Al Kags

Thinking about Hewlett Foundation’s Strategy and Decolonising Philanthropy


In this blogpost, I decided to be a bit presumptive – to pronounce myself on the idea of decolonising development (and by extension, philanthropy) and to make comments on Hewlett Foundation’s Transparency Participation and Accountability Strategy for the coming five years.

First, A Short story

“What do you fund?”

A relative of mine has been the Executive Director of a small NGO in Kenya working on gender matters for the past 30 years. She recently encountered a bilateral donor who had funds to do some work in technology and she immediately thought of me.

“They are doing the same things you are and you can get funding,” she said. Unfortunately, when I reviewed the donor’s work, it was apparent that there was no connection between their strategy and our work and so we were not going to engage further. She was nonplussed.

“But when a donor has told you what they fund, you can craft your concept around it so that you can get the money?”

I was hard pressed to explain that we are very protective of what we do at the Open Institute and that we won’t do things just for the money because we’ll waste a lot of time. She went away thinking that we are idiots and in need of some growing up because, “that is not how things are done.”

Gado is the most syndicated political cartoonist in East and Central Africa

The nature of philanthropy in Africa has been designed to have donors (usually from Europe and America) fly in to Africa for a few days at a time and dictate the structure of programmes that ostensibly would solve problems in Africa and in the global south. Literally all organisations working on the continent have met at least once with a person from the donor community who said something along the lines of, “I like your concept but I think if you changed it like this, we might be able to fund you. At our organisation, we have had to say “no” to funds on numerous occasions (even though we really could have used the money) just because we fundamentally object to this kind of colonialism.

It is our view that the reason why, despite so much money has been funnelled to Africa via many non profit organisations and governments, little seems to change. I am writing this from Kilifi County, one of the counties in Kenya that have had millions of dollars given to organisations that are focused on education, women and girls as well as agricultural livelihoods, often reporting significant change, but when you meet people in villages here, the story is very different. Much of the money is spent in meetings and conference rooms with participation by people who know how to use the buzz words such as “capacity building”, “resource mobilisation” and “mainstreaming” – all words that have no meaning in our local languages.

Decolonisation of philanthropy is starting

For many western organisations, the way that they are dealing with making changes to how they deal with their grantees and partners in Africa, Asia and South America – the so-called global south – is by making their language more politically correct. They quickly download tools like “Taking British Politics and Colonialism out of language”, a guide by Bond, the UK network for organisations working in international development, and study it keenly. By the way: I think this is the most honest effort at changing the patronising way that many western organisations deal with ours. For many western organisations, it ends there – at politically correct language that often obfuscates the message. Remember even “capacity building” and “mainstreaming” were borne from efforts to change language to sound less colonial.

Aidan Eyakuze - The Rockefeller Foundation

We have been fortunate to be one of a few African organisations that have taken a more irreverent approach to how we have taken support so that we can have real lessons that have a chance to work. We grew at the feet of Twaweza, then under the leadership of Rakesh Rajani and now led by Aidan Eyakuze (Left), who handle themselves openly – warts and all. The first ever fail-fest I attended was hosted by Rakesh almost 20 years ago. As Jay Bhalla and I were starting Open Institute, we were clear: we would be real and authentic.

What I am trying to say here is that it will take two to play the tango of decolonising Africa’s social development system. On the one hand it will take a shift in the attitudes and norms of philanthropists and bilateral donors (the latter are more driven by their countries’ global political views – in President Kagame’s words, “Aid is Political”). They will have to learn to be authentic in their approach and build and strengthen their own systems for listening and understanding context. The room for western donors to dictate what is important in other countries is shrinking progressively as Africans speak out more about their autonomy and the injustices still being perpetuated neo-colonially. One only needs to listen to Kenya’s Prof. PLO Lumumba, Zimbabwe’s Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao and Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame. It is heartening to see increased vocalness by western allies as well, like a recent commentary by Economist Jeffrey Sachs.

Dr. Arikana Chihombori-Quao on Africa’s Fake independence
PLO Lumumba: “Africa does not need European Approval”
President Paul Kagame: “Aid is Political, Markets are neutral”

On the other hand of that tango, non-profits in the global south have got to start working with a lot more conviction as to what works in their contexts and to have the confidence to say “no”, despite the imperatives of money. I know, this is easier said than done but this is indeed.

Hewlett Foundation’s Strategy

If there’s a gold standard for how philanthropy should be done, then Hewlett Foundation is one of a handful of foundations that I might attribute the standard to. I give them kudos for their authentic engagement, their great systems and attitudes for listening and for the respectful way they approach their grantees. As an African who has to deal with “Mzungus” (white people) a lot of the time, I can honestly say, I am yet to feel patronised by the folks at Hewlett that I have dealt with. While they have been going through an evaluation of their own strategy of the last 5 years, it has been a pleasure to observe them think through their practices honestly and openly.

On their strategy for the next five years, they have invited us (you and I) to make comments and I have some that I choose to share here.

In their review of the 2016-2020 strategy, they note that their theory was, “that government accountability is enabled by government transparency and citizen participation. This means that when civil society, citizens, and media have access to information and ways of participating with their government, they can hold their governments accountable and, as a result, increase or reinforce the quality of public services.” Their goal was “for citizens (especially women), civil society organizations, and journalists to use information about their governments to hold them accountable for their obligations, including providing basic services like health, education, water, and sanitation.”

In my view, the theory stated here and the goal are still right and perhaps now, they are even more urgent. While I acknowledge their perspective that part of the reasons there is no systemic change at national level in view of the significant investments they made over the past 5 years, I suggest there is a couple of component that should be examined a bit more.

  1. I think more energy should go into studying the enablers (and disablers) of citizen participation that are systemic in nature and that would have an impact on their goal. In my view, there are three that I consider to be at the top of the list.
    • Registration of citizens. As we are learning, there are hundreds of thousands of citizens (at least) many parts of rural Africa that do not have the necessary registration documents (ID card in Kenya). This statelessness has a direct impact on whether they take ownership of the country’s political and developmental processes. Why, for example, would a person with no ID in Kenya bother to attend a county public participation forum? In many cases, at least in Kenya, the process of getting an ID is cumbersome and long and so in rural areas people give up on them. Many have to travel long distances to the administrative headquarters nearest them to apply. If it is hard, then the process is postponed.
    • Functional Literacy: There are many adults (especially young ones) who do not know how to read or write, they don’t know who their political leaders are or which government offices they could go and demand assistance. They do not have bank accounts and mainly bank in the “Benevolent Mattress Bank”. This basic functional literacy is useful in enabling them to have the ability to read and comprehend documents but also gives them the language to engage them.
    • The existence of local mobilisation and organisation. It occurs to me that the marginalisation of citizens in part lies in the lack of organisation and mobilisation of citizens at local level – to drive awareness and to help normalise progressive ideas. The fight against HIV was greatly boosted by the network of community based organisations (CBOs) that mobilised and organised citizen groups to spread the word and to fight stigma in communities. This movement of peer educators has greatly dwindled for lack of funding in the past few years and as a result, the community organisation has reduced.

A Lamu Peer Educator youth group uses theatre to create awareness on social issues

  1. Accept complexity as a strategy and as a result, based on context. Since I got into this space that is concerned with finding ways for citizens to get involved with the provision of public services, there has been a serious demand for linear answers – for example, if we build this app people will report portholes to government, who will in turn fix the portholes or else an alert will be sent to a senior officer. Another example, if we build this data repository that enables government to publish data and make it available freely to everyone, then people will access it via their mobile phone and act in some way.

    I am increasingly learning that the question of fostering active citizenship and indeed responsive government, is a complex one with a kaleidoscope of nuances. It is more like a set of puzzles, each of which have layers of contexts. In the early days, as we were starting to experiment with citizen generated data, we learnt a couple of things that have been useful in the times that we have been successful in doing citizen work:
    • People do not really understand issues in the national context – for example, people do not understand how to keep the president accountable for large turn-key projects like the Standard Guage Railway project in Kenya. The project costed a whopping Kshs. 3.6 Billion – an unimaginable amount for most Kenyans. (remember, the top 1% of Kenyans have a net worth of Kshs. 2.2 Million shillings). There are only about 3,200 Kenyans who have the lived experience to understand Kshs. 3.6 Billion because they have a net worth of Kshs. 100 Million.

      But people do have the capacity and the inclination to understand and pay attention to activities and projects that are taking place in their own communities because they have a direct lived experience. It is therefore easier to be active at local level because the context makes sense.

      This, to my mind, also explains why, as Hewlett notes, “There is growing consensus that commitments to global norms by national governments do not consistently translate to action on the ground, greater participation, and improved livelihoods for groups that have been marginalised.” Whereas the government made the commitments in global meetings and there are many such (Climate change, Anti-Corruption, etc.), two issues tend to be true at least in our context. One, the commitments are often seen in practice as not so important in the grand scheme of things locally because they are “mzungu (white people) issues” – essentially that the issues are part of the western agenda that we must pay lip service to in order to keep them happy for aid’s sake. Two, citizens are usually not part of the equation in those global commitments. They never really know that those commitments were made and what they mean, so they are usually not part of the pressure matrix that pushes government to act on the issues.
    • No two villages are alike – or counties, states or countries. That essentially means in the context of this conversation that programmes must be designed in the local context together with the local people, who ostensibly have been given the freedom (and even the incentive) to be confident enough to speak to their priorities and needs. What this may mean to Hewlett Foundation’s future strategy (and other funders also) us that the goals that they set should be just broadly enough structured that they allow for local design. It is, of course, useful that some funders focus on the national context – if for no other reason, it does a great deal to maintain positive relationships between the government and civil society organisations, which in turn has an impact in moving the needle towards government responsiveness and increasing civic space.

      It is however important that the strategies take into account that the real action is at subnational level, if citizen participation is an important part of the goal. Building systems that support responsiveness and public service delivery at village/ward and county/state level are likely to be important activities in pursuit of this goal.

All of the above is to say that I really like it when Hewlett says that they should “Prioritize in-country work that informs global norms, actions, and commitments (rather than working from global to local)”. I would caution them however not to define the activities around “Work in a focused manner in-country to contribute to structural and systemic change in governance and accountability.” too narrowly. Chances are that their results will continue to be “scattered” and seem like they lack coherence. Make no mistake, however: they are contributing to structural and systemic change.

Side note: in Africa, I worry that the problem with government responsiveness and organisational culture change has more to do with citizens (how active they are, how much voice they have and how they exercise that voice) than it does with the government itself.

But that is a whole different blogpost and one should take time to read Thomas Aston here because he says important things on this.

My wish list

I should be remiss if I did not end this blogpost without expressing my wish list as to what I hope to see in the Hewlett and other funders’ strategies in the next few years:

  1. That they will support energies to experiment on systemic changes that could make governments acknowledge in action that there are significant numbers of people who are systematically left behind. We have lately been calling them “the invisible” because they are invisible to policy and systemic public structures. Here we are talking about people like artisanal small scale miners, people like small scale farmers, fishermen and pastoralists in rural villages.
  2. That they will support experiments that not only use technology in government transparency and citizen participation, but that they encourage more campaigns to bring (a) youth to the table in more real ways and (b) use media differently – not just the mainstream and social media dichotomy but the whole notion of how information is passed from one person to another.
  3. That they will support the experiments and mainstreaming of systems that operate outside of current ones so that new models for citizen action, for collaboration between different actors, and for engagement between government and others. We may be speaking of tech-enabled systems but I think it is even more likely that we are likely going to mean a hybrid of tech and human systems. Because they involve the youth, it is highly likely, I submit that they will be entirely different. I hope that the strategies will accept “unusual” as a useful result in their success matrix.

2 thoughts on “Thinking about Hewlett Foundation’s Strategy and Decolonising Philanthropy”

  1. Al, there is so much here to respond to. I wish we could walk down to a coffee shop to talk it through for a few hours. And I hope we can soon. I completely agree about the three obstacles to citizen participation and I’m glad that OI, Luminate, Namati and others are thinking about how to increase access to attaining national IDs. In terms of literacy, I wonder if greater access to video and audio via mobile will change this obstacle. In fact, I wonder if we’ll use text at all in 50 years time. And yes, I completely agree that the erosion of community based groups and civic associations has led to a major decline in collective thinking about actionable ways to address local issues that affect our lives. But I’m inspired to see new civic associations sprout like the Kilifi County Information Hub and Baraza Media Lab. Finally, I’d love to talk more about your wish list. I feel like we’re already supporting those approaches through unrestricted grants to inspiring orgs like OI, Katiba, TISA, Barefoot Law, Namati, and others. So I’d be grateful for concrete examples of what else funders like HF should be supporting.

    1. @David, Thanks for reading. There is indeed a lot to discuss and unpack here – this is the downside of digital interaction. As to your question on literacy, the short answer is no. The fuller answer has to do with context. In the spaces that we are talking about, access to smartphones is still very low and the financial ability to spend money on data is even further away from them. As I have been working with Jackie Mungai I have learnt that many of the young people are so unexposed to even the most basic things – never touched a computer, never seen a bank card – let alone see an ATM being used, never seen a supermarket and for many, ridden in a private car (!). A human being is a crucial delivery tool for bringing about this literacy – some things like life skills cannot be automated. There is in fact an imperative for using any technology for literacy – and that’s basic literacy. A direct way to foster this basic literacy at scale is actually the community based organisations that need widespread support to conduct basic literacy for adults (both above 18 and young parents under 18 that are considered adults).

      Re: My wish list, you are indeed doing more than most to support these issues, but you are an outlier in the funding space. You have the standing to bring others to the realisation of the need. Much more needs to be done (by us all) to connect with the youth especially using new media. A part of measuring that is in reviewing scale – too many media initiatives connect with only a few hundred people and are deemed successful after a $50000 investment for example. I don’t have the answers in full but I have seen some working on it.

      I really think that there is a real gap in reaching the youth and getting them to be part of the conversation and more specific action needs to be taken that is focusing on them and bringing them to the table.

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