The International Emerald Museum of Columbia sits on the top floor of a tower block in central Bogota. Access to the museum involves more than just buying a ticket. Before entering the ground lobby a security guard checks your ID and bag and then a second security guard performs another check before entering the elevators. My guide informed me that the extra security was not solely out of concern for the priceless emeralds several floors above us but because the building had been the target of bomb threats since the beginning of the country’s 60-year civil conflict.
The emeralds housed behind the glass cases were beautiful, but what caught my attention were the displays that explained the working conditions of the miners. These men risked their lives working several meters below ground and oftentimes went weeks on end without seeing sunlight to supply the wealthy with priceless luminescent green baubles.
This timeless relationship between the haves and have-nots was at the core of the Shift the Power conference I had come to attend in Bogota. The conference began on a philosophical note with the MCs, Jimm Chick Fomunjong and Atzimba Baltazar Macías, asking the audience to participate in a warm-up activity. The two hosts divided the room into three sections: on the far left were those who would agree with what they were about to say; in the center were those who neither agreed nor disagreed; and on the right were those who disagreed. The statement read as follows: ‘I’m feeling confident, hopeful and excited that we can build the society we want.’
The room was filled with great optimists. Most people moved to the left part of the room signalling their agreement. For what was perhaps the first time in my life, I moved to the right.
As we say where I come from, this wasn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been working on and off in the field of development for the past twenty years and heard (in admittedly less concentrated and organized spaces) the call to ‘shift the power’ recited in various forms over the past decades. It’s nothing new in international development circles to hear that we should be working ourselves out of a job, just as there’s nothing particularly radical about calling for the realignment of power from those who’ve always had it to those who haven’t. Since the dawn of civilization and the accompanying man-made inequalities, there have always been calls for social justice. My hesitancy to move to the left of the room didn’t come from a curmudgeon desire to continue century-old inequalities, but rather from years of research and observation that a so-called just society has never existed.
My further reluctance to signal my agreement with the statement had nothing to do with those in the room and everything to do with those who were absent. As I’m writing this, global elites made up of billionaires, tech titans, and international CEOs are meeting in Davos to discuss the future of our planet. Absent from the conversation is a recognition that the extreme concentration of wealth and the subsequent determinant that does to the planet are the reasons we need philanthropy in the first place. It’s not enough for the powerful to grab the microphone to lament inequality when the press is looking if they do so from the comfort of their high carbon footprint jets and palaces.
At the heart of the Shift the Power movement is the recognition that power needs to be moved and aid needs to be distributed differently. As Minister Chernor Bah of Sierra Leone said to me in an interview from Bogota, shifting the power means, ‘acknowledging that the system has never worked because it was not designed to work. It was designed to keep some people oppressed and make people who do the oppression feel good about themselves by giving just enough.’
An example of this statement came to me during one of the coffee breaks. A fellow attendee told me a story about a job interview she had once with a well-known clothing company that wanted her to lead its foundation. This company employs workers in developing countries and although it pays the workers the technical minimum wage, those earnings are far from what they need to survive. Rather than running a foundation funded by the enormous profits the company earns every year in clothing sales, my fellow attendee told me she suggested the company pay its workers a living wage, and then they would see an automatic rise in social and living standards in those communities. She did not get the job.
As pessimistic as all this may sound, the Shift the Power movement has made great progress in identifying where change needs to take place. As the old saying goes, the first step in fixing a problem is admitting you have one. Over three days I heard from truly inspirational speakers, such as Hibak Kalfan of the Network for Empowered Aid Response, who have made incredible progress in their fields. Even more encouraging was hearing from representatives of global foundations and aid organizations who recognised that past giving models have been problematic and then signalled a willingness to listen and change.
On my last day in Bogota, I walked around the city and passed the tower block housing the Emerald Museum that I had visited on my first day. It occurred to me when I looked up at the top floor that the richest man in the world is the son of the owner of an emerald mine. I then thought that if power is to truly shift it will necessitate the force of titans to restructure society in a way that mass accumulation of power and wealth in the hands of a few is no longer possible. This will require a massive movement that screams so loudly that those in power will hear it over the roar of their private jets.
While I remain somewhat pessimistic about the future of philanthropy, the city of Bogota itself is proof that positive change does happen. For decades the city was ravaged by civil conflict and now shines in all its multi-colour peaceful beauty. I don’t know where the road from Bogota leads, but I am optimistic that by the next time the Shift the Power convenes in another city the roar will have grown even louder.
Charlotte Kilpatrick is the digital editor for Alliance