the iceberg. We must direct all our efforts to achieving the right deal in Paris. ‘That deal is our only hope.’

But climate is not the only issue. We need to fundamentally rethink economics, said Toulmin. She recommended Paul Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, ‘a study of economics as if people mattered’. In her view, the SDGs present an opportunity for rethinking. They offer a truly revolutionary universal agenda – but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Philanthropy and civil society must collaborate to make them a reality. The philosopher John Rawls asked: what would the rules be like if we didn’t know if we were going to be rich or poor? if the rules were written by the poorest on the planet? The SDGs are the first attempt to write the rules this way.

The second speaker, Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International, painted an almost apocalyptic picture: forests disappearing; oceans acidifying – they could be dead in four decades (according to Newsweek not Greenpeace); our clothing infected with toxic substances; food systems broken – up to one third of food that is produced is wasted. ‘This is about securing our children’s and their children’s future,’ said Naidoo.

So how will we inspire people to change? Just as Martin Luther King declared himself happy to remain unadjusted to the racism, poverty and inequality around him, so we should leave this AGA questioning whether we have become too well adjusted to overconsumption and obscene inequality, the idea that people’s lives matter less in some parts of the world than others.

He sees climate change as a cross-cutting issue. In 2003 the Pentagon and CIA said that the biggest threats to security would come from the effects of climate change. According to Naidoo, Darfur was the first conflict driven by scarcity of land, water and food. ‘We have climate injustice, climate apartheid,’ he asserted. ‘The people now suffering most from the effects of climate change are those living the most low carbon lives.’

European foundations have a responsibility to recognize that what is needed now is not system maintenance and recovery; it is system innovation, redesign and transformation. ‘We won’t get out of the mess by rearranging the deckchairs.’

Naidoo, like Toulmin, stressed the need to work with civil society. At present 80 per cent of civil society activity is project delivery, with only 20 per cent focused on policy change and changing governments – this has to change. ‘You have a choice to engage in true philanthropy or foolanthropy,’ he challenged his foundation audience. The timeline is only 20 years.

The title of next year’s AGA, to be held in the Netherlands on 26-28 May, is ‘Imagining and investing in our future’ – an apt title for the next instalment of an increasingly urgent story.

Caroline Hartnell, is editor of Alliance magazine.

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