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'Philanthropy can be just as imperialistic as government': A commentary by AJ Dahiya

October 06, 2021

Globe_Afghanistan_India_WorldMaps_via_StockSnapWhat philanthropy can learn from Afghanistan:

I recently read the report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, What We Need to Learn: Lessons from 20 Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction to try to understand how the investment of $145 billion in reconstruction dollars over two decades could be so decisively and spectacularly undone in a mere ten days. 

The section that stood out the most for me was titled "The US Government did not understand the Afghan context and therefore failed to tailor its efforts accordingly." It details how the Americans tried to superimpose Western models onto Afghan institutions, unintentionally empowering corrupt power brokers and unwittingly supporting projects that were meant to mitigate conflict but often exacerbated it. In large and small ways, this lack of cultural context extended to all they did. For example, the new schools being constructed were designed to American standards, with a heavy roof that required a crane to install, yet cranes could not be used in the mountainous terrain of much of the country. 

Reflecting on these tragic lessons in hubris, money, and power, I see so many important lessons for our own work. 

In truth, philanthropy can be just as imperialistic as governments. How often do we assume that because we have the resources, we also have the solutions? Do top-down attempts at movement building make any more sense than attempts at nation building? How do we shift our ways of thinking and doing to move from saving those in need to a focus on serving them? 

Read the full commentary by AJ Dahiya, chief vision officer of the Pollination Project.

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