How Political Aren’t We?


Avila Kilmurray


That was the question that was posed at a plenary of the International Human Rights Funders’ Group conference in San Francisco.  Over 120 attendees pondered the boundaries of what might be considered ‘political’, whether with a small ‘p’ or a big ‘p’.  Introducing the panel discussion, Terry Greenblatt suggested that politics was to be found in contested life and human security, with particular reference to individuals and groups found at the margins of society.  There profound challenges can result in the deepest learning.

Six presentations ranged across economic and social rights; the difficulties posed by working in violently contested communities; and the quandaries of being a funder.  It was suggested that the golden rule of philanthropy could well translate into ‘whoever has the gold makes the rules’.  This, argued Regan Ralph (Fund for Global Human Rights) introduced a second ‘p’ word – that of power.  She was responding to Chung-Wha Hong (Grassroots International) who had placed four issues in the table – (i) that it was impossible to ignore the global context created by US foreign policy; (ii) resistance of donors to linking US domestic and international policies; (iii) the misdiagnoses of many issues as technical or policy issues rather than political issues; and (iv) the discomfort of having to challenge donors with the broader political context of their support for more benign service delivery interventions in regions such as Gaza.

Pia Infante (The Whitman Institute) put forward the proposition that there was a need for ‘The folks with the money to trust the people who are doing the shit’.  She followed this by arguing that in the world of human rights the idea of philanthropic multi-year, unrestricted support to NGO partners was both political and innovative.  Lucia Nader (Fund for Global Human Rights/Open Society Foundation Fellow) took up this theme, questioning whether funders are willing to be inconvenienced by having to short-circuit long established practices and procedures.  There is a danger, she felt, that funders would be still trimming their proverbial surf boards while the swell of the surf itself was taking unstructured social movements forwards.  There was a need to ‘feel the pulse of society’ rather than taking refuge in delivering a pre-planned capacity-building programme.

Vini Bhansali (International Development Exchange) described the work of the IDEX Academy that operates as a political education school for both donors and funders.  She argued for a degree of unaccustomed humility amongst funders that needed to take the time to listen to their frontline grantee partners.  What was needed, she held, was ‘Not a bad ass caterpillar but a butterfly’, in order to create the conditions for social activists to develop and flourish.  Responding, Regan posed the question ‘How do we engage that butterfly with capital ‘p’ issues?’  Regan herself focused on the insights drawn from a transnational funding initiative on migrants’ rights which demanded, on the one hand, policy response, but on the other found the Foundation refusing to take a position other than on a narrow human rights focus.

The panel members played with the idea as to what were the boundaries of funder responsibility.  A related issue raised was how far funders should stand in solidarity with potentially controversial and sensitive positions taken by their grantee partners.  Regan pondered the question ‘Does it help or hurt our grantees for the Fund to be ‘neutral’ in this way?’

Both Mouktar Kocache (Rawa – Creative Palestinian Communities Fund) and Avila Kilmurray (Global Fund for Community Foundations) drew on their experience in Palestine and Northern Ireland respectively.  In the context of violently divided societies Mouktar asked four questions, while noting how funders tended to be frightened off by the Palestinian framing of the fund – (i) Is it possible for funders to work at community level in divided societies and to acknowledge the political dimensions without becoming political as an organization? (ii) How far and near grantees and partners should a funder stand when they uncover or unsettle political forces in their work?  (iii) What are the political ramifications of the work and what kind of political risk are funders prepared to take? And (iv) How can funders rally people behind a good initiative despite their possible misconceptions, misgivings and entrenched fear and bias?  Avila argued that in contested societies everything was perceived as political – whether the location of a playground; the funding of political ex-prisoners or the employment of a staff member in a foundation.  The question was where to draw the line in terms of risk-taking without having to reach for Board members.  For community philanthropy organizations, that both raise as well as disburse grants, it was particularly challenging notwithstanding eloquent mission statements and stated values.

In the discussion that followed the panel presentations it was acknowledged that the objective of disrupting power structures was not only difficult, but could be off-putting for funders whose origins were often rooted in the very power structures that continued to give rise to injustice.  An argument was made to live with the discrepancies of philanthropic endeavours, or at the very least, to organize to take risks collectively.  As for the butterfly it might be seen to drift in the direction of well resourced programmes, but that bad assed caterpillar was still there gnawing at the certainties of philanthropic practice.  The debate continues. . . .

Avila Kilmurray, Global Fund for Community Foundations.

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Comments (1)

Hilary Gilbert

Interesting piece, Avila - sounds like a great discussion. I'm left thinking there's a real role out there for educating funders - in the realities of life in places that can neither provide functioning institutions to safeguard accountability, nor even protect the basic rights of people trying to effect change. It's the courageous activists in such places who most need support, and who offer a judicious funder the chance to achieve real impact. But funders have to understand local backgrounds and appreciate what they're asking of people. If funders were prepared to back their grantees when things got tough politically, the effect could be transformative. Sadly, it seems that funders - as you note - are generally so invested in the status quo that it's easier for them to step back than to engage in risky arenas. No silver bullets for this one!

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