Redefining development: a new role for foundations

Jay Naidoo

I have participated in endless conferences about the business of development. I have walked away more confused than ever by the sophisticated development speak and Powerpoint presentations. How has the global development industry succeeded in reducing the impassioned fight for freedom and human dignity to a search for single-issue solutions, typically technology or market based, that can be packaged neatly into fundable projects? How can we reverse this, and what role can foundations play?

I think back to our struggle against apartheid in the 1970s. We rejected the unquestioning obedience and fear of our parents. 1976 was our Tahrir Square. Our explosion of anger burst on to our streets. The words of Steve Biko resonated in our minds: ‘We as black people must stop being bystanders in the game that determines the future of our lives. We need to make a choice. Do we want to live under the injustice of apartheid or do we want to fight for freedom and human dignity?’

We were triumphant but unrelenting repression smashed our fledgling aspirations. We began the painstaking work of organizing our people at a community level far from the radar screens of the apartheid regime. It was around the bread and butter issues of our people that we created the tsunami that toppled Africa’s most powerful regime. We co-created a vision and strategy that ensured local ownership and grassroots leadership that would withstand the most ferocious attacks of our enemy. We never drew up a business plan or sought out some generous donor. We never entered the struggle for development as a career. We were volunteers driven by passion. We were outraged by social injustice. It made us fearless.

What has changed nearly 40 years later?

Today I am confronted by activists in South Africa wanting to discuss a budget before they have a meeting or a campaign. A whole development industry has spawned a class of poverty consultants. Global development assistance has been packaged into projects. A new obsession with evidence-based funding has razed the ‘green shoots’ – projects with promise – to conform to a narrow basket of indicators used to assess ‘best practice’.

The emphasis on supply-side innovation and business models fails to understand or locate the role of the people. The poor are ‘victims’ to be given a charitable hand out of their poverty. These models ignore the resilience of the billions of poor who make tough decisions every day as they support their families on less than $2 per day.

Ten years of working at a global level has shown me the fault lines in the modern system of development assistance. The rush to seek single-issue solutions to complex problems fails to recognize or respond to the overarching structural social and political factors that connect them. Typically, the search is for a new technology or a market-based device that could change lives dramatically.

Worse still, recipients desperate for financial support take donor aid knowing that the chances of programme success are minimal. Countless hours are spent collecting useless information to satisfy bean counters in foreign capitals. Even where bilateral aid has been tied to a commitment to democracy by recipient countries in the belief that it will strengthen the success of funded programmes in health and education, we fail.

In third-wave democracies in sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe, democratic transition has tended to worsen inequality and corruption and has failed to redress the very factors that brought it about. Similarly, the high expectations of ‘impact investing’ – harnessing the market for social benefit – may not have the desired impact as programme sponsors capture public benefit for private gain, as the microfinance experiment in India demonstrated. Increasingly the desperate search for new markets is not inspired by altruism but by the trillion dollars that self-proclaimed ‘gurus of development’ argue sits at the bottom of the pyramid.

Then we are confronted by the caricature of a constant stream of celebrities to countries in the South to ‘raise awareness’ about social issues. The support they drum up is often concentrated in activist networks of the North, which hold sway over global debates about human development and environmental protection. In multilateral forums, human rights activism has almost become institutionalized in ways that are self-limiting and non-threatening to political power blocs.

It ignores the ‘elephant in the room’ – our governments, who are under the legal and constitutional obligation to ensure that the basic needs of our people are met and who command public budgets that far outweigh the financial resources of foundations.

What is the role of foundations?
In this context, the question that begs asking is: what is the role of foundations in highly unequal countries in the South? This is the question raised by several contributors to the special feature in the June issue of Alliance. It is certainly not to create parallel systems but rather to focus on the levers that will enable us to hold our political and economic leadership to account on public expenditure.

In South Africa today the biggest breakthrough in ensuring access to quality education and health has been the role of social justice organizations in mobilizing and using the Constitution and the courts to enforce our basic human rights. That is how victories are won day by day in relation to access to ARVs, the end of mud schools and the right to textbooks in our public schools.

At the heart of public innovation lies a capacity to aspire. For individuals, a sense of imminent possibility in life is the motivator for personal growth and development.  Collectively, this sense of possibility is nurtured in socially cohesive societies that generate substantial life choices for people. Ironically, then, the greatest opportunity for foundations operating in highly polarized societies is to create a sense of viable opportunity for individuals and society. Investment in social justice mobilization that drives the demand side is a critical element of success in the development equation.

Our societies are characterized by a demographic youth bulge. Increasingly young people are being defined in terms of deficit: they are seen as uneducated, unemployable, unruly and menacing on the margins. They are characterized by what they are not, not by what they are or could be. Ultimately, a sense of victimhood gives rise to an entitlement mentality that further divides the rich from the poor.

We need to foster a lattice of new connections that begins to bridge the poles of society and create pathways out of poverty. When the connections were formed through genuine entrepreneurship, they led to innovation because the breakdown of social and economic barriers enabled new and more efficient markets to open up and livelihoods to be built.

The Araku Co-operative Society in India, supported by the Naandi Foundation, is an example of how a focus on mobilizing people leads to success. Amidst rolling hills and lush vegetation, in the north of Andra Pradesh in the south of India, an 11,000-strong community of indigenous tribal farmers organized themselves out of absolute poverty. Naandi has worked systematically to transfer the skills of organic farming and access to global markets, and this has raised the incomes of peasant farmers fivefold.

It reminds me of organizing migrant workers in ‘hostels’ in South Africa. Largely illiterate, marginalized, and living in brutal conditions of repression, they had nothing to lose. They built power at the point of production to bargain on job security, wages and working conditions. But having won these rights, they realized that to separate the struggle on the factory floor from the broader struggle for political freedom was not only undesirable but impossible in an apartheid South Africa.

A new political narrative
We need a new political narrative. We need to break out of the tired activist-versus-establishment paradigm. New approaches to social transformation must harness the reinforcing nature of innovation, social connectedness and positive identities. How this might be done requires more thought and development as more foundations begin to engage with the challenges and learn from those that are already doing so.

We need to stimulate innovation in both the public and private sectors that sparks critical thinking and capitalizes on the energy and creativity of young people to prevent disillusionment and apathy. A vital constituency is young people who have begun to emerge as leaders in their own communities, but whose social and economic distance from the mainstream means they cannot participate fully as citizens of their countries and the world. By connecting them and growing their ability as public innovators, we can build a strong national and transnational identity of leaders grounded in local realities and committed to public innovation and social justice.

Another constituency is women engaged in agriculture.  Empowering women’s leadership and raising incomes and rights is a critical path to delivering sustainable development. The role of women must be at the centre of the development debate. When this happens we will see the change in our global village.

As the new apartheid rises in the world, dividing the global rich from the majority of global poor, there is the opportunity to engage in a new debate on what works that connects the boardrooms and conference centres to people on the streets and villages of our world.

The choice is whether those who already have power in government, business, foundations and civil society have the courage to confront the realities of poverty and inequality with a different paradigm of thinking.

Jay Naidoo is Chairperson of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. He was Founding General Secretary of COSATU and former Minister of Reconstruction and Development in the Mandela Cabinet. He writes a blog at

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