Making the most of the foundation mite

There was a lot of talk at the EFC conference about European foundations devoting more of their resources outside Europe, with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a focus. But how do European foundations, whose international grantmaking is unlikely to be on a large scale, get involved when what’s needed to achieve the MDGs is an extra $50 billion a year? Alliance put this question to Louise Fréchette, UN Deputy Secretary General since 1998.

Fréchette agrees that ‘these numbers can look very daunting’ but insists that achieving the MDGs will depend on the actions of a very large number of stakeholders, at all scales and at all levels. ‘I do think there is room for everybody.’ The secret, she says, is ‘is to find your niche, decide what you’re good at, probably find a partner from the country – someone who has real hands-on experience of the situation you want to tackle – and then develop your projects’. One of the attractions of partnerships with foundations is their capacity to explore new approaches and see if they work.

Can we avoid the waste that occurs when a foundation develops something really good but it doesn’t ever get picked up or taken to scale, perhaps because the foundation doesn’t know where to go for the next step? The multilateral institutions are probably the best link for a foundation that wants to experiment with new approaches, says Fréchette. ‘If your area of expertise is health, the World Health Organization or perhaps UNAIDS would be natural partners. These are the places where the best strategies are promoted with governments and communities in developing countries.’

As for developing the sort of more structured system that exists for private sector investment, where the venture capitalist is there to provide start-up funding and people know where to go next, she doesn’t really think that’s possible. ‘But I think when you disaggregate and look at a particular field and sub-field, which is usually how people define their project, suddenly the community of actors in this field becomes much more obvious, and it’s not as difficult as it may sound to connect with the people and institutions who will be able to take a particular initiative and see how it can be replicated. Especially at the country level – I think what really matters is what happens at the country level.’

Supporting advocacy at home

Another very important way foundations can contribute to the realization of the MDGs, says Fréchette, is supporting advocacy at home – an area where a lot can be done with limited resources. ‘Especially in the developed world, development is a bit of an abstraction. Citizens will be rightly concerned about what happens next door – to their own families, neighbourhood, region – but the realities of poverty and lack of access to basic services in developing countries that we take for granted in our own countries are not something that registers every day with the ordinary citizen. I think supporting information and advocacy and education is a very attractive niche for foundations – after all, they’ve often done the same on domestic issues.’

Marina Ponti, deputy director of the Millennium Campaign, speaking at the EFC conference, reinforced this plea for foundations to support national campaigns to force Western governments to put an end to poverty and achieve the MDGs. ‘We are the first generation that can put an end to poverty and we refuse to miss this opportunity,’ she said. The world today has the resources and knowledge to achieve the goals. What is lacking is political will, both nationally and internationally. Governments need to feel their electorates are concerned with poverty beyond their borders. If all donor countries took the 0.7 per cent target for development aid seriously, we would have the money that is needed, said Ponti. But people don’t know how little is given: in the US people think up to 20 per cent of the budget goes on aid, as opposed to the reality of 0.15 per cent.

Uneven progress

Asked about progress towards achieving the goals, Fréchette talks about ‘uneven progress’. ‘Some of the goals will probably be met globally – I’m thinking of reducing poverty, absolute poverty, by half. This is largely because of the tremendous progress being observed in China and India. But the global numbers can be misleading. When you take progress on the poverty goal country by country, then you realize that many countries will not make it, Africa in particular.’ A particular problem here is the spread of HIV/AIDS, which is undermining the capacity of many countries to achieve all the other goals. But not all is gloom, even on this front. ‘There’s a better understanding of the phenomenon and of what needs to be done, and there have been steps towards making medicine affordable. All this suggests that with very strong efforts and commitment on the part of everybody, maybe we can make a real dent in that problem.’

As for the other goals, ‘I think we will need greater efforts if we are to meet them’ – though they will be met in some countries. She mentions an ‘intermediate goal’ coming up next year – gender parity in primary schools: ‘Well, I don’t think we’re going to meet that one. And it’s a big pity because it seems to me that this should be within the reach of all countries.’

And it’s not just Africa that’s falling behind. While Latin America is probably more advanced than other parts of the world when it comes to education and literacy rates, there has been an increase in poverty levels and a decrease in welfare almost everywhere on the continent in recent years. ‘Political leadership – of the sort now in evidence in Brazil – is absolutely essential to make progress on the goals.’

Taking stock

When the MDGs were set at the Millennium Summit in 2000, it was agreed that there would be a comprehensive review of progress after five years. A high-level event in the fall of 2005 ‘will be the first occasion to really take stock of where we’re going’.  ‘But we hope this is more than a statistical exercise. I don’t think it’s good enough just to do an assessment of how far we’ve come. We certainly hope that it will be an occasion to look at why we are falling behind in what is necessary and to decide what needs to be done to ensure that all countries get to their goals ten years later – which is not a very long time.’ According to Bruce Jenks (UNDP), next year’s summit must produce ‘a business plan for meeting the MDGs’. The idea is to come up with ‘quantifiable, measurable proposals, identifying gaps’.

But, Fréchette stresses, though the MDGs do provide us with basic indicators of progress, they are primarily a tool for mobilization, for rallying taxpayers in developing countries and governments of developing countries. ‘The goals are very, very broad and will have to translate into very specific actions and measures in different countries and even different communities.’ Some countries have set their own more ambitious goals – apparently the Millennium Campaign team call them the ‘Minimum DGs’. ‘But if we want taxpayers to put more of their resources into achieving the goals, it’s important that my compatriots and yours have a concrete sense of what we’re trying to achieve.’

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