After a few days at the Council on Foundations annual conference, I’m now at the Global Philanthropy Forum. Some thoughts from the first day:
- First of all, the GPF team is to be commended for the quality of the content, a willingness to raise tough issues, and bringing the downside of many popular ideas to light. This is by no means a sceptics and cynics forum but it’s operating with far more intellectual honesty and depth than was on display at the Council on Foundations.
- A good example of that is the contrast between the discussion of social media at the Council on Foundations and here at the Global Philanthropy Forum. A major focus of the panel here was on the existence of dangers and downsides of social media and how to avert them. See my notes on the social media sessions at Council on Foundations here.
- Another good example is the short talk given by Tim O’Reilly on the downsides of openness and technology. O’Reilly noted, ‘People have already died because they were identified in a video on YouTube.’ Because of the advance of facial recognition technology and the ubiquity of cellphone photos and videos, O’Reilly pointed out that it soon won’t require a large security apparatus to use such tools for violent repression. His closing thought was one that more of philanthropy needs to hear: ‘Take technology seriously because it can used for evil as easily as it can for good.’
- Perhaps the best 10 minutes of the day was a presentation by Reuben Abraham of IIT. His talk was chock full of quality and insight and I’ll be following up with him to do a more detailed future post. A quick point though: the story that most of us know about how fishermen in India used cellphones to make markets more efficient and earn more money while lowering prices for consumers is very incomplete. Because of the structure of the industry, very little of the economic gains accrue to the fishermen. The fishermen are generally borrowing boats from ‘bosses’ who in many ways operate as loansharks. Those bosses are the ones who get the benefits – including being able to use cellphones to more brutally enforce the terms of business they impose on the fishermen by coordinating attacks and keeping track of their ‘clients’.
- Another powerful, but short presentation was given by Edward White of 3ie. He walked the audience through the failure of a Bangladesh supplementary nutrition programme. Monitoring data from the pilot programme showed that malnutrition was declining substantially. On the basis of that data the programme was expanded. But more in-depth evaluations found that in fact the programme was a dismal failure – the improvements in nutrition rates had nothing to do with the programme – in fact, poor training meant that the community health workers were in fact enrolling the wrong children in the programme. As White noted, ‘It was worse than random because the selection was 100 per cent wrong.’ He closed with this powerful statement: ‘Why conduct rigorous evaluation? Because when you don’t, children die.’
- But there were some sour notes on the first day as well. The opening plenary was about investing in African agriculture and the session went pear-shaped nearly from the outset. First, there was a discussion of ‘African agriculture’ as if it was in fact capable of being accurately described in such generalizations – however, later in the session it was noted that the issues, from climate, to markets, to property rights that affect agriculture in Africa are highly variable and generalizations have contributed to the failure of many programmes. Through the course of the conversation it was variously suggested that improving yields required investments in infrastructure, crop science, water use, property rights, gender equality, primary education, technical education, climate change adaptation, market development, access to finance, entrepreneurship and children with disabilities. This tendency in philanthropy to affirm everything without caveat is a prime contributor to ineffectiveness.
Later I’ll be posting about the Microfinance in Crisis session. The preview: time for microfinance industry to reflect, but not too much.
First published on 14 April 2011 at http://www.philanthropyaction.com