24/04/2017 / Investing in People

Investing in People

24/04/2017

On the eve of the EDGE Funders Alliance 2017 Conference, Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, reflects on how philanthropists can effectively support change-makers.

2002 Right Livelihood Award Laureate Martin Almada holding his file.

2002 Right Livelihood Award Laureate Martin Almada holding his file from the Paraguayan “Archives of Terror”. Photo Right Livelihood Award.

In 2007, a scandal rocked the Swedish overseas development assistance community. Tax money, disbursed to some of the world’s poorest countries through the national aid agency Sida and Swedish development NGOs had been gravely misused. Swedish taxpayers had financed conferences that never took place, bankrolled luxury villas and paid handsome fees to non-existent consultants. The Swedish Inspector General (“Riksrevisionen”) concluded that Sida was inadvertently contributing to fuelling corruption in beneficiary countries, thus impeding – rather than promoting – their development.

One decade on, the Swedish development community has learnt from past mistakes. There are now better safeguards against the misuse of funds: documentation and reporting requirements have become so detailed that grantees need specially trained experts to deal with them. This comes at a cost: new rules favour larger recipient organisations that can afford such extravagance, spending more and more time and resources on reporting to different donors in different ways.

Even private charities now increasingly follow this trend of “professionalising” their giving. Some pool their resources to be able to fund larger, more impactful, projects. Others go in the opposite direction: “I’d rather give some more small grants to grassroots groups”, a friend at a major US charity told me, “than pay the consultants who would help eliminate any imaginable risk.”

Is this the choice we face in charitable giving? To either act like careful, conservative bankers or instead like high-risk investors who expect most of their start-ups to fail within the first couple of years?

Perhaps there is a third way, and it does not follow the logic of investment – whether risk-happy or risk-averse. It rather follows the logic of professional recruitment. It is mainly focused on the people doing the work, rather than just the spreadsheets they produce. Like a good human resources manager, it takes great care to select the right people, and then builds trust over the long term.

This is the experience of the Right Livelihood Award, which has been presented in Stockholm since 1980 to courageous people and organisations who have found practical solutions to the root causes of global problems.

Everybody in the world can nominate anyone for the award. The most promising candidates come under consideration by the award’s international jury. They are visited in their home countries, where they are evaluated not just on the impact of their work, but also their personal integrity. Interviews with peers and critics alike are an essential part of this process.

After vetting the more than 100 candidates’ track record, role model character, and transformative potential, four Laureates are chosen by the jury. The importance of this highly competitive selection process is that we can rely upon those who make it through to have the experience, the knowledge and the relentless personal drive to bring about positive social change – beyond any box ticking or expensive consultant advice.

In 2002, we gave the Right Livelihood Award to Martín Almada from Paraguay, who had discovered the “Archives of Terror” containing crucial proof of the atrocities of the Stroessner regime. Asked about the impact of the award, he told us that it would effectively stop the Paraguayan dictator from returning from exile. We trusted him – and he was right.

There are many other examples among our 166 laureates: Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who received the Right Livelihood Award in 1984, used the international recognition to spread the success story of her Greenbelt Movement internationally and went on to receive a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Bundestag Member Hermann Scheer used the prestige of the award to push through the visionary renewable energy legislation in Germany.

Just recently, in the case of our Egyptian laureate Mozn Hassan, we witnessed how several major donors had withdrawn from Egypt because of the “risk” associated with the unstable political situation. We instead chose to put our reputation and full support behind Hassan and her organisation Nazra in this difficult situation. Given Hassan’s travel ban, we organised a solidarity mission to Cairo, just as we did to Chad and Gaza in years before in support of our laureates there.

And this, of course, is the logical next step of support based on trust. When the work of grantees can put them in danger, we are responsible for them – lifelong. Several of our laureates, like the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, Memorial in Russia and Cumhuriyet newspaper in Turkey, have lost staff members to assassinations. And yet they keep going. And so must we.

The goal of philanthropy is to work towards a better world. There is no more effective way to do this than to support those people who have proven solutions in their hands for how we can live on this planet in a just, peaceful and sustainable way. Our task as philanthropists is to identify them. If we do that well, then we can trust them to lead the way.