EDGE needs to be sharper still

Andrew Milner

‘If you know everyone at your table, you may be at the wrong table’, declared the facilitator at the start of the 2017 EDGE Funders Alliance conference in Barcelona, a remark which was emblematic of the conference’s aim – to move away from accustomed ways of thinking and acting. As a matter of record, it was the first time the EDGE Funders conference had been held in Europe, a reflection of the fact that Alliance’s membership is growing there. It now has 28 European members, compared with 55 in the USA. The choice of Barcelona was significant, too. It’s a city where social movements have made a legitimate place for themselves in the government of the city.

Reorganising Power for Systems Change’ was the conference title. Power is reorganising said Donal MacFhearraigh of the Open Society Initiative for Europe, one of the conference co-chairs, but not in the way we’d like. Recent events showed that societies that were open can close, rights we thought we had won can be lost. His hope, he said, was in the social movements which were resisting these things. What can philanthropy do to support them? But is philanthropy part of the problem, wondered the other co-chair, Chung-Wha Hong of Grassroots International? What can it do to support movement leaders, who are the ones really in the front line, when they are under attack? Her hope is that EDGE might become the means of getting more support to social movements.

This neatly cued up the first plenary session when we heard presentations from Elizabeth Tang of the International Domestic Workers Federation, Graca Samo of the World March for Women, Miguel Stedile of Movimento dos Sem Terra, a movement of the landless in Brazil, Rosalinda Guillen of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and Xavi Ferrer of Barcelona en Comu, the popular movement represented in Barcelona’s municipal authority. It’s a common complaint at funder conferences that there are no grantees. Here they were out in force, but still, there was no occasion for complacency, as proceedings were to show. Most of them told inspiring stories. They were more passionate and less abstract than philanthropoids tend to be. Among the things they told us was that there is still a lot to do. Elizabeth Tang explained that of the 67 million domestic workers in the world, most are still excluded from labour protection legislation. Miguel Stedile told us about the consolidation of ‘agribusiness’ where 10 companies control most of the world’s production and what they are growing is to produce fuel or paper, not food. Barcelona en Comu had found that having a share in legally-sanctioned institutions was not the answer to everything. There were still powerful entrenched interests in Barcelona which prevented them from doing what they wanted to do. Meanwhile, said Graca Samo, the World March for Women will continue ‘till all women are free. If the women are free, the children are free, and the men will be free!’ Loud applause. However, a discord worth mentioning – even in this conference, she said, she felt alone as an activist. Where are the others? Elizabeth Tang also observed ‘not many Asian faces’ in the gathering. Not everyone was here who should be. In fact, the relations between funders and movements was such a significant element of the conference that it is the subject of a separate account.

We were invited to interact with the others at our table (a feature of the conference) and to comment on the Barcelona Commitment, a statement of EDGE’s pledge to support a ‘just transition’ – helpfully defined for us as moving from an extractive economy based on the annexation of wealth and power by a handful of elites to a living economy based on ecological and social well-being.

Another striking thing about the conference was that the dynamics were different from most. A big chunk of time was taken up by the seven engagement labs, which spread over the two full days of the conference. There was also a commendably wide selection of workshops, some of which weren’t at the main venue but in a hotel (even if it was intimidatingly posh) five minutes’ walk from the venue and a choice of walking tours where you got to visit some social projects in the city. Both of these things got you away from the main conference hall (the usual lightless, energy-sapping basement) and out into the streets with fresh air, movement, shops, and skateboarders. The bursting of the conference bubble was refreshing. It was a pity that steady rain on Thursday curtailed the enthusiasm for the walking tours. I’m ashamed to say that I was one of those who opted to stay dry in a workshop instead. In one of those, I heard about the criminalization of protest and the systematic repression of social movements. How could funders help them fight back? They could, among other things, support the movements by supporting the people, ‘don’t just pay for emergency measures,’ as Miguel Stedile put it (an often-heard plea, this). Laia Serra, a Spanish human rights lawyer and activist, pointed out that informal groups don’t get funded because they aren’t set up to apply for it; they don’t have staff, they don’t have a website, they don’t have a permanent presence. Movements were coping with dynamic situations and are themselves dynamic, so be flexible.

There were a number of themes which resounded through the conference, whether in workshops or plenary session: urgency – climate change and rising populism were combining to show how fragile the whole edifice of progressive social change might be; the need to shake off the legacy of old assumptions which reinforce existing imbalances of power; the emergence of quasi-autonomous cities or regions (we heard not only from Xavi Ferrer, but from Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson in the USA, from Danijela Dolonec, independent candidate for the position of deputy mayor in Zagreb, and from Sinam Mohamad, part of the administration of the Autonomous Region of Kurdish Rojava); the need for more resources, more democratically controlled (an uncomfortable ride for funders and the flashpoint in the engagement lab on Investment Strategies Towards a Just Transition) to meet this emergency. Moreover, said Danijela Dolonec, resistance won’t be enough. We need to devise principles which increase the capacity for action of more people and the means to put them into effect.

The prevailing sense of the gathering was that the entirety of foundation endowments and not just ‘half of the interest,’ as someone put it, should be put into service as quickly as possible. There were calls for foundations to pay out and spend down. We should be trying to put ourselves out of business, said Ed Whitfield of F4DC in the US. ‘If we had spent money on movements in the past, maybe we wouldn’t be here today.’ Only Chris Stone of the Open Society Foundations openly swam against this tide in the last ‘fishbowl’ plenary. Urgency, yes, he agreed, but cautioned against ‘believing that whatever moment you are in is the most urgent ever’. OSF had started life as a spend-down initiative, he said, but is still going and is in fact building. There have been a lot of crucial moments since its founding after the Second World War, but its experience has revealed the need to preserve resources against future crises – beware of spending down. For him, the idea which resonated most through the proceedings was solidarity. Sometimes it’s expressed globally, sometimes it’s tiny and might be expressed in a prison visit, or a gesture to someone in adversity.

There was common agreement, however, on the need for philanthropy to reform itself and changing the world often seemed easier than trying to change yourself. ‘We are the system,‘ said one participant. ‘If we want systemic change, we are living in contradiction. We have to learn to live with that contradiction, but not be hypocritical. People want change in the world but find change in organizations uncomfortable. We need to steel ourselves.

And what of the social movements? EDGE is a forum where they can come and make their case. And they did. There are still not enough present and they still feel marginal and they called on EDGE to build a better structure for the participation of movements and for greater clarity of collective purpose of EDGE. Still, there was a clear desire to overcome problems, rather than harp on grievances and an acknowledgement that EDGE deserves credit for going as far as it has. But also a recognition that it needs to be pushed to go further. Not all tensions are resolved. ‘It’s hard to call yourself the EDGE if you’re not even close to it,’ someone bluntly remarked to me. This seems harsh, though it’s true to say that the funders present were prepared to encourage radicalism, to applaud, even to cheer it but not yet to fully embrace it. In fairness, many of those present are on their way, though this is no time to stop and admire the view.

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