Held in the pretty seaside resort of Cascais in Portugal from 26 to 28 May, the European Foundation Centre’s 22nd annual conference was entitled ‘Resources and Sustainability – The Oceans’. The intention, as explained by EFC chair Emílio Rui Vilar, was that the oceans should serve as a metaphor for sustainability and resources. ‘Water occupies two-thirds of the earth’s surface,’ he pointed out. ‘The idea of a shared common good for which we are all responsible is something we have not yet achieved.’ The oceans were therefore to be the starting point for discussion among the 600-plus foundation practitioners and NGO and political representatives attending the conference.
This didn’t altogether work. Although the various keynote speakers all acknowledged the theme, it never really became the focus of discussion. President of Portugal Aníbal Cavaco Silva talked of the vulnerability of maritime ecosystems to pollution and stressed how little understood are the effects on biology and food chains. There is an urgent need to combine the work of governments, foundations and NGOs to overcome this, he said. ‘European foundations have a crucial role to play in finding solutions to offer a more hopeful future for humankind.’
In her keynote address, Kathleen Cravero-Kristoffersson of the Oak Foundation also emphasized the value of partnerships between foundations and multilateral organizations. A key message was the importance of partners understanding each other’s strengths and limitations. Multilaterals have influence and leverage. Foundations have much greater latitude about who they fund, and their speed and flexibility are assets in themselves, she said. ‘A foundation grant of €100,000 tomorrow is worth a €1 million grant from a multilateral in two years.’
Speaking at a special plenary on the oceans, Roderick Sant described the EU’s Integrated Maritime Policy in great detail. Despite ending ‘We need your help to keep going’, he failed to make any real connection to foundations. It was Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, also speaking at the special plenary, who best succeeded in bringing the oceans theme to life.
The oceans combine great hopes with great menaces and public risk, she said. The younger generation thinks in terms of opportunities, not obstacles; they think long term. ‘They are willing to hold up a mirror to us if we’re willing to look in it.’ She showed a short film sharing ‘the wisdom of children’. ‘I think the earth should be everyone’s family,’ said one. ‘If we don’t protect it, it won’t protect us.’
We are running our planet at 150 per cent capacity, said Princess Laurentien. ‘We have tried to create infinite growth in a finite planet.’ The discussion of whether or not climate change is manmade is diverting us from discussing what we can do about it. Taking care of the planet is a matter of self-interest. It is not an environmental issue but an attitude to life. ‘What keeps me awake at night: do we as adults have the ability to think about sustainability? We find it hard to imagine ourselves decades into the future – or dead. Can we strategize beyond our own existence?’
She gave a stark set of three options for the human race – the planet grows, the growth stops, or we use our limited resources better – and quoted Einstein: ‘we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it’. She confessed to being puzzled by the idea of green growth: how are we getting citizens connected to this idea? Is ‘green’ or ‘growth’ the motivator, she asked? We want to be sure we’re not using new terminology and doing the same things again and again.
The opening day saw the awarding of the Mercator Fund’s Raymond Georis Prize for Innovative Philanthropy in Europe to Bassma Kodmani, founder and executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, dedicated to supporting democratization in the Arab world. At the closing plenary the EFC Compass Prize, for outstanding contributions to European philanthropy, was awarded to Francis Charhon of Fondation de France, and the EFC chairmanship passed from Emílio Rui Vilar of Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian to Marco Parlangeli of Fondazione Monte dei Paschi di Siena.
Next year’s conference will be held in Belfast, 6-8 June. The theme will be ‘Peace through social justice – A role for foundations?’
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