Boosting local philanthropy to make aid localisation a reality

By Casey Kelso, WINGS Senior Advocacy Officer

Localisation is a word that triggers a lot of hope and concern. It sums up the hope that, by consciously investing a greater share of resources directly into local civil society, the world can better deal with some of the most critical issues facing humanity, like climate change and structural poverty. The current pandemic has made it even more obvious that local and national responses are more just, effective and sustainable.

Yet WINGS shares concerns that the concept of localisation has remained mostly on paper as unfulfilled commitments. The shift in funding and trust has not happened. And the daunting socio-economic challenges Covid-19 brings to the world only increase the urgency to reshape international aid assistance in ways that put national, local and community actors’ agency at the centre of development efforts.

In an online side-event held on 23 September 2021 in conjunction with the UN General Assembly, WINGS brought together major stakeholders in the international aid system to explore how philanthropy can connect to and effectively support the localisation of development efforts by building a philanthropic ecosystem that enables domestic giving. 

Introducing the high-level exchanges, WINGS’ Executive Director Benjamin Bellegy set out a vision of localisation that remains consistent with the organisation’s initial inspiration. In 2019, he recalled, WINGS co-hosted the event ‘Boosting Domestic Philanthropy in and for the Global South’ with the SDG Philanthropy Platform and UNDP. It was the very first meeting that engaged the development community in thinking about the potential of local philanthropy for development. Bellegy said he opened that discussion two years ago by telling participants: “This is not about what philanthropy can do for you, this is about what you can do for philanthropy”. 

Then, and up until now, WINGS believes that  “...alignment and joint investments between international development actors and a few big philanthropy actors is much welcome and needed, but the most powerful way development actors can engage with philanthropy is by supporting its growth and development in the countries they’re seeking to assist”, said Bellegy.

He also drew attention to the just-launched Lift Up Philanthropy Guide by WINGS that civil society, government, development agencies, and philanthropy can use to better understand and support philanthropy’s development in specific countries. WINGS hopes the guide will help development actors to make strategic investments in the national ecosystem that can assist, promote and enable philanthropy, giving and private social investment to achieve their potential: foundation networks, support organisations, giving platforms, and other field developers. 

Global actors at the event reiterated commitments to making localisation a reality. The consensus in the “Zoom room”, including the European Union, USAID, and the governments of Indonesia and the Netherlands, was that we need to develop national private philanthropy and generosity to provide sustainable local resources and reinforce resilience. As Bellegy remarked: “We need to localise not only implementation of development assistance but also its resourcing”.

Localisation matters because “…local organisations and local philanthropy bring on the ground knowledge and skills, access and presence...analysis, and help us understand the local context and connect to local communities”, said Martin Seychell, Deputy Director-General for Human Development, Migration, Governance, Peace and Resources at the European Commission. “Without this, there is a big risk that we do things that exist only on paper”, he said.

While the EU provided EUR 25 billion in assistance in 2019, Seychell said much more investment is needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). He saw philanthropy as a solution to help the EU’s partner countries diversify their investments directly into each country’s civil society for vital projects of health, education and empowerment. The SDG Philanthropy Platform estimates that USD $651 billion in funding could be potentially unlocked by 2030 -- an additional USD $ 286 billion in financing than initially thought.

In Indonesia, billions more are needed to achieve the SDGs, agreed Vivi Yulaswati, Indonesia's lead official for Agenda 2030 at the Ministry of National Development Planning. “Some of the basic infrastructure in remote places is financed not just by the government but from Zakat – the Muslim source of funding – as well as from the civil society both from the domestic side and the international”, she said.

For too long, development agencies have ignored this type of localised giving and the philanthropic sector generally, according to Michele Sumilas, Assistant to the Administrator of the Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning at USAID. “We look forward to finding new ways to work with them (philanthropy) – in parallel and together, maybe in joint funding – thinking about creating enabling environments where they can thrive”. 

More national or domestic control and ownership are just one step in the localisation process, though. Civil society also needs local, non-financial resources to increase their credibility and strengthen their position at a time of shrinking civic space. Kitty van der Heijden, Director-General International Cooperation in the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described localisation as strengthening the position of local civil society organisations. “When you can mobilise local resources because sometimes it’s more difficult to receive foreign funding when you are under threat of being closed, you will have a local constituency as part of power building”, she said.

Philanthropists from Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and Narada Foundation in China, as well as Wilde Ganzen Foundation in the Netherlands, shared similar views that building a local philanthropic ecosystem meant investing in local power of local communities for local giving. 

Hilton’s President and CEO Peter Laugharn described the “superpowers” that partners bring to multi-stakeholder partnerships for the SDGs: “Government sets policy, provides services, is the backbone and provides many social safety nets. Business is important for innovation and serious execution of the SDGs. Civil society organisations give the last mile of development and provide local innovation, watch-dogging and local solutions. And philanthropy classically provides the long-term vision and short-term dynamism with a longer horizon but can respond more quickly”, Laugharn said. 

The Hilton Foundation has sponsored a new start-up project by WINGS to map and strengthen the philanthropic ecosystem in West Africa, along with Fondation de France and in partnership with Trust Africa. Hilton shares with WINGS a vision of the role of philanthropic support organisations, both national and international, that mobilise to build domestic ecosystems that have long been underdeveloped and thus can tap into the long-term capability of each country’s institutions and individuals for sustainable resources. 

As WINGS’ Benjamin Bellegy noted, however, unlocking domestic philanthropy’s potential should be done in complementarity with development aid, however, and not in replacement of ever-greater international investments, both public and private. 

An exciting, concrete example of local resource mobilisation can be found in China, where the Narada Foundation in Beijing has been building the ecosystem for philanthropy. During the Covid-19 response last year, localisation became key when assistance from outside a province could not safely enter. “After 10 years’ efforts, we realised it is more important to build local ecosystems in provinces and in the counties because, in the end, we relied upon local people who knew the problems very clearly and knew where resources were”, said Yanni Peng, the Secretary-General of the Narada Foundation.

Strengthening the wider ecosystem for civil society and philanthropy is absolutely fundamental, said Lysa John, Secretary-General of CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations. Responding to the other speakers, John called for bolder reforms in the way civil society is resourced. “We need to do this in a way that moves us away from a ‘support and rescue’ mindset to a ‘solidarity’ mindset… with a much more complex and connected way of designing and delivering solutions to some of the greatest challenges in the world”.

With that fantastic conversation and sharing of experiences, WINGS believes that this is the moment for a tipping point into effective, bottom-up-inspired policymaking on localisation. And the conversation will not stop here. WINGS is planning smaller, interactive discussion workshops to bring together segments of these stakeholders to define more specifically the role each actor can play in localisation and working together to “Lift Up” domestic philanthropy.


The recording of the #LiftUpPhilanthropy: Boosting local philanthropy to make aid localisation a reality' meeting can be found here.


Casey Kelso, WINGS Senior Advocacy Officer

Casey Kelso is a senior consultant on advocacy and strategy with experience living in and working with activists in Sub-Saharan Africa (particularly Southern Africa) and the Arab world (Middle East and North Africa). He has held senior leadership positions at International Crisis Group, Transparency International and Amnesty International.

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