Each year the Skoll Centre invites a small number of Oxford students to the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. Each year they share their unique perspectives of the sessions and events that unfold during this magical time in Oxford.
Philanthropy in and of itself is neither the solution nor the problem in international development. Rather, it is how we currently understand, utilize and govern philanthropy that contributes significantly to its successes and failures.
Panelist and author of Decolonizing Wealth, Edgar Villanueva, suggests that philanthropy
is in a moment of reckoning. I hope he is right. The history of colonization
and power dynamics inherent in today’s philanthropic system need to be
recognized, grappled with and frankly, overturned.
Most of us are now familiar with stories of failed aid, and critiques of the Western philanthropic system in which wealthy or otherwise privileged people in one place make decisions about funding, development, and projects for people or organizations in a completely different place, of which they know little. The gap is in having no substantial understanding or experience with the context. “Failed aid” isn’t only applicable to the relationship between developed and developing countries – the disconnect could be continents away, or mere minutes away. Rodney Foxworth, Executive Director of BALLE, referenced the median net worth of a black American household in Boston, which is $8, compared to $247,500 for a white household. Read that again. $8. Compared to a quarter of a million dollars.
Foxworth proposes that we need to shift
capital to “advance the economic interests of communities who have been
excluded from, extracted from, and marginalized for centuries.”
There is a growing recognition that this
kind of extreme disparity and inequality is neither logical nor just, and that
it drastically fails the communities and people on the negative side of the
power and wealth balance. But how can those with power begin to shift it?
Some tangible actions to rebalance power
and capital seem straightforward: creating more diverse boards and teams,
putting more decision making into the hands of the people who are living with the
problems directly or working on the frontlines, and spending more time
listening and co-designing solutions that meet the self-expressed needs of the people
themselves. These principles are often at the heart of how social enterprises
and non-profits seek to do their work, and yet even with these as stated goals,
we often fall short as well. It is easy to skip over the time and effort that
true inclusion require; it is convenient to sacrifice deep understanding for
perceived efficiency and output.
Achieving a significant shift of capital,
or de-colonizing wealth, requires first understanding why and how power
dynamics of wealth are where they are to begin with, and admitting the
injustice of how the system was built and is still maintained. More difficult,
of course, is actually changing, letting go of power, and building new systems
on foundations of trust. It seems clear that someone living with or working
directly with a problem day in and day out will have better insight and
expertise than someone who has never experienced it, and yet we often ignore or
overlook this expertise in favor of those who hold money and therefore
decision-making power, or even in favor of our own ideas and self-acclaimed
Trusting in other’s direct expertise, and
investing in that expertise, will be key in shifting the power dynamics of
philanthropy. Ultimately though, how this plays out will rely heavily on who
has a seat at the tables of philanthropic and stakeholder powers. It is the
responsibility of everyone in the impact and development space to create a more
diverse and representative table.
To top it off, we should probably all read Villaneuva’s Decolonizing Wealth – I’ve already ordered mine!
About the Author
Julie Greene is passionate about tackling issues of social injustice, with a focus on educational and economic inclusion for women. Julie has come to believe that business is one of the best tools for achieving social impact and sustainable change, and is co-founder of The Women’s Bakery, a social enterprise that trains and employs women in East Africa.