Did you know Russia is in the South? (The Global South, that is…)


Maria Chertok


I am so excited that finally someone nailed this Global South expression! I always do my best to avoid using it as it feels confusing to me almost on a physical level. From the context it is used in, I always suspect that Russia is assumed to be part of the Global South. Still, with it currently being -25c/-13F outside I can never bring myself to believe in the South part of it, at least…

I can’t agree more with Andrew Milner’s deconstruction of the concept. It does feel like it entails, among other things, some kind of superiority of the ‘North’ and helpless aspiration of the ‘South’ to catch up with it. In relation to philanthropy, the term ‘North’ feels to be represented by the Anglo-Saxon tradition which indeed seen is an icon of developed philanthropic culture in many countries.

These superiority / inferiority relations have been probably reinforced by foreign aid practice largely based on US or European models. Still, we can’t blame aid only. You only have to consider China, where aid has never been an issue – they practically worship US philanthropic models and do their best to copy them, in their own way. The primitive dichotomy of ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ behind the Global South / North concept ignores diversity of giving cultures and the richness of those differences.

I am not denying the value of learning from well-established philanthropic traditions, and in fact we at CAF Russia turned that constant learning into an integral part of our model. What we brought as innovations to the Russian philanthropic sector are, in most cases, creative adaptations of originally ‘Western’ (or ‘Northern’, for the sake of this argument) ideas.

They include community foundations, payroll giving, and most recently #GivingTuesday, to name a few. Still, the creative adaptation part is key to this transfer, and I believe that the original ideas gain richness in this new context and show their true potential.

In the last five years I have been involved in different initiatives that, in a way, attempted to build non-judgmental constructive discourse around philanthropic cultures that are not Anglo-Saxon. We called the concept ‘emerging market philanthropy’, for the lack of a better term.

These initiatives include the Olga Alexeeva Memorial Prize, ‘for developing philanthropy for progressive social change in emerging market countries’.

In addition, we have a series of two ‘Emerging Societies, Emerging Philanthropies’ forums held in Russia and China, the aim of which is the facilitation of dialogue between professionals from countries outside the US and Western Europe. We also appreciate WINGS’ global network, as a doorway to facilitating accessible multi-way relations within its rich global network.

After the second forum in China, I wrote a blog for Alliance, sharing some distinctive characteristics of this ‘emerging markets’ space. They included, in summary:

  • A language barrier or lack of linguistic flexibility seems to be a common issue. The word ‘philanthropy’ in some countries is associated with old-fashioned charity, while its preferred substitute – private social investment – feels too ‘corporate’. Though, getting stuck on language terms is not very productive! Still, it is essential to be aware of inflections associated with certain words, and of the consequences of leaving oneself open to misinterpretation.
  • The term of ‘emerging markets philanthropy’ suggests that it is a new phenomenon, Yet, this idea of a ‘giving culture’ within emerging market countries goes back centuries, but many have suffered disruptions caused by communist or military regimes, dictatorships, etc.
  • The driving force for this new wave of philanthropy development is a tension amongst issues of rapid economic growth, accumulation of wealth, growing inequality, and lack of adequate social policy. However, it is fair to say that long-lasting social change is not dominating the agenda of emerging market donors, and ‘help’ is a much more popular approach. Another aspect of the same issue is the lack of connection between philanthropy and civil society. Diminished trust in institutions, and in particular NGOs, throughout emerging markets leads to the situation where foundations and other donor organizations choose ‘direct assistance’ strategies.
  • Governments play an essential role vis-a-vis philanthropy – both in a good sense and the bad. Regulation of philanthropic activities in all these markets still has a long way to go. It suffers from a lack of consistency and understanding of long-term consequences of various legislative moves, let alone multiple examples of putting serious limitations on the activities of both donors and their recipients. It is also common to find relations with governments sometimes ‘frosty’.
  • Immature infrastructure and institutions are a great barrier. With the record growth of the sector, the fundamental structures are somewhat lacking behind. There is a deficit of knowledge, transparency, ethics, and other types of stakeholders – think tanks, watchdogs, professional associations, and research and teaching institutions that would drive the quality of giving to go alongside quantity.
  • Growth of community philanthropy in emerging markets is a distinctive trend. Those organizations are not necessarily a result of wealth creation, but rather of people’s willingness to take their lives in their own hands and look for solutions, rather than complain about problems. It is quite interesting that this movement involves societies with very strong paternalistic cultures which now spreads to rural areas which are usually the poorer parts of any country.

I believe that after getting rid of inadequate term ‘Global South’, it would be helpful to start building positive discourse that would encompass the richness and diversity of local cultures of giving.

Eventually, we can even find a new name for it!

Maria Chertok is director of CAF Russia.

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