Systems Stress Test

Systems Stress Test

I swear this won’t be another blog about a virus. OK, maybe a little bit.

A few years back I wrote about learning to see systems – food systems, transportation systems, financial systems, governance systems, etc. In order to build our social resilience, we’ve got to know what systems we rely on, and what they are vulnerable to. It’s not that hard to do, but until you’ve seen them in action, they can be hard to pick out in the everyday noise of the world.

Well we’ve got a natural experiment going on right now with the COVID-19 crisis, which is actually highlighting systems for us. What is this experiment showing us?

Hierarchy of Systems

To sort out the welter of data, I like the framework developed by ISET-International, which puts these systems in a hierarchy.[1] The graphic here illustrates the systems we depend on, showing which are more fundamental, and which we can work around. That is, all of our systems are based on the ecosystem: if it stops raining (or doesn’t stop), if temperatures go haywire, if we can’t breathe the air, then all other systems are affected. (Good thing we know that would never happen….)

After that comes energy: if the power goes out, or gas supplies are disrupted, or in some countries if firewood becomes scarce, then food systems, manufacturing, transport, education, and a heap of other things grind to a halt. These are called “cascading failures,” where the failure of one system causes failures of others downstream.

So what are we seeing now? You could say the COVID-19 situation is an ecosystem failure. That is, a pathogen in our system is ravaging human health. So in response, we institute physical distancing measures, and curtail economic activity. In the graphic, you can follow these knock-on effects down the line. Not all systems are affected, so let’s look at the highlights of ones that have been. I’ll use what I’m seeing happen in my area to try to make it concrete – a trip to my local supermarket.

Core Systems

First, in heading out the door I put on my face mask and latex gloves, to insulate me and others from the virus – a disrupted ecosystem. In my situation, my shelter has not been affected, but for many others, losing their income has made it hard to pay their rent or mortgage. I get in my car and pull out into the street. For me the energy and transportation infrastructure still work, though in the energy industry the reduction in demand is contributing to a collapse of oil prices. This collapse is in turn creating a difficult set of problems for industry and super low prices for consumers.

I get to the supermarket, which for all appearances is working as normal – an “essential service.” But going inside, I see the empty shelves show that the food system has been disrupted. But the shortages of the first few weeks have now faded, showing the problems in the food system have been due more to distribution than production – shelter in place means stock up now, so demand spiked for quarantine food like rice and canned food. As I overheard in line one day, “if I can still get avocados then we’re doing OK.” In fact, over production may be a problem: plunging demand from restaurants, company cafeterias, and school districts are leading some farmers to plow under their crops.

Broader Adaptive Capacities

Paying for my groceries goes smoothly – the financial system is largely intact. It reminds me of the last time we had a major disruption here, huge floods in 2013. Credit cards and cash machines still worked, so people were able to buy supplies and dig themselves out – had those gone out, the disaster would have been much worse. There will no doubt be big disruptions later on – rent and mortgage payments not made and business loans in arrears will put a huge strain on the financial system, especially since the protections put in place in 2008-9 have been largely dismantled. (Those who don’t study history….)

And while the supermarket is fully staffed, many have called in sick, or feel it’s just not worth the risk of going to work. In contrast, the strain on the health system is huge: a large increase in patients coupled with the need for isolation wards and shortages of supplies has increased costs to hospitals, while the elimination of elective surgery and visits have gutted revenue. And even more disturbing, these strains have endangered staff. The system is still working here in Colorado, but in areas with higher numbers of patients, the bodies are, literally, piling up. If you were unlucky enough to not have health insurance, good luck. And, unlike countries with better health system coverage, the US system with its high deductibles discourages you from getting checked out if you have the sniffles or a bit of a fever, thus increasing the risk.

When I finally get home, I see my family members who have been laid off or their businesses gutted, figuring out how to get by. Markets and production have been profoundly disrupted, more by the public health measures put in place than the virus itself. Unlike the 2008 economic collapse, though, most economic fundamentals are sound. People have lost jobs, and businesses revenue, some permanently. And debt and bankruptcy should skyrocket even after we’re back at work. But for the most part there’s every reason to believe many businesses and jobs will spring back as soon as people can leave their houses again. Governments are pumping trillions into their economies, much of it to support payroll for regular employees, which should ease the damage somewhat. And there have been some winners – mail order services and supermarkets have been hiring as fast as they can to meet demand.

So how are we doing on the resilience stress test? We have seen some serious knock-on effects from an ecosystem disruption, but not a total cascading failure, as we saw in Superstorm Sandy in the US or floods and hurricanes in South Asia in recent years. Hardest hit are the market and health systems. The resilience of the energy and communications sectors have made managing the whole thing far easier. And let’s not forget social networks – they have been disrupted profoundly, especially for families with elderly or immune compromised members. As in all crises, many have actually strengthened their social networks as people connect with each other in solidarity, or just because they have more time.

[1] Full disclosure: I worked at ISET for a few years, and consult with the organization from time to time. Great people. This graphic is adapted from Moench, M., S. Tyler, et al. (2011), Catalyzing Urban Climate Resilience: Applying Resilience Concepts to Planning Practice in the ACCCRN Program (2009–2011), 306 pp, ISET- Boulder: Bangkok, p. 44.

Pull Up your Socks vs. It’s the System

Pull Up your Socks vs. It’s the System

I remember a remarkable conversation I had many years ago when I had my first job in Africa. I was working with African farmers, and casual conversation turned to life in America. “Monsieur Chris,” one farmer asked me, “there are no poor people in America, are there?” I assured him that yes, even in America there are many poor people. Yet as the conversation continued, they could see I was lying, since they heard that many of these allegedly poor people lived in permanent housing, had running water, and electricity. “No, Monsieur Chris, there are no poor people in America.” Nothing I said could change their minds.

I was reminded of that conversation by friend and author Eric Meade. After my last blog went out about Randomized Controlled Trials for determining what social programs work, he responded to it. He said that I’d taken a fairly narrow view of what poverty is and where it comes from. In my blog I’d asserted that if you want to address poverty, you have to address the broader systems that keep people poor (for which Randomized Controlled Trials were not always a great tool). Eric pointed out that social structures do play an important role in poverty, but there are other explanations for the causes of poverty, and what we need to do to reduce it. Structural change does not encompass all of them, he said.

Eric recently published a book on this topic, Reframing Poverty: New Thinking and Feeling About Humanity’s Greatest Challenge. He lays out four basic framings of the sources of poverty that scholars and activists cluster around and argue endlessly about. Briefly those four understandings of poverty are:

  • Structural – broad social, economic, and political systems keep people in poverty
  • Cultural – cultural beliefs and practices of poor people inhibit their ability to escape poverty
  • Contextual – the daily realities that poor people face make it difficult to make the choices that would improve their situation
  • Behavioral – individual action determines who remains poor and who moves out.

I’m simplifying some very nuanced arguments, but if you look at that list you can probably fit every theory you’ve ever heard somewhere in there.

At the same time, Eric points out the various emotions behind our supposedly intellectual thinking that lead us to prefer one of these explanations over others. It is refreshing to bring feelings back into a policy discussion where so much of our training says we need to eliminate it.  If you doubt that our emotions are not key drivers here, just tune into a television debate and turn off the sound. Lots of excitement there.

Eric pointed out to me that yes, structural factors do play a role in creating and keeping people in poverty. Laws and practices that discriminate in key areas like education, finance, and employment make it harder for some than others. And structural economic change is behind the most remarkable reduction in poverty in recent years: the explosive growth of the Chinese middle class since the reforms of the 1980s. Few of us would explain that by saying that hundreds of millions of people suddenly discovered the Power of Positive Thinking.

But does that mean there is nothing that individuals can do? Is there no room for individual agency? If that were true, then why do siblings in the same family often have different outcomes? Eric suggests further that an exclusive focus on structural factors makes it difficult to open dialogue with others who see poor individual choices as being important. And so fruitless arguments circle on and on.

And this issue of individual agency goes far beyond preachy injunctions to “make smart choices.” My experience with social movements is that people can help themselves and have a profound influence on shifting power. So solutions can go far beyond simply staying in school and off drugs, important as those are. And people organizing themselves also gets past the tired assumption that middle class and rich people need to help the poor if anything is going to happen.

The bottom line is that there is some truth in all these explanations. To focus on one to the exclusion of the others is to oversimplify a complex issue. There is far more to this fascinating book than this small glimpse I’ve seen here, so I highly recommend it for anyone who plans to do anything about social issues, not just poverty.


Nobel Prize, Randomized Controlled Trials, and Poverty

Nobel Prize, Randomized Controlled Trials, and Poverty

There are two great things about the 2019 Nobel Prize for Economics that went to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer. The first is the focus on poverty, which for some reason is rare for the Prize. The second is that one of the winners is a woman – Esther Duflo – which is only the second time that’s happened in the history of the prize.

Having said that, there are a few things that worry me about this prize. The three won for their work on adapting Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT) to development interventions. You know, the type of experiment scientists use to figure out which new drugs might treat diseases. You have a control group that gets a placebo, and the treatment group that gets the drug you’re testing, at least in its most classic form. Except in this case the control and treatment groups are communities, or schools, or anywhere poor people are found.

The method is a powerful one for trying out ideas and generating data on what works better. The prize winners have tried it with immunization rates, microenterprise programs, refugee livelihoods, and a stack of other problems related to poverty. I recently participated in an RCT in West Africa, measuring the effects of a radio program on levels of political tolerance. For that radio show, it’s hard to imagine another method that would have produced convincing results.

It works great for drugs. What could go wrong applying it to social problems? Turns out quite a bit. A lot of ink has been spilled over this issue, so let me focus on the most concerning ones.

Service Delivery – RCT works best for micro-interventions or service delivery, that is, interventions dealing with a single problem like how to increase immunization rates or use of bed nets. For these purposes the method is powerful. For anything more profound though, the method ignores the wider structural issues that create poverty and keep people in it. The trend in recent years has been to see the systems that people rely on, and that often fail them. Understanding these complex systems has led us to understand that local efforts must be accompanied by regional interventions and connection with national or international policy to really change things. With RCTs, there is a risk of “individualizing” the problem of poverty. The onus is on individual behavior. If you just use a bed net, or if you just get your teachers to show up at school, then your problems would be solved. This Victorian view of poverty, which sees the individual character as the cause of poverty, ignores the systems that are so important to keeping people poor.

As 15 leading economists (including two other Nobel Prize winners) recently pointed out in The Guardian,

Handing out performance bonuses to teachers, for example, is an inadequate response to education budgets that have been slashed in order to pay down onerous external debts.

Water purification tablets are too little in the face of droughts induced by climate change; what is at stake is an ecological emergency that demands coordinated public policy strategies. In agriculture, real progress requires putting an end to the excessive subsidies paid by rich nations to large producers, regulating food commodity derivatives markets, and ending the land grabs that dispossess the small-scale farmers who play vital roles in feeding the world.

I get it, though, not all interventions have to take on the whole mess at once. Which would be fine, if the “randomistas” (as the more fervent evangelists have come to be known) didn’t pose RCT as the gold standard, the only method that reveals the Truth. In her 2010 Ted talk, Esther Duflo in fact suggests that without RCTs “we are not any better than the Medieval doctors and their leeches.”  Which would come as a surprise to all those astronomers, paleontologists, and other scientists who somehow find a way to do good science with RCTs.

Policy can’t be randomized – Because RCTs work best on discrete interventions, they really aren’t much help in policy change, which drives much of the change we work on. Poverty is a political phenomenon, and contested control over state policy and resources determines as much about people’s life chances as access to microloans or self-help workshops. Unfortunately, this contested terrain is a tough place to do RCTs, so they’re not much help there. There is stacks of great work these days on how to do and assess advocacy and policy change work that takes into account how social change really happens in a fundamental way. Getting better at doing RCTs should not deter us from pushing these approaches even farther.

Cost – RCTs work best when there is a lot of data, to cover over the inevitable differences across individuals and groups. Leaving aside the issue for a moment of whether you can really find “control groups” across large numbers of people, the result is that interventions tend to be large and expensive. Which would be fine if they actually solved the root causes of poverty in key areas, but they don’t. So the risk of donors pivoting scarce resources from the messy and long term work of building social power and bringing about policy change to the flashy results provided by RCTs is a concern. Given the trends to improving “aid effectiveness,” there is a danger that short term results will take precedence over long term effectiveness.

So congratulations to the three winners, and hats off to them for innovating in what is often a moribund space. Let’s keep in mind that RCTs are one tool among many, better suited for some purposes than others. And let’s keep figuring out how to bring about the fundamental social change that so many of us are working for, using these tools and the many others that we have in our tool kits.

How Do Social Movements Fund Themselves?

Social movements often struggle with finding the material resources needed to support themselves. Yet with seemingly little to work with, social movements grow, thrive, and succeed. How do they do it?

We’re looking at this question right now in Mexico. Together with Scott DuPree of Civil Society Transitions, we are doing three case studies of how people’s movements in Mexico are getting what it takes to organize people, craft good messages, get the word out widely, and protect their rights in the face of corporate and state opposition.

I was in Mexico recently and spoke to a Mexican TV news station about what we were doing. Here are excerpts. (If you want to see the whole story, you can watch it here.)

If your Spanish is a bit rusty, here’s what we said:

“For us it is interesting to see how people organize, participate, to defend their rights, and to defend their economic and cultural interests. We will also have a two or three page summary and also a presentation to use in public forums. If we can give a little help to understand our struggles in the world, it would be good.”

The three cases involve communities fighting against an ammonia plant to be built on the shores of a thriving coastal fishery, a proposed gold mine in an area supported by tourism, and a massive dam that will displace Indigenous people and threaten fisheries downstream. We’re finding that people are ingenious in coming up with what they need to keep campaigns moving, and that it makes a huge difference who it comes from. Movement allies who support them – local NGOs, businesses, and sympathetic donors – can not match the huge money that corporations are putting in. But organizers turn down the much greater amounts of money, goods, and services that corporations are offering in order to maintain trust within the movement.

The work is funded by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, based in Washington, DC. We will be releasing the study late in 2019.

Our new publication in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: Crackdown on Environmentalists

Stanford Social Innovation Review has just published our blog, Crackdown on Environmental Action: How Funders Can Respond. In the face of increasing restrictions from legal barriers to murder, environmental and conservation funders are finding new ways to support civil society organizations. The blog draws on our recent briefing on the issue for environmental funders, Closing Civil Society Space: What Environmental Funders Need to Know. This issue cuts across all areas of citizen action, with some unique issues in the environmental realm where megaprojects by governments and corporations so often threaten community livelihoods and health.

Tools for Taking Social Complexity Seriously

When I first started hearing folks talking about complexity and social change 10-15 years ago, I figured that was fine for the ecologists and physicists, but not much use to me. Yet the more I heard, the more the ideas started making intuitive sense to me. When you’re working for social change, you’re mucking with complex adaptive systems, and our old time straightforward, linear management tools (such as logframes) just don’t cut it.

I’ve written before about complexity and managing social change (check it out if you want to see Mao compared to a spider’s web). And if you’re like me, you find it’s easier to talk about complex adaptive systems than it is manage them. So it’s very helpful to know that there are lots of tools out there for practical approaches to planning for, managing, and evaluating complexity. Today’s blog is about a few of the cool tools that are “complexity aware,” and helpful in making us more successful where the right path forward is not clear from the beginning.

These tools flip the logic of traditional management approaches. Instead of anticipating what might happen and laying out a plan to deal with it, many of these tools jump to what happened, or might happen, and track back to what you did that might have contributed to it.

That’s right, contributed, not caused. It’s actually liberating to give up claims that you and your colleagues are responsible for some key policy change, cultural shift, or rebalance of power. That’s just not how social change happens. These tools liberate you to look at what forces are pushing in different directions – cultural, political, technological, economic, whatever it is you suspect matters – and gauge the contribution of each to the results you want to see.

So below are some of my favorites, though there are many more. Feel free to point to others in the comments below.

Outcome Harvesting and Mapping

One tool that is especially useful for monitoring and evaluation is Outcome Harvesting (developed by Ricardo Wilson-Grau and his colleagues), and the closely related Outcome Mapping (developed by the International Development Research Centre in Canada). These two methods don’t try to predict social reality in any great detail, or at least don’t assume that what you want to happen will.

While logical frameworks are good for disciplining our thinking, change in complex situations often produces unexpected results which can be hard to capture with logframes. These outcomes take place in a context of many players, social forces, global and local trends. The Outcome Harvesting method can help get at outputs and outcomes that were unanticipated or came about in unexpected ways. This method is well suited to complex adaptive systems, where there are indirect relationships between program inputs and outcomes.

The method is also valuable in that it integrates stakeholders in the process of learning what’s going on, rather than some external facilitator. While there are many steps in the process, for me the essence is giving people a structured way of thinking about outcomes, whether intended or not. For collecting observations from participants, a simple form such as the following can guide participants to watch out for outcomes, whether expected or not.

Systems Mapping

If your goal requires you to work with stacks of moving parts – reducing homelessness, defending territory from extractive industry, overcoming achievement gaps in education – it can be helpful to create a map showing what forces are pushing in what directions. These maps can give you a picture of what’s going on, and suggest paths to influence that are most likely to succeed.

Systems mapping is not including everything, it’s knowing what to exclude. And as Bob Williams is fond of pointing out, what you include and what you leave out are always ethical decisions: who gets to be part of the system and whose perspective is taken into account.

An example of what such a map might look like comes from work we did in West Africa in mapping out Food Security:

Now the important thing here is not the product – in fact these maps are pretty eye-crossing, to tell the truth. The real value is in the process of getting a group together to discuss the issues and hear each other’s perspectives on what’s in and what’s out, and what the relationships among the elements should be. These maps can help then figure out how you’re going to work together, and what avenues are most likely to be productive, and which are just a bridge to far at this point.

Social Network Mapping

An additional tool that can be very useful for planning is to map out the main players in their system. In this way, participants can generate a clear consensus about who is important to the system, who has influence and who does not, and which players the agency can most likely influence.

The map below is an example: it represents the world of funding of issues important to Indigenous Peoples. This map was created by participants, and clarified who played what roles, who was within two degrees of separation of participants, and what kind of relationships participants wanted with the various players over the next five years.

Note that I am not talking Social Network Analysis here, a related but quite different tool. Social Network Analysis (SNA) tends to use questionnaires to generate a social matrix, that then creates a map with specialized software. While SNA maps have a certain “wow” factor, I find that participants have a harder time interpreting them, since the machine-generated maps can mask mistakes or biases in the underlying data, and lead participants to false conclusions about who is in relationship with whom and how. They are also harder for participants to manipulate themselves as they update their understanding of relationships and lines of influence. The method I prefer instead asks participants to generate their own maps based on their own experience and perspective. They reflect their lived experience, and can build in far more nuance. Debates over the maps generate consensus among participants, which is important for developing a Theory of Change. The more perspectives the process includes, the more valuable the maps are.

So this is just a sampling of the many tools being developed and used to take complexity seriously. Let me know which you’ve found useful, and how you’ve used them.


Resilient Funders

By Chris Allan

It’s no secret it’s getting harder and harder for civil society organizations around the world to function, and for funders to support them.

Dozens of countries are increasing restrictions on what civil society organizations can do, and from where they can get money. Funders and NGOs are pushing back, usually through public policy advocacy. But there is so much more that we can be doing to handle these restrictions than just saying “no.”
There are lessons for us from the field of social resilience, which talks about how to keep things going in the face of shocks and stresses. The field made major strides in recent years in understanding how to manage shifting environments, and we can use them here. We’ve just published an article by the Global Greengrants Fund, supported by the Global Fund for Community Foundations, on what funders around the world are doing to handle the ever-shifting sands of supporting civil society.
To keep up support for citizen action, we present a new conceptual framework on how to adapt

  • funding practices,
  • strategy and
  • environments

You can read the blog here, and the full article here. Comments are always welcome as we figure out ways forward in these troubling times.

Democratizing Grantmaking

Chris Allan cropped

By Chris Allan

It’s hard to think of a sector with less accountability built in than philanthropy. So it’s up to us in the field itself to make sure that grantmakers are open and responsive to the folks we’re trying to help.

I’ve just come from the annual EDGE Funders Alliance meeting, which devoted huge amounts of time to figuring out how to democratize grantmaking. To me these conversations respond not only from the ethical principle of breaking down the barriers of privilege, but also from the practical idea that our action is more effective when we’re working together toward common goals. Funders, grantees, support organizations, everyone. For too long now it’s been OK for grantmakers to set ourselves apart from the movements we fund, holding ourselves above the fray. It’s no longer good enough to believe that we become smarter and better looking the day we take a job with an organization that has money to give away. Not if we really want to work on the wicked problems that are so thorny.

Here is just a sampling of the great ideas that came out of those conversations.

Make grantees part of the process

Not many people know more about the problems you’re working on than the organizations active in the movement. No one has the whole picture, but the people doing the work are going to be the ones up on latest developments, who’s doing great things, and who’s just along for the ride. Bringing these folks into the grantmaking process can strengthen the whole thing. There are lots of ways to do this – as board members, decision makers on grantmaking, strategic planners, creators of theories of change – anything that brings their perspective into what needs to be done. It is important to deal with the power imbalance in grantmaking by creating systems and procedures that force us to open up the system, beyond just being nice about it.

But aren’t they just going to push their self-interest, you say? Probably yes – and that’s just what you want. Movement leaders are going to push their perspectives about what needs to be done, and try to direct resources to the people they see as most effective. In the social sector the most important asset people have is their reputation, and few will want to torpedo their ability to work in the field by playing fast and loose with something as important as money for the movement. This creates a confluence of interest, not a conflict of interest. And as a grantmaker it’s still your job to digest the variety of opinions and perspectives that come in – just do it with the best informed people in the field in an open way, rather than with a disconnected board behind closed doors.

See yourself as part of the movement you’re funding

When you talk to movement leaders, fundraising is often the most maddening part of the job. The people who run organizations know how to do many things and how to solve many problems, but when funders are aloof, don’t communicate, and make random turns and decisions, that is beyond the control of movement leaders. So become part of the movement, instead of walling yourself off. Make decisions with these leaders, whether it’s a change in strategy, a change in procedures, or choosing new board members. After all, if grantees succeed, you want that to be your success too. And if they fail, you need to see that as your failure too, and learn together from it.

Be transparent

Being a funder means everyone wants a piece of you. The phone calls and emails can be incessant, everyone wants to talk to you at conferences, and you can never tell what to believe from what you hear. Unfortunately, many of us react to that by hiding behind opaque procedures, making our organizations mysterious. This raises the costs for the whole movement through time wasted by grantees looking for funding in unlikely places, and donors fending off potential grantees who really don’t fall into your set criteria.

So return phone calls. Answer emails. Answer honestly when people talk to you. These are parts of the costs of doing business of grantmaking. While these conversations can be hard, at the end they are in the best interests of the movement you are supporting. And stronger movements are what we’re after, right?

Seek grantee feedback

Are you that grantmaker that has a reputation for not playing well with others? For being hard to figure out? Like when you have bad breath, no one is ever going tell you that. So grantmakers need to make use of the outside groups that can confidentially ask your grantees – and non-grantees, hopefully – what you’re doing right, and what needs to be fixed. The Grantee Experience and Insight Review and the Grantee Perception Report are the two best known. Do the confidential surveys, learn from them, and adjust accordingly.

Understand privilege

We all recognize the power dynamics that come with having money vs. asking for it. But how to deal with the power imbalance? Above I talked about having concrete systems and procedures that balance things out a bit. But we can go beyond that, and help our organizations understand how privilege works. There are great training programs for leaders and grantmakers that can go deep into these areas, so we understand the importance of opening up a very closed and elite system.

Opening Up Grantmaking

Bringing grantmakers into the movements we support is key to solving difficult problems. There is lots of experience in doing this – the Global Greengrants Fund and the Needmor Fund in the United States, Mama Cash in the Netherlands, Fundación Acción Solidaria in Mexico, and many others have shown that it is both possible and worth it to open up grantmaking beyond a privileged elite. And necessary, if we really want to make a difference.

Resilience and the Shape of Your Body

Chris Allan cropped

By Chris Allan

We’ve all been there – a discussion about gender issues in international development deteriorates in a defensive exchange, and people finally give up, convinced that the other is too narrow minded to work with.

So one of the most important factors in what makes some people more sensitive to shocks and stresses than others gets left by the wayside. “Differential vulnerability” – why you and I can experience a disaster differently, even though we live in the same place with roughly the same socioeconomic status – is a key concept to building resilience. People sometimes equate “vulnerability” with “poverty,” and gender differences are a prime example of where this equation breaks down. For example, women in refugee camps have a widely different experience than the men in their families, being much more exposed to sexual assault or exploitation, even just going in search of water or trying to cross a border.

But this example just follows the classic defensive discussion – “gender” means “women.” In work I recently did in Niger in West Africa, we had much better luck looking at gender constraints for everyone, not just women. That is, what roles are you forced into just because of the type of body you were born with, not because of your talents or dreams?

We tried to represent these roles in a simple infographic:


There are three groups represented here, which everyone in Niger knows:

• Women
• Men
• Teenage boys

The upper left focuses on the role of women, who perform the familiar tasks of childcare, small scale farming, collecting water and firewood. And all of these tasks become more onerous during droughts when water sources dry up, firewood becomes scarce, and men are off looking for paid work. So far, a familiar story.

But the other two boxes focus on men and boys. The men, like it or not, are obligated to leave home, often crossing many borders in search of work. The risks are high from traffic accidents, theft, dangerous work in construction or unregulated factories, and the debt they must go into to finance all this. And no one asks a man if this is what he wants to do, as a man it’s his role to work for money.

Or for young men in Diffa in the southeast, infiltration from Boko Haram makes them a target for recruitment by the fundamentalists coming in from Nigeria, and for the military and police who treat them like a terrorist regardless of their choices. Simply be being teenage males, they are a target from both sides, regardless of their beliefs or behaviors.

Discussing gender roles in this way can make it easier for people to see the difference gender makes in vulnerability. In most cases it is women who come up on the short end of the stick when looking at vulnerability, but that’s not the whole story. In the end freedom is about choices. The more choices people have, the more likely they are to find their own ways to deal with the shocks and stresses that they need to manage.

Partnership and Grantmaking

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By Chris Allan

The lines between “donors” and “grantees” in the NGO world have become blurred in recent years. Partnership often involves money, and money always affects relationships.

For most international networks, Southern partners are limited in capacity by the lack of access to funding that Northern partners have. Many networks try to balance this asymmetry by channeling funds from Northern to Southern partners. Some do it by paying funds directly; others use independent grantmaking organizations to do it.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. This document will briefly review them.

1. Advantages of Separating Technical Assistance and Advocacy from Grantmaking

Reduces issues from changed relationships – The primary concern about combining program functions and grantmaking is that the money will change relationships within the network. Southern partners realize that it can be costly to oppose ideas or approaches of Northern partners, and frank discussion of internal problems or issues can affect an organization’s bottom line. A horizontal, democratic partnership can be clouded by the need to get more funds from the Northern donor.

Specialized skills and organizational tools for grantmaking – An organization that only makes grants is able to specialize in grantmaking. Staff, information technology, financial systems, and other management systems can be set up to do one thing well and efficiently. Overheads can be reduced since there are fewer programmatic expenses to explain to funders.

Engagement with other funders – As a funder, a specialized grantmaking organization can speak to other funders as a peer. Contacts and discussions at many donor affinity groups – the International Human Rights Funders Group, Grantmakers without Borders, the European Foundation Center, the African Funders Network, etc. – can greatly increase the odds of influencing the behavior of other funders. This access has been critical for some of the leaders in this field of social change grantmaking, and has even resulted in increased commitment to social change grantmaking on the part of more mainstream funders.

2. Disadvantages of Separating Technical Assistance and Advocacy from Grantmaking

Changes relationships – As soon as money is added to a partner relationship, the relationship must change. Partners constantly wonder if they are being honest with each other, and if commitment to the cause comes from conviction or convenience, and if the passion will dry up as soon as the money does. Networks must work through this issue just as they do all the others involved in power relations: who sets the agenda, how is governance set up across the network, who decides what the network’s messages are on which issues, etc. Money is just one more of these, and must be handled in the same way. Formalizing structures and procedures, religiously maintaining transparency, decentralizing and collectivizing decision making, and respecting regional autonomy can all help.

Increases overall costs – While specializing functions among organizations can reduce overheads, overall the movement spends more on its own organizations. There are economies of scale involved in reducing the number of organizations that must administer, fundraise for, and oversee all the functions that a movement must perform.

Adds a layer of bureaucracy – As soon as another organization is added to the process, all the issues of communication, shared understanding, and organizational interaction are more complicated. Rather than one organization developing its understanding and relationship with another, a third organization is added, which increases the effort involved to reach common understandings, perform tasks, and resolve conflicts.

Harder to understand results and adjust grantmaking – In working in partnership, organizations develop an analysis of what is happening, who is doing what, and what needs to happen next. When partners are able to apply this constantly moving understanding to grantmaking, money is used most effectively. When grantmaking is done by another partner, this understanding is diluted and starts to run behind current developments.

Competition for fundraising – As soon as another organization enters the field, donors have one more potential grantee to consider. It is important to note that this does not have to be a zero sum game: groups like the Global Fund for Women have a) mobilized funds that otherwise would not go to international women’s issues, and b) have provided a vehicle that makes it far easier for both individuals and institutions to fund cutting edge work all over the world. In the Global Greengrants Fund world, partners in the network have actually been able to increase the funding available to each other since the network has a) made them all more visible and b) referred funders to their partners, taking advantage of independent but overlapping networks.

3. How to deal with issues raised

From these points above, there are clearly pros and cons of each approach. On the pro side of separating functions, the advantage of access to funder circles counts for a lot. And reducing the role of money in relationships is attractive, though networks must still deal with the other power issues, so the problem does not disappear altogether. On the con side, the reduction of activist control over this critical tool is a problem. And the separation of understanding of what is happening from funding decisions can reduce the effectiveness of grantmaking. Both systems have been effective in the environment, human rights, and women’s movements. The essential element of both is that it is important for movements to increase their ability to fund themselves, whether the funds come from advocacy organizations or specialist grantmakers who see themselves as part of the movement itself.

There are many movement-oriented grantmakers who are dealing with these issues daily, and increasingly they are based in Southern countries. Funders like Trust Africa in Senegal, Akiba Uhaki in Kenya, the African Women’s Development Fund in Ghana, and The Samdhana Institute in Southeast Asia are all developing capacity to support organizations and movements.