Reappraising the systemic constraints to change

Sheela Patel

I loved Lisa Jordan’s opinion piece on foundations and risk. However, while Lisa discusses the basis for revoking a grant, I think it is critical to reflect more deeply on how choices are made by foundations about what to fund and on the external realities that hinder the communities or organizations assisted from obtaining what they should have access to. The systemic impediments that exist and the constraints they produce are often acknowledged when grant proposals are written, but it is often not sufficiently acknowledged in the terms of the grant that these constraints cannot be overcome within a three- to five-year cycle.

Arjun Appadurai, who has worked closely with us in Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) and SPARC in the last ten years, has written a very interesting and insightful essay, not yet published (‘Success and Failure in the Deliberative Economy’), in which he argues that the aspirations of those whose lives desperately need to change (and whom philanthropy supports) very often fail before their strategy for change is accepted and some change becomes evident. They don’t ‘fail’ or ‘succeed’, as the funding process often seems to assume, because of choices they make, but because of conditions over which they have no control, and often each failure produces another version of the strategy until some change occurs.

In some instances, as Lisa suggests, resources are withdrawn because of a specific policy decision on what to fund. But mostly they are withdrawn because the assumptions about what would produce change and how long it would take were flawed in the first place, and judgments of success or failure are made on the basis of these.

Change takes time and it is often not a question of good management; confusion over who will bring that change compounds the problem. Often both NGOs and foundations put a premium on the creation of leadership among those who have been denied the opportunity to take on leadership. They assume some magical transformation, which of course never happens in the lifespan of a project.

Risk is not a bad word, but it should be examined and understood. Foundation programme managers often see the risks and realize that they cannot be mitigated within the foundation’s timeframe. This leads them to dilute or deny the extent of the risks, and then abandon the project when those risks jeopardize its success.

Sheela Patel
Director, Society for the Protection of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), and chair, SDI

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