Making a real difference: philanthropy during national transitions


John D Gerhart Center


Barbara IbrahimAs the early euphoria surrounding the Arab uprisings has turned to caution, we are reminded that society-wide transitions are rarely predictable and almost never accomplished quickly.  Instead, years of patient rebuilding of institutions and relationships are necessary once a dictatorship is overthrown or civil war comes to an end.  Success is not a given, and to reach the final destination usually requires some mix of outside support as well as local investment in civil society, public institutions and the processes that instil cultures of democracy.  

I had the privilege of spending much of the past year immersed in a project that has opened my eyes to the challenging path each national transition follows.  That experience has also made clear the critical role that private philanthropy has played in the past when times of ‘heightened opportunity’ unfold in transitioning countries.  Sadly, reduced financial resources and other concerns have limited the private foundation presence in transitions under way currently across the Arab region.  That is an unfortunate loss of expertise and funding at a time when both are needed.
One of the obstacles may be that the accumulated wisdom from foundation engagement in past transitions has not been analysed or made available to help newcomers to the field.  To fill that gap, Mark Freeman, the founding director of the Institute for Integrated Transition, and I decided  to compile a framework guide based on interviews with long-time veterans of foundation grantmaking in Latin America, Southern Africa and the former Soviet Republics.

In the course of writing Supporting Countries in Transition: A framework guide for foundation engagement we spoke with over 120 people and gleaned valuable insights.  We became convinced that while private philanthropic resources represent a fraction of those available from overseas bilateral or multilateral aid, they play a crucial ‘acupunctural’ role in transitions. Foundations can make nimble responses that support emerging civic initiatives, for example, or time-sensitive programmes of transitional justice.

Private foundation funds are uniquely capable of working across civil society, government and the business sector. That creates opportunities to convene opposing factions, support innovation, and strengthen new citizen action groups that will be crucial to a successful transition.   To do so effectively, foundations must first undertake a due diligence process based on principles of ‘informed risk-taking’.   The framework guide sets out steps a foundation can follow to gauge the fit between needs in a given transitioning country and its mission and operating policies.  Many times a field of expertise – reproductive health policy for example – may at first seem unrelated to the immediate concerns of a transition, but in fact becomes important when women’s reproductive rights are under threat.  Foundations, by virtue of their independence and experience, have opportunities not open to other donors to contribute in niche spaces when transition opportunities arise.  The payback for taking those informed risks can be some truly exceptional benefits to countries emerging from war or repression and struggling for a better future.

To read the full report in English, please click here.

(An Arabic translation of the guide, with additional examples from the region, is forthcoming.)

Barbara Ibrahim is the founding director of the John D Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo.

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