Political Empowerment and Mobilization Needs to be the Critical Metric for Funders


New Orleans  I ’d like to just say it is a coincidence, but sometimes it just seems like fate. One day we write about how funders are explicitly and implicitly leading movements, campaigns, organizers, and organizations down blind alleys into box canyons for their own convenience without concern for the outcomes and happily doing so based on false metrics, and the next day there is a hallelujah chorus echoing the same argument, even more powerfully, on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for Dawn, the Pakistani newspaper, and penned the piece entitled, “You Can’t ‘Empower’ Us with Chickens” pointedly discussing the misdirected efforts focusing on women, but she could as easily have been addressing the poor, migrants, and so many others with the same force. She names names taking down Melinda Gates argument that sending a chicken can empower women, Heifer International’s “enterpriser basket” of rabbits, fish, and silkworms, and India Partners plea for $100 for a sewing machine. Her point is the obvious one: economics can NOT be equated with empowerment.

Zakaria correctly argues that all of this was a high-jacking. Feminists of the 1980s from the Global South had introduced the priority of empowerment to stop gender subordination and “other oppressive structures” and developing “political mobilization.” The NGO and donor development community has sweated empowerment down to “technical programming” to “improve education and health.” The end result: “This depoliticized ‘empowerment’ serves everyone except the women it is supposed to help.” Amen. In fact the OCED issued its report today as well indicating that the same situation is true of course among rich countries as well, noting that there has been “no progress” in reducing the gap of income and political power between men and women in the last five years.

In a devastatingly accurate critique of the fake metrics of recipient organizations that includes touting enrollment in schools without revealing graduation rates along with the lack of sustainable income in the families getting the chickens and other animal husbandry “gift,” Zakaria states the verdict plainly:

…there is a skirting of the truth that without political change, the structures that discriminate against women can’t be dismantled and any advances they do make will be unsustainable. Numbers never lie, but they do omit.”

She goes further, and rightly so, arguing about the ludicrous exercise of offering classes to ex-fighters of the Sri Lanka Liberation Tigers in cake decorating, sewing, and hairstyling. Personally, i’ll bet there were some women walking out of those classes, saying “get me a gun!” Zakaria argues, “It’s time for a change to the ‘empowerment’ conversation. Development organizations’ programs must be evaluated on the basis of whether they enable women to increase their potential for political mobilization….” Furthermore she correctly states that “The idea that development goals and agendas should be apolitical must be discarded.”

Now add to all of her references to women, low-and-moderate income families, minorities, immigrants, migrants, and millions upon millions of the powerless, and substitute the United States and other countries for the global inflection and donors, foundations, and the rich for development groups, and her argument holds true across the board.


Movements and Campaigns are Important but Funders Everywhere Starve and Misdirect Them

New Orleans   Morocco got me thinking about this problem, but it’s global, it’s pernicious, and it’s probably one of the major things still manufactured in America where the model is made. Money and the people who handle it are undermining and misdirecting actions, campaigns, leaders, and organizations. Yeah, yeah, what’s new, right? I can hear you way over here.

Nonetheless, I still think it seems to have gotten worse in the decade since the Great Recession due to the concentration of wealth over recent decades, the conservative and risk adverse climate of domestic and world politics in the intervening years, and the general cluelessness about what’s on the ground and what matters. There’s more money needed, less available, and fewer willing to take chances on the work.

Part of it is lost in the metrics of global NGOs and foundations. Not believing in action or struggle the work becomes subsumed in bean counting seats on a bus and people attending conferences and workshops. The analytics become web visits, Facebook likes, and retweets as people talk to themselves rather than creating a self-interested base that will fight for the work. Leaders are ever more the educated, articulate and presentable spokespeople and communicators conscious of their own “brand,” rather than the indigenous and enraged emerging from the base.

Talking about the judge’s dismissal of a suit against the Black Lives Matter movement, the judge was implicitly clear that the suit could have gotten traction if the policeman had sued a parallel and supporting institution if they had been part of the mayhem. An example from another movement would be suing one of the Tea Party groups that won a tax exemption after the right attacked the IRS for foot dragging on their applications for a free ride, rather than the random Tea Party groups when they were first springing up. And, why do these groups arise up? In order to provide funders a tax exempt vehicle to dip their feet in the water of the action without having to fully dive in. The activists are left volunteering, while the “suits” are able to collect the money. The judge and the commentators essentially ignored the wink-and-nod involved in all of this, and of course it was not his job to weigh the consequences of what this means for those actually demanding change and trying to win it.

One of our favorite meetings in Rabat, Morocco was with Betty Lachgar, a principled, firebrand activist for individual rights in the country for women, non-religious, and the LGBT community. Hers was a movement that she said was supported by the 50 “members” who were part of it. It was also clear from her remarks that she was a darling of international NGOs and regularly invited all around the world to speak about their annual actions as a favored, “designated leader.” No questions, she was a warrior, but all of this had to send a message to her that there was no need to do the even harder, if less courageous and outrageous work, of doing the outreach to build a base to demand the change. Not surprisingly, as our meeting ended and informally a number of the Organizers’ Forum asked if there was a way to make donations to her movement, she volunteered that there were a number of organizations that were willing to receive donations and funnel them over.

Such fiscal agents are another convenience for the donors and a risk for the organizations themselves. Domestically, the hypocrisy is often worse, since increasingly a number of donors refuse to use intermediaries, forcing fledgling campaigns and movements to either starve or fall in line.

In dealing with so much wealth in institutions and individuals, in the name of making change, why is it too much to ask the giver to share the risk, rather than the organizers and activists? When we watch the billions given in political campaigns, why is it too much to ask donors to forego the tax deduction in order to make sure the money gets to those who make the change, rather than those who organize the meetings and reports about the work of the changemakers?