Reflections from Bellagio: waiting for the bigger narrative to emerge


Charles Abani


Charles Abani

The Bellagio Initiative has been exploring the Future of Philanthropy and Development in the Pursuit of Wellbeing and I attended the session on mobilising resources around this agenda. The space was amazing for bringing together a diverse set of perspectives and views from a wide range of actors, academics, philanthropies, entrepreneurs and their supporters and some faith-based groups. In the ensuing discussions, four key resource areas emerged – increasing the engagement of private wealth (across philanthropists, through engaging the Diaspora, and through impact investing); leveraging public finance; building talent, capacity and skills; and leveraging community voice and action. As we discussed, I jotted down a few thoughts and reflections to share… more from a practitioner’s perspective.

The underlying tensions across traditional development actors and ‘new age’ philanthropies characteristically emerged in the discourse. I think the perceptions of difference are often exaggerated and characterised by ideological lenses and stereotypes. In truth, the philanthropy space is considerably more diverse than it is given credit for and is focused on many of the same issues as ‘traditional’ development actors, even if from a different perspective (which I think is value-adding). Can we all just do a bit more of ‘what works’, based on a positive and optimistic critique and learning model – with a focus on ‘outcomes for those with whom we work’? I hope so. This will require a focus on data, evidence and proof, and a little less dogma from all sides. In doing so, of course we need to see philanthropic endeavours take more account of terms such as equity, women, rights, voice and advocacy approaches.

Equally, traditional development actors need to embrace competition, commit to ‘better’ evidence and proof, be a bit less ‘precious’ that they are the custodians of values; argue not just simply for ‘more aid’ but focus too on spending it better – and that does not always mean through the state. More importantly, the notion that one or other paradigm has the answer is patently wrong. Embracing a plurality of approaches and looking hard for complimentarity across and between actors is key.

My sense is that philanthropy should be at the riskier end of the endeavour (across the political, economic and social continuum), nurturing new beachheads and fostering innovation, supporting proof of concept. Working from the ‘outside-in’ and accelerating success into the mainstream, where a whole host of others can do the heavy lifting at scale is crucial. In doing this, we must strive for success but also embrace failure as part of the way forward, learning intelligently from it. Across the board, we must become more ‘systemic’, rather than just finding pragmatic ‘work-arounds’ that enable us show short-term results or self-perpetuate. We must all adopt a longer-term perspective to the change we want to see if we are to improve well-being. And we must collaborate with each other and with governments – non-state actor resources are dwarfed by the potential of state interventions, so we must link with and leverage the state in order to scale action sufficiently to shift the dial.

Well-being seemed to take a lower profile than I had expected, almost falling off the agenda – in some ways a reflection on the ‘agreement to disagree’ about defining it too tightly. And therein lies a potential problem – that of trying to align all actors around a single definition. This aspect of the project probably remains the biggest challenge – building consensus on a common agenda around well-being. But assuming that ‘well-being’ has many dimensions such as freedom, family, inclusion, equality, some perspectives were missing – the impact of scarcity, natural resource degradation, climate change and their potential to speed up a race to the bottom – diverting attention away from deeper dimensions of well-being. Arresting and reversing these must be key. And if we speak of dignity as a key measure of well being, a big challenge must be liberating people from a complex set of inter-connected dependencies that lock them down – that requires huge shifts on all sides. ‘Breakthrough’ and ‘disruption’ must surely become key words in transforming our world, and we probably need more focus on them.

There were nonetheless a number of good ideas. Personally, I liked the concept of working more systematically with the Diaspora and its huge resource base (ideas, networks, money, voice). I shared much passion with those who give technology a bigger profile as a game-changer itself (though there seemed to be much effort to put it at the poor end of a linear thought process – I strongly disagree with this notion). I was heartened by the consensus that people and mobilising them will be at the heart of the change that will drive the planet forward. How to unleash that potential remains a challenge. If asked where to cast my vote, I would say that engagement in ways that raise the tide on accessing quality education and health, and working on the issues of resource scarcity sustainably in order to create the possibility of a future for our children are paramount. Finding new ways of tackling growing inequality will also be key.

The Bellagio Initiative appears to be part of a long and complex process. It’s always difficult participating in a small part of a bigger project (that’s why I’d never be a ‘satisfied’ consultant). A few people will stay throughout the process and hopefully ‘bring it all together’. We wait to see this bigger narrative emerge. The Rockefeller Foundation, IDS, and the Resource Alliance are clearly very committed to this project… and good on them – pushing the boat out in search of a new way is never easy. This is proof enough that philanthropy and development are already working hard on the ‘project’. But as I left the fantastic location of the Rockefeller Centre in Bellagio, I couldn’t help but think that though I had met many amazing new people and had very interesting discussions, the real direction and consensus of this project was yet to emerge. Maybe that’s the work of the third and fourth parts.

We should all watch this space and see.

Charles Abani is Managing Director, International of ARK, Absolute Return for Kids.

Tagged in: Bellagio Initiative global development Well-being

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