Who’s afraid of mutual aid?

Andrew Kingman and Jonathan Edwards

In working with Connie Ngondi-Houghton on the recently published Philanthropy in East Africa (see review, p54), we were forced to confront the issue of definition. She quite rightly challenged any imposition of a northern definition of philanthropy on an African context, preferring one which embraces a range of transactions at community level including giving material goods like seeds, offering labour, and perhaps even contributions into a collective savings group.[1] But is this community philanthropy?

We don’t think so. We believe these things belong in the neglected category of mutual aid and that, by including them in a definition of philanthropy, we are further degrading notions of mutual aid and solidarity and damaging their potential to be an important means of development.

For the purposes of this article, we will define ‘philanthropy’ as giving outside of one’s family and ‘community philanthropy’ as catalysing and raising resources from a community on behalf of a community.[2] In both cases, we suggest that what marks out philanthropic transactions from simple charity is a degree of planning, structured choice and engagement. The common theme in both charitable and philanthropic transactions is a significant element of selflessness.

Broadening definitions of philanthropy to include every possible transaction that is not specifically commercial is understandable in terms of ‘democratizing’ philanthropy and recognizing the importance of non-financial aspects of giving. However, while we endorse the motivation, we reject the strategy. It undervalues and potentially risks destroying a transactional culture that we believe is more powerful and has more development potential than most philanthropy.

Giving based on mutual aid and solidarity

We know that ‘giving’ in all its forms is an important and often critical element of life in low-income, vulnerable communities in Africa, but also in other regions in which Allavida works, including South-East Europe and Central Asia. We believe that such giving is an integral part of a broader social and economic system based on mutual aid and solidarity. A woman give seeds to a neighbour partly because she knows that next year she might be the one who needs seeds. In savings and credit circles the world over, a modest welfare fund is built up by small regular contributions from all members and used to help any member suddenly facing a crisis.

We don’t believe there is any need to try and define these things as ‘community philanthropy’. Rather, we should cherish them for what they are – features of mutual aid and solidarity systems that are fast being lost in the North, institutions and cultural norms based on shared values, shared commitment to a cause, or simply membership. Are we afraid of this language? Why is it not immediately obvious that the social support structures in low-income communities are a manifestation of mutual aid and solidarity?

We believe that the dominance of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy, and with it the culture of individualism, is now so deeply embedded that the language of mutual aid and solidarity, even of ‘cooperation’ in its institutional sense, has been effectively banished. Philanthropy, with its essential element of individual transaction, is a comfortable bedfellow with neo-liberal economics and their ‘third way’ successor models. Mutual aid and solidarity seem archaic in the rush to private sector growth and individual asset accumulation. A natural response to articulating forms of giving that do not fit the dominant definition of philanthropy is thus to widen the definition. But this temptation should be resisted, as should any attempt to promote ‘community philanthropy’ that might risk weakening solidarity mechanisms.

Why give community philanthropy such priority?

In all three of the regions in which Allavida works, talk of community philanthropy is increasingly common in civil society gatherings, and there are growing numbers of practical initiatives pursuing a community philanthropy agenda. Examples include the Kenya Community Development Foundation, which seeks to encourage communities to build endowments, and the work of Counterpart International promoting community foundations in Bulgaria.

Traditional giving ignored
In varying degrees, these community philanthropy initiatives take their inspiration from models developed in the North, especially community foundations. To varying degrees also, they ignore many of the manifestations of giving identified by researchers such as Ngondi-Houghton, at best preferring to believe that if a tradition of giving exists it should be feasible to encourage people to give into an organized fund. So the first reason why this issue of defining ‘community philanthropy’ is important is that there is little evidence to suggest any serious attempt to understand traditions of giving and invest appropriately in them.

Status quo maintained rather than challenged
The second reason why this issue is much more important than a debate about definitions is that community philanthropy is not generally (though there are exceptions) known for its concern with structural change and justice. Yet it is precisely such change that is needed if poor and vulnerable communities are to see the livelihoods and security of their people transformed and their rights secured.

This is not to say that community philanthropy is not important. In many communities in the North, community philanthropy organizations represent the lifeblood of local charities and associations, ensuring the survival of much-needed core services as well as supporting cultural and recreational activities and improving the local environment. The point we make, however, is that ameliorating needs and improving local facilities – the great strength of community philanthropy – is essentially a way of maintaining the social and economic (and in some cases, political) status quo. But in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America – indeed, in much of the world including the North – the status quo is simply not good enough.

According to the Economic Commission for Africa, 61 million more Africans go hungry today than in 1990. In the decade to 2004, the number of workers living on less than $1 a day increased by 28 million in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the 1990s, the incidence of extreme poverty actually increased in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. For example, more than 50 per cent of people in Tajikistan and in the Kyrgyz Republic live on less than $2 a day.

Putting aside these indicators of appalling poverty and disadvantage, wherever we work we see growing evidence of social breakdown. Mothers in rural and peri-urban communities in the Kyrgyz Republic tell us of their anguish at the lack of opportunities for their children; older people in coastal communities in Kenya tell us how communal labour systems have broken down, and how NGOs, political parties, religion, and even education policies have, between them, divided their communities, and encouraged young people in particular to pursue individual profit-oriented goals; in Romania the collapse of the central state has seen a massive shift towards individualism, with the poorest and weakest losing out. The UK is increasingly a nation divided between the prosperous and the poor and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the situation is getting worse. The community philanthropy movement in the UK can point to many individual successes and thousands of beneficiaries, but at a structural level it has clearly had very limited impact.

If community philanthropy at best softens the adverse effects of cultural, social and economic change in poor and vulnerable communities, why should it be given such priority?

An alternative approach

We believe that there is an alternative approach, or at least one that complements the efforts of people such as Emmett Carson[3] to challenge community foundations to focus on social change. First, there must be much more investment in researching and understanding systems of mutual aid, solidarity and ‘giving’ at community level in many parts of the world. Second, there needs to be a serious attempt to articulate how development interventions can capitalize on these systems. They need to be at the heart of development models. The nearest thing we have at the moment is asset-based community development, which begins by understanding the range of community assets (including cultural and social assets) and then builds on them.

In terms of institutional development, priority should be given to solidarity groups (such as associations of quarry workers), cooperatives and cultural associations which have those traditions of mutual aid and solidarity, rather than the ubiquitous ‘community-based organization’ with its project culture and dependency on external agencies. The emphasis should be on process – how groups can work together to challenge local market cartels that mean low prices; to secure access rights to critical fishing grounds; to challenge polluting factories; to ensure the survival of much-cherished monuments or sacred forests, and so on.

By designing support strategies to strengthen the cultural norms and practical actions associated with mutual aid and solidarity, ‘local resource mobilization’ – the desired outcome of community philanthropy – becomes a natural extension of current practice rather than an imposed and alien idea.

The approach we are advocating rejects the idea that there is an intrinsic good in having a steadily building fund in the community, or that giving is good per se irrespective of the target of giving. We believe that beneficial social and economic change is much more likely if, for instance, exploited quarry workers build up a ‘fighting fund’ to support their campaign for fair treatment than if there is some general, community-wide fund to which they can in theory turn, but the use of which requires a consensual choice among many competing demands.

What about the advantages of a permanent fund?

What of the argument, much used by community philanthropy (especially community foundation) practitioners, that building a permanent fund is the best way of enabling people to meet future needs? We do not dispute the common sense of this argument, nor deny the potential benefit of communities having small funds that generate a return. Nor do we make the easy counter-argument that the scale of needs in the regions in which we work are so great right now that it’s not fair or sensible to focus on putting limited funds away for future needs (though this argument takes some refuting). Rather, we argue that efforts to develop permanent community funds of the sort that are commonplace in the rich North are a distraction from serious efforts to challenge the root causes of impoverishment and marginalization. They also relegate social and cultural groups, producer groups, local lobbies and others to the role of vehicles for the collection of contributions into such funds, disregarding their serious development potential.

In time, some of these groups might develop into community philanthropy organizations in which ‘community of interest’ is the key rather than geography, but this should not be forced. For now, we should accept that there is a critical difference between mutual aid or solidarity groups, and philanthropic institutions. More importantly, we must recognize that the power and potential of mutual aid and solidarity as a socioeconomic system is at least as great and probably greater than that of philanthropy. So let us rediscover the language of mutual aid and accept a few limits to the definition of philanthropy. By doing so, we can learn to understand and invest appropriately in systems of mutual aid and solidarity that have helped poor communities survive for millennia.

1 This approach resonates with the findings of the BCP project being undertaken by Susan Wilkinson-Maposa and her colleagues in southern Africa. See Alliance Vol 10, Nos 2 and 3 (June and September 2005).

2 This is the definition used by the recent report on community philanthropy published by Blueprint Research & Design and the Monitor Institute: L Bernholz, K Fulton and G Kasper (September 2005) On the Brink of New Promise: The future of US community foundations.


3 Emmett Carson’s speech at the 2004 Berlin WINGS/ISTR Community Foundations Symposium. See Alliance Vol 10, No 1, p2 (March 2005). For the full text of his speech see http://www.cfsymposium.org/programme_conference_Carson.htm


Andrew Kingman is CEO of Allavida and Jonathan Edwards is Allavida’s Chief Operating Officer. They can be reached at akingman@allavida.or.ke and jonathane@allavida.org, respectively.

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