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'Well-Being' and Philanthropy

January 30, 2012

(Michael Edwards is a leading expert on global civil society and the author of Small Change: Why Business Won't Save the World. In a series of posts over the next two weeks, he'll be looking at different aspects of the Bellagio Initiative, an effort funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to produce a new framework for philanthropic and international development collaboration in pursuit of human well-being.)

"Understanding the different dimensions of well-being is crucial…because it reminds us that material and non-material assets, resources and experiences are equally important to the outcomes that people seek through the processes of development and social change...."

MikethirdsectorcroppedWhat can philanthropy learn from international development? Usually that question is asked and answered in reverse, leading to the export of community foundations, "philanthrocapitalism," and other models and ideas from the United States to developing countries. But despite the differences in context, I would say there's much we can learn from fifty years of development work -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

My love/hate relationship with development stretches back to 1978, when I boarded a British Caledonian 707 in Manchester and arrived in Bogota twenty-four hours later via London, Madrid and San Juan, Puerto Rico (remember the joys of "refueling"?). I spent the first twenty years of my career with Oxfam, Save the Children, and other NGOs before joining the Ford Foundation in 1999, and the lack of cross-fertilization between philanthropy and development has always struck me as a missed opportunity for learning, at least outside the small number of U.S. foundations that make grants internationally.

And then along came the Bellagio Initiative, an effort funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and organized by the Institute of Development Studies in England to take a more systematic look at the links between these two different traditions. I was lucky enough to be asked to write one of the background papers for this process, and over the next two weeks I'll be highlighting some of the key points from that paper which I think are especially relevant to the state of philanthropy today. (Ed note: You can read the full paper -- quotations from which appear at the top of each blog post in the series -- here.)

One of the most important debates in "development" concerns the different meanings of the term itself. The implications of this debate are huge because everything flows from the outcomes we seek -- grantmaking strategies and priorities, metrics and measurement, and which types of funding are best-suited to the tasks at hand. Initially development was defined in terms of economic growth and assets, then poverty reduction and human welfare, but by the 1990s it was clear that these indicators said little about the values, systems, and institutions that underpin success. They were all too narrow and did not reflect the aspirations of those who were being "developed."

Faced by this situation, many observers, most famously the Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, argued that what really matters to development are "human capabilities" and the conditions (like effective governance and land reform) required to strengthen them throughout the population, with the ultimate goal of promoting "well-being" and fulfillment, instead of just material success. The deepest challenge of well-being is "to live well together," and that's a challenge of a different order than delivering new vaccines to reduce child mortality or raising incomes through microcredit loans. It's not that these things are unimportant -- far from it -- but thinking about the broader implications of well-being forces us to give equal weight to much deeper questions about things like sustainability, patriarchy, privilege, and quality of life.

Without broader indicators of success, you end up -- how can I say this politely -- like the U.S. today or China in perhaps twenty-five years, characterized by very little absolute poverty or starvation, considerable material success for some, and large-scale social and environmental failures, including rising inequality, declining social cohesion, political gridlock, and looming ecological disaster. Unlike our current focus on enabling more people to participate in systems already in place, a focus on well-being forces us to think more rigorously about these broader challenges and how to meet them by transforming the global economy and other aspects of how we live, work, and govern our societies.

That's a huge challenge for development and for philanthropy, which spends very little money on transformative work of this kind. Part of the reason is that most of us still operate within a narrow frame of outcomes. In the U.S., there's some interest in alternatives to GDP and other indicators of national progress, but the concept of well-being isn't really part of the conversation, and that's a shame. Maybe if we spent more time arguing about a broader range of outcomes and less time debating how to measure the small number we've already selected, philanthropy would be a more creative force in society.

That's tough, because as I'll explore in my next two posts, these broader outcomes are even more difficult to influence and measure. And that makes them especially challenging for the "new" philanthropy, with its emphasis on metrics and models. If we continue to ignore them, however, we'll all be the worse for it.

-- Michael Edwards

Comments

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This is an excellent blog post and one that points to some perennial issues with philanthropy (the obsession with metrics and outcomes, the presumption that 'we' have it right while less developed countries do not etc.). I believe strongly that philanthropy can, in fact, glean some valuable lessons from both international development work and also a more holistic approach such as including Sen and other researchers' work on human development and capabilities in philanthropic practice. I look forward to reading your other blog posts from the Bellagio paper.

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