At the end of the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s valuable new report, Policy Influence: What Foundations are Doing and Why, the authors ask: “Given that many foundation leaders believe that philanthropic engagement in public policy, at its best, brings external accountability to public systems, elevates unheard voices, and offers promise of systemic change, how can leaders promote and engage in a more nuanced discussion about philanthropy and public policy influence?”
That’s a useful question for all foundations to ask, and particularly so for foundations that work on global development. I believe that when foundation leaders think deeply about how to make the most significant and lasting positive contribution in their international work, they will land on two crucial goals: first, strengthening the accountability of public policymakers to their own citizens; and second, improving the capacity of governments to implement evidence-informed policies and practices that permit them to fulfil the commitments they make to those citizens.
Public policy work in one’s own country differs fundamentally from public policy work abroad. A U.S. foundation working on domestic public policy has a reasonably complete understanding of the political landscape and history — tacit knowledge, at least, of where the ideological lines are drawn and of the country’s fraught racial and immigration history, and how that affects current realities. Program staff know how hard it is for advocates to get legislation passed. Once passed, they also know how that legislation will be implemented through rules, regulation, and a reasonably competent set of bureaucratic institutions.
U.S. foundations also operate under a regulatory framework that creates a form of accountability to citizens who are ultimately affected by policy changes. Yes, that accountability is highly attenuated, but the philanthropic community knows the current limits on political activity and also knows that those limits could be tightened through legislative action at any time.
In sharp contrast, a U.S. foundation working to influence public policy in another country — particularly in a low-income country with relatively weak democratic institutions — faces a far different set of starting conditions. Foundation staff are likely to have a more superficial understanding of political processes, ethnic and regional history and tensions, and politicians’ affiliations or past transgressions, as well as the nature of their home districts. A U.S. foundation working abroad may observe how quickly politicians sign up to high-level commitments — universal health coverage! universal basic education! an AIDS-free generation! — without recognizing how unlikely it is that the public sector will be able to implement even the best ideas without significant, ongoing support.
Perhaps most importantly, because a U.S. foundation advancing a policy agenda is not itself accountable to the citizens of other countries, it may inadvertently undermine the relationship between citizens and their own government. To put it bluntly, if U.S. foundations approach public policy influence in other countries as they do in their own, the risks of both failure and unintended negative consequences are significant.
What, then, is the right approach for a policy-oriented U.S. foundation to take to advance health, education, and wellbeing for hundreds of millions of people in low-income countries? How can U.S. dollars make the most difference in the best way? I believe there are two vital lines of work, both of which require patience, partnership, and trust.
One is to strengthen local civil society organizations, particularly those that authentically represent communities that have been marginalized from political processes and that most suffer from failing public systems. For example, just last November, four foundations committed a total of at least $20 million to strengthen the capacity of women’s funds, which themselves provide flexible support to grassroots organizations that advance the rights of and opportunities for women and girls, as well as sexual and gender minorities. This investment does not carry specific, designed-from-the-top policy agendas. Instead, it is based on the belief that when excluded groups are provided with the resources to organize around their own policy “asks,” the results will be both better policy and a stronger, sustained capacity to hold governments to account.
The second way U.S. foundations can support good policy in a way that is fully consistent with the value of self-determination is to strengthen the capacity of public agencies — such as Ministries of Health, Education, Agriculture, and Social Protection, for example — to develop contextually grounded policies and then implement them effectively. This is a tall order, but far from impossible — particularly when foundation support focuses on increasing the use of data and analytic inputs for better decision-making while providing sufficient flexibility for the technical support to respond as needs arise.
For example, IDinsight, the data, analytics, and advisory organization I lead as CEO, began working with the Malawian government on its social protection and cash transfer programs in 2018, with support from a philanthropic donor based in the U.S. Thanks to flexibility in the funding, IDinsight’s team has been able to create an Embedded Learning Partnership, helping to support government decisions as they arise during program design and implementation. That flexibility — along with the long-standing relationship between the IDinsight team and government counterparts — meant that in March of this year, when the government significantly pivoted to develop its response to COVID-19, the team was poised to advise the government on how to leverage their existing cash transfer infrastructure to support populations made newly vulnerable by the crisis.
Is this a made-in-America policy agenda? No. Is this likely to benefit hundreds of thousands of Malawians and build a more responsive public sector. Yes.
CEP has done a great service to the field by describing the way U.S. foundations approach public policy influence, and by raising important questions about how to do that more effectively and responsibly. As the conversation continues in the philanthropic community, I am hopeful that it will include reflection on the risks and rewards of global policy and advocacy.