The common good from a regional point of view

Alliance magazine

As this special feature has made clear, not only do ideas of what the common good is differ across regions, but the way in, and extent to, which philanthropy is engaged in furthering the common good also varies geographically. Alliance asked a number of observers and practitioners from different countries to pick out the trends and describe the relationship in their part of the world.*

Latin America

A generational shift

It is difficult for me to separate the idea of common good, loosely understood as something that is beneficial for a community as a whole, from the work of philanthropy in Latin America. With high levels of inequality and big challenges in human development, most philanthropic institutions have been created to advance some common good (primary education, health and social services for the underprivileged, environmental care, etc).

Emilia Paz Gonzalez Carmona – CEFIS

Over the past decades, there has been a strong trend towards the professionalisation of the third sector across the region, moving from a view of charitable work done by low-profile organisations, to a more strategic approach to advance social and environmental common good. Philanthropic organisations have been key in supporting these efforts and building capacity in the sector. As in other regions of the world, the generational shift has driven the focus towards impact measurement, and the inclusion of different forms of investment, such as blended finance, impact investment and social impact bonds. Although an evidence-based approach could help increase the common good, helping to drive investments and giving towards effective solutions, the challenge is to not forget certain aspects of the common good that may be difficult to measure, such as the arts, social cohesion, or a shared narrative and hope for the future.

The erosion of their image, combined with democratic erosion around the globe, presents a big challenge to the ability of philanthropic institutions to contribute to the common good.

An area of concern, which has been illustrated recently by events in Mexico and Chile, is the public’s perception of philanthropy. Its legitimacy to act in the realm of the common good and the transparency of its means and motivations have been called into question. The erosion of their image, combined with democratic erosion around the globe, presents a big challenge to the ability of philanthropic institutions to contribute to the common good. Although we see a stronger attempt to collaborate closely with governments to share knowledge and scale up effective solutions that have been developed by philanthropy, foundations may be wary of assuming the risks that come with embracing their public role in a polarised and sometimes antagonistic society, as agents that can convene actors from different sectors, shine a light on difficult issues and become part of the solution to a shrinking public space. The cost of inaction, though, may be even higher.

The Arab region

A unique opportunity

The work of numerous foundations and philanthropic organisations in the Arab region contributes to furthering public policy goals and the common good, like social protection, creating jobs, providing access to basic healthcare, expanding educational enrolment, etc. There is also a subset of GONGOs or semi-linked governmental foundations that are set up by a governmental body and are directly engaged in the execution of the public policy agenda. The latter is a growing phenomenon in the GCC countries where the robust nexus of growing wealth, political power and philanthropic action presents unique opportunities for high philanthropic impact.

Heba Abou Shnief – Arab Foundations Forum

While generosity is always the primary driver of such work, there are other factors that serve to influence the motivations and approaches of giving. As in other contexts, interest-driven and thematic-driven philanthropy exist side by side. While producing a vibrant landscape of giving, these two can either converge with the common good or can result in diversion and tensions. The role of culture, tribal and communal affiliations, geopolitics, economic interests and ideological dispositions can come into play here, affecting the extent to which Arab philanthropic giving furthers the common good. ‘Identity dynamics’ is a central concept to understanding intergroup conflict and collective action. In the Arab region, the family, municipality/region, sect/ethnicity, nation, pan-national (Arab/Islamic), and self only (distinct from social groups) dimensions are most prominent. In Lebanon, for instance, the confessional nature of Lebanese society has the way private philanthropic is practised with clientele and religious community affiliations playing a strong role in mediating giving. Other observers would also point to the role of external factors such as foreign funding in diverting investments and undermining the common good.

With trust being a precursor for civic action, its lack impedes collective action and effective partnerships that are driven by the greatest needs on the ground.

Nonetheless, the practice of Takaful – the religiously inspired practice and principles encompassing social solidarity and mutuality in Islam – stresses that the welfare of society supersedes that of the individual and, if practised more strategically, it can be a potent force for the achievement of the common good in communities and geographies regardless of their race, beliefs, and gender. The role of crisis in bridging communities and organisations as evidenced in the Covid-19 pandemic is another considerable driver of civic action.

Yet, superimposed structural challenges and inherent disablers in the sector itself serve to constrain the sector from furthering the common good. On the macro level, geopolitical tensions, rising inequality, regulatory barriers in the civic legal framework and low levels of interpersonal trust are pervasive structural challenges impeding collective action and collaborative approaches.

Studies of the sector have shown that there is a low level of trust in nonprofits, but also low levels of intra philanthropy partnerships. With trust being a precursor for civic action, its lack impedes collective action and effective partnerships that are driven by the greatest needs on the ground. Another example of these structural barriers emanates from the humanitarian relief sector where the politicisation of aid has resulted in distorted funding and disabled more effective responses to successive humanitarian crises that have afflicted the region.

On the sectoral and organisational level, limited data sharing on who gives how much, to whom, and for which purposes inhibits the kind of accountability needed to advance the common good, resulting in fragmentation and overlap which counters the achievement of the common good. Advancing philanthropic giving to local collectives and the strengthening of local institutional capacities is a common call by sector analysts.


The common good, the bad, and the ugly

Over the past two years and resulting from key societal developments, philanthropy in Europe has gone through a transformation. These societal developments included the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns around backsliding of democracy, challenges posed by the cost-of-living crises and questions around the limitations of traditional philanthropy. Technological evolutions and the emergence of new actors on the philanthropic scene further accelerate the self-reflection in the sector.

Delphine Moralis – Philea

Against this background of social and technological change, philanthropy is rethinking how it uses its private resources for public good, which is how at Philea philanthropy is most broadly defined. In a changing context, understanding what public good means is subject to debate. Current legal frameworks provide limited elucidation, with ‘public benefit’ being defined differently across European member states. The concept of common good is hence a matter open to interpretation.

In his 2019 book, The Common Good, Robert Reich explains that ‘a concern for the common good – keeping the common good in mind – is a moral attitude. It recognises that we’re all in it together.’ This approach to common good aligns with the increased understanding that

preserving ‘global public goods’ – climate, global health, stability – requires every sector and every country to work together. Foundations in Europe are increasingly embracing this approach, for instance by recognising the importance of applying a climate lens to their work, irrespective of their size, scope or focus.

The values and rights promoted by many foundations on one side of the spectrum can at times go against the values and rights held by others.

While perceptions of common good differ and evolve over time, it refers at the core to universal, self-evident ethical principles that benefit not only individuals but also their communities. We bring these principles to life in the form of values and rights. In a context that is, however, increasingly polarised, the values and rights promoted by many foundations on one side of the spectrum can at times go against the values and rights held by others.

We need to recognise that in these sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes highly divisive times, diversity also means diversity of opinion and outlook. For better or worse, common good is increasingly interpreted in different ways. Philea’s unwavering vision for philanthropy contributing to the common good, however, remains one where it co-shapes and supports pluralistic, just and resilient societies that centre people and planet. In a world grappling such complex conflicts, crises and challenges, philanthropy can celebrate both diversity and things we all have in common, without losing sight of the value of the shared humanity that unites us.

Sub-Saharan Africa

An act of togetherness

Ese Emerhi – Global Fund for Community Foundations

If we were to take a simple western definition of philanthropy to be the ‘love of mankind’ and connect that to the traditional African philosophy of ubuntu, which speaks of ‘humanity to others’ and the interconnectedness of all (I am what I am because of who we all are), then the concept of the common good should be easily understood and accepted, and more importantly, ‘active’ in our daily lives.

Community philanthropy is integral to any idea of the common good and it is growing. This is as much a matter of need as of principle.

What the Covid-19 pandemic did for philanthropy, and in particular in communities across Africa, was that it showed that our togetherness has never been more important. For example, when western governments began hoarding diagnostics and personal protective equipment (PPE), it forced many African governments, philanthropists and business leaders to seize the opportunity to look inward for system-building and support. According to research by the Bridgespan Group, African philanthropists gave seven times their annual average number of major gifts to help the continent respond to the pandemic.

It forced innovation and new practices in how we give (longer-term grants, easing of donor reporting restrictions, funders streamlining internal processes to make funds more readily available, etc), but it remains to be seen if the positive changes will last.

Colonialism and the introduction of modern forms of philanthropy in Africa have made African giving invisible and created an image of dependency while perpetuating societal inequalities and social problems. Considering the many ongoing systemic challenges and crises right now globally, a new philanthropic paradigm for Africa is needed to allow for the need to fund in complexity and tackle root causes.

The 2023 report The Future of Philanthropy noted a couple of emerging trends that bear on any discussion of the common good: the use of data and new technologies in philanthropy requires more accountability and trust – not just trust of the technology tools of online giving and with each other, but also trust from donors and other philanthropic institutions to allow communities to drive their own development. Second, community philanthropy is integral to any idea of the common good and it is growing. This is as much a matter of need as of principle. As one interviewee in the report put it: ‘When we’re talking about the importance of community-led giving or community-led development, I don’t think we have a choice… because poverty is becoming more widespread.’

* A North American perspective is provided by the opening article in this special feature at:

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