Updated: Mar 21, 2019
A total of 1,200 participants attended the two-day 2019 Bond Conference earlier this week, apparently making it the largest conference to date. It can be challenging at such a large event to prevent information overload from taking over, so here is my attempt to distil my personal learning through four key takeaways:
1. What was left unsaid spoke volumes
What we didn't talk about was almost more significant than what came up during the conference. The theme of power dynamics was surfaced by presenters and audience members in all of the sessions I attended, which was encouraging. And yet somehow there was very little discussion of or meaningful engagement with the root causes of existing power imbalances between the Global South and North, and what it would mean in practice for international actors to relinquish some of their power to redress the inequities caused by colonialism, neo-colonialism and ongoing racist policies. Perhaps the reason is that this topic is too deep to delve into in the space of short sessions, especially when there is little time for discussion. In a conversation with a friend at the end of the conference, we both concluded that speaking out about power and anything colonial-related in the sector is still seen as either too 'radical' or quite simply passé; this is ground that has already been covered, and it's time to move on. Regardless of our personal opinions about the matter, a deeper reflection of the UK's past, present and future - given the current rhetoric of 'Global Britain' - would surely be a good thing.
2. Community philanthropy is 'up and coming' - but INGOs don't necessarily have a direct role to play
I was delighted to see that community philanthropy had its own session at the conference this year, and that we had the opportunity to hear directly from its champions in Kenya, Nepal, India and Zambia (stay tuned for an upcoming post on the Zambian Governance Foundation). While I'm glad that the topic is finally getting the attention it most definitely deserves (since it has existed for a long time), I'm also wary of this potentially becoming the latest 'fad' in development. Caesar Ngule of the Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF) gave sound advice to INGOs thinking of participating in community philanthropy: "enter this space responsibly... Don't come in and destroy the fabric that is already there." Tewa, a Nepalese philanthropic organisation, has very few international donors - on purpose - and has turned down international money in the past because it came with too many strings attached that diverted Tewa from its core mission. This is a fantastic challenge to the sector: how can we support this work - or help to remove any existing barriers - without changing its agenda or displacing long-standing work and impact? If you're unfamiliar with what community philanthropy entails, I wrote a short piece on how it works, using the example of the Dalia Association in Palestine. Also check out the many resources from the Global Fund for Community Foundations.
3. The SDGs require action in the Global North to level the playing field
I was glad to see that the session on the SDGs: Advocating for real change focused on the universality of the Global Goals, i.e. the fact that the UK and other Northern countries are bound by the same reporting requirements and accountability mechanisms as countries in the Global South. I agree that this is a welcome divergence from, say the Millennium Development Goals, but what I find frustrating is the continued disconnect between achieving the SDGs domestically and dismantling global structures that unfairly disadvantage countries in the South. Who is tracking or measuring this? Given it's political sensitivity, it's often overlooked in international fora. Iara Pietricovsky, co-Director of the Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos (INESC) in Brazil, was the only panellist to raise this point directly. She noted that "governments and businesses talk about working towards achieving the SDGs in the Global South, but undermine this with their trade and financial policies." This for me is the crux of the SDGs: they can only be achieved if individual countries push hard to meet their respective targets AND if countries in the Global North remove the barriers they have put in place that prevent countries from successfully doing so.
4. We must be mindful that our use of storytelling does not become extractive
In a beautifully constructed and piercing closing speech, Sisonke Msimang pointed out the many double standards that permeate our most common development discourses. She illustrated this by attacking the stereotype that storytellers are "passionate," while development experts are "intelligent," that we get "stories from the field" and "expertise from HQ." The way in which we collect stories can also be very perverse, oftentimes more akin to harvesting or extracting knowledge and information from communities than sharing their experiences, and re-telling their stories in a way that meets the requirements of development organisations. Msimang had the quote of the conference when she said: "White people are experts, Black and Brown people are storytellers." I look forward to reading her book Always Another Country - and to educating myself about the ways in which the sector exploits both stories and storytellers.
Well, those are some fairly negative takeaways. I do acknowledge that it's always easier to be critical than to offer solutions about the many woes facing the development sector. Perhaps, as Penny Mordaunt told the audience after her speech on day one, we need to "chill out," including about whether DFID has a future... But frustration ultimately comes from a place of hope, and a deep-seated belief that the sector can and will do better. And it is from this perspective that I write.