Gul Rukh Rahman, Empowering Families for Innovative Philanthropy (ERFIP) Foundation

Deco­lo­ni­zing the phil­an­thro­pic mindset

Gul Rukh Rahman, Director of the Empowering Families for Innovative Philanthropy (ERFIP) Foundation talks about the North-South divide, the role of local philanthropists and parachute philanthropy.

How does the North-South divide affect global philanthropy?

Before jumping into the discus­sion about North-South divide and its impact on global phil­an­thropy, one might ask what is global phil­an­thropy? Is it cross border private giving within two simi­lar sized econo­mies or is it private capi­tal flows from global North to global South? North being defi­ned as rich indus­tria­li­zed count­ries and is not based on geogra­phi­cal divide.

The North-South divide affects global phil­an­thropy in the same way that it affects global poli­tics, socio-econo­mics and cultu­ral land­scapes. The unequal  and inequi­ta­ble power dyna­mics that exists between the North and the South are deeply reflec­ted in global phil­an­thropy. The North enjoys immense control over global policy making which directly impacts count­ries from the South. Global phil­an­thropy, thus, cannot be seen as opera­ting outside the norms estab­lished by the likes of Bret­ton Wood institutions.

How should it be seen?

If the history of the North-South divide has been about the colo­ni­zer and the colo­ni­zed; then at present, that has trans­la­ted into the ever-expan­ding wealth gap between the have and the have-nots; where the haves have bene­fi­ted tremen­dously from globa­liza­tion, tax avoid­ance, offshore tax havens and poli­ti­cal systems that help entrench these inequa­li­ties in favor of the few. The haves get involve in phil­an­thropy – global and local – for reasons which are not really altru­i­stic, in my opinion.

Global phil­an­thropy is a mirror of the world order. There is no accoun­ta­bi­lity, no trans­pa­rency and repre­sen­ta­tion, deva­lued local know­ledge and context and the bene­fi­ci­a­ries are trea­ted with little respect in most cases. The culture of depen­dency crea­ted by both global phil­an­thropy and inter­na­tio­nal deve­lo­p­ment are some of the ways North-South divide rein­forces the power dynamics.

Global phil­an­thropy is a mirror of the world order. There is no accoun­ta­bi­lity, no trans­pa­rency and repre­sen­ta­tion, deva­lued local know­ledge and context and the bene­fi­ci­a­ries are trea­ted with little respect in most cases.

Gul Rukh Rahman

Has anyone ever held the US, UK and their allies accoun­ta­ble for destruc­tion of Iraq, loss of milli­ons of lives for what we factually know was a war based on fake-evidence? No. But the West or the North count­ries will happily impose cripp­ling sanc­tions on a coun­try should they feel offen­ded by its action.

And what does that mean for global philanthropy?

We can observe simi­lar power dyna­mics in global phil­an­thropy. Are there any instru­ments in place that can hold private global phil­an­thropy and phil­an­thro­pists accoun­ta­ble for the destruc­tion their expe­ri­ments may have or can cause? I am not fami­liar with any.

More to the point, the Gates Foun­da­tion is the largest private phil­an­thro­pic  player in agri­cul­ture in Africa. If its programs have done good for people, they have also caused immense damage to small farmers. Has anyone or can anyone hold a Foun­da­tion of this size accoun­ta­ble? The answer would be NO.

In many cases, large phil­an­thro­pic actors operate with the bles­sing of local govern­ments. These govern­ments, as we know, are usually weak, corrupt and dicta­to­rial and the power dyna­mic between the North-South deter­mi­nes who drives the poli­ti­cal, social, econo­mic and phil­an­thro­pic agendas.

In other words, the imba­lance of power is also evident in global philanthropy?

Global phil­an­thropy crea­tes depen­den­cies simi­lar to those of inter­na­tio­nal aid and inter­na­tio­nal deve­lo­p­ment sector. There is nothing inher­ently wrong with global phil­an­thropy but what is deeply concer­ning is that all decis­i­ons are made in count­ries other than the recei­ving community/country;  real agen­das remain unclear.

Are those acts of phil­an­thropy about image make­over for a company, or repu­ta­tio­nal laun­de­ring for an indi­vi­dual, a family, or a business?

The white Savior’s complex is entren­ched deeply into global philanthropy.

Gul Rukh Rahman

Because of the North‘s deep phil­an­thro­pic pockets and access to global finan­cial and poli­ti­cal power, the local phil­an­thro­pists in many cases are pushed out of conver­sa­ti­ons that are inher­ently about their count­ries, regi­ons, cities and people. This lack of voice or what I call the deva­lued local know­ledge and context is another reflec­tion of North-South divide. To put it more bluntly, the white Savior’s complex is entren­ched deeply into global philanthropy.

How can this be changed?

This is a deeper longer discus­sion but I feel that unlike North-South divide and the poli­tics that surround it, global phil­an­thropy needs to cali­brate itself on basis of equity and equality. We also need to stop looking at phil­an­thropy as a stop-gap arran­ge­ment where it fills the gaps where govern­ments are failing.

The local phil­an­thro­pists need to further step up and take control of narra­ti­ves and decis­i­ons which impact them and their count­ries directly.

The global South needs to break the begging bowl in philanthropy.

Can cross-border phil­an­thropy be based on local ideas and expec­ta­ti­ons, or does it need an over­ar­ching, uniform concept?

Cross-border phil­an­thropy needs to be based on local needs defi­ned by local commu­nity. An over­ar­ching uniform concept might not be needed because no count­ries or commu­ni­ties are alike.

What could be the appeal of cross-border philanthropy?

I think what makes cross border phil­an­thropy inte­res­t­ing is who is the initia­ting party and what inte­rests does the party have? Is it a busi­ness that has exisi­ting or percei­ved inte­rests in the consu­mer market or is it a family that has roots in that region or coun­try? Phil­an­thropy does not exist in a silo so the inher­ent links to the coun­try or the moti­va­tions of the giver will deter­mine how deep he/she will go into deter­mi­ning local context and needs.

Alignment of values and goals of the giver and the recei­ver could also define success or fail­ure of any cross border initia­tive. The envi­ron­ment of phil­an­thropy also affects cross-border giving. For exam­ple, many govern­ments in recent years have tigh­tened rules on cross-border giving for exam­ple the likes of Hungary, Turkey, India and more.

We also have to remem­ber that not all cross border phil­an­thro­pies are crea­ted equal; cross-border phil­an­thropy from certain count­ries is seen with a lot more suspi­cion than others. For exam­ple, any phil­an­thro­pic money from Saudi Arabia usually raises red flags for its poten­tial of spre­a­ding a certain kind of reli­gious ideo­logy or the Soros Foun­da­tion work in count­ries like Hungary raises poli­ti­cal concerns of interference.

Cross-border phil­an­thro­pic colla­bo­ra­ti­ons need safe spaces or plat­forms for dialo­gue to better under­stand the needs and sharing know­ledge. These kinds of colla­bo­ra­ti­ons can help reach the SDGs but they also run the risk of enhan­cing the alre­ady exas­pe­ra­ted part­ner­ship models.

What do you mean by parach­ute philanthropy?

In abstract terms, parach­ute phil­an­thropy is when a phil­an­thro­pic family, foun­da­tion, an indi­vi­dual or a busi­ness deci­des that a commu­nity in a far-away coun­try has a speci­fic need. This entity moves forward to address this need usually in a manner which usually does not address the needs of the commu­nity; the commu­nity is not conside­red smart enough to know what the needs are.

In more concrete terms what I mean by parach­ute phil­an­thropy is that ideas, programs and projects that are pushed from the global North to the global South without taking into account local realities.

Can you give a concrete example?

Take the exam­ple of the Giving Pledge, which had been heavily talked about and promo­ted in the media. A Gates-Buffet initia­tive for asking the world‘s richest to commit parts of their wealth to phil­an­thropy and the duo presen­ted them­sel­ves as the role models. For some, it might have been a great idea to belong to yet another elite club. Howe­ver, it was not recei­ved as well in many count­ries like India.

It was repor­ted that when the duo was in India, some of the country‘s wealt­hiest busi­ness­men igno­red the meetings. Others like Yusuf Hamied, chair­man and mana­ging direc­tor of phar­maceu­ti­cal company Cipla, were openly critical.

People give to each other without clas­si­fy­ing it as philanthropy.

Gul Rukh Rahman

Diffe­rent cultures have diffe­rent ways of doing phil­an­thropy, parti­cu­larly giving prac­ti­ces stem­ming from reli­gion are usually not talked about. So for leading western phil­an­thro­pists to parach­ute in with an idea which isn‘t part of a culture is what I mean by “parach­ute phil­an­thropy” in Ideas.

One can observe many missed oppor­tu­ni­ties and wasted resour­ces when well-meaning but ill infor­med phil­an­thro­pists land in a coun­try to play the savi­ors. This has crea­ted a distrust amongst other issues in philanthropy.

What is the data situa­tion in emer­ging count­ries and how can it be improved?

Data within phil­an­thropy remains limi­ted and at times elusive in emer­ging econo­mies.  The ERFIP Foun­da­tion, Switz­er­land was crea­ted to try and gather data from these markets. It was one of the ways to address the data gap from these econo­mies by enga­ging with local phil­an­thro­pic families.

Some of the reasons for lack of data is that phil­an­thropy is not as profes­sio­na­li­zed as let us say in the US. People give from the heart without neces­s­a­rily talking about impact measu­re­ment and more. There is a lot of hori­zon­tal giving; people give to each other without clas­si­fy­ing it as phil­an­thropy. It is phil­an­thropy of the commu­nity and for the community.

Large scale phil­an­thropy in emer­ging markets still remain perso­nal. As we know that in these econo­mies, large busi­nesses are still family owned; and there are risks atta­ched to be seen as doing more than the govern­ment. Thus, there is an inher­ent distrust of the system and no or little data is shared.

How can data situa­tion be improved?

There cannot be a uniform method to improve data gathe­ring. Every coun­try is unique and has its own legal and fiscal poli­cies, thus one size cannot fit all. I am unable to speak to this matter because publi­ci­zing giving numbers can have tax impli­ca­ti­ons for some or for others it might be against their reli­gious beliefs to publicize.

Please do not misun­derstand when I talk about tax impli­ca­ti­ons. It is not unique to the wealthy from emer­ging econo­mies; in the North use of tax havens by phil­an­thro­pists and busi­nesses and other tax mini­mi­zing prac­ti­ces are wide spread and common.

Lack of data, a north-south divide: How capa­ble is western phil­an­thropy of respon­ding to regio­nal ideas and adap­ting its own under­stan­ding of philanthropy?

I think phil­an­thropy at-large is capa­ble to address issues howe­ver it needs to stand on a more equi­ta­ble grounds.

In conven­tio­nal wisdom, how Western phil­an­thropy is unders­tood is that money and ideas flow from the north targe­ted towards emer­ging markets. There is a stark diffe­rence between how a Western philanthropist will perceive and under­stand problems in any of the emer­ging count­ries vs how a local under­stands the issues and poten­tial solutions.

One of my own obser­va­tions have been that due to the power dyna­mics of western phil­an­thropy, it choo­ses to ignore some of the best and most inno­va­tive work and solu­tion from the grass­roots level. If phil­an­thropy from the North wants to be better equip­ped and more effi­ci­ent in respon­ding to regio­nal issues, there needs to be beha­vi­oral changes.

What needs to happen?

Local anchors and local phil­an­thro­pists are the diffe­rence between a successful imple­men­ta­tion or not. Typi­cally, an indi­vi­dual philanthropist or a foun­da­tion posi­ti­ons itself as the expert and deci­des what is best. Howe­ver, I will come back to the notion of parity and equity amongst Western phil­an­thro­pists and their regio­nal or local counterparts.

There is a deeper need to deco­lo­nize phil­an­thro­pic mind­set. This notion that western phil­an­thropy knows best because they have access to more rese­arch or they have access to better data and they have deeper pockets is true to a certain extent.

The most important ques­tion I think we need to ask oursel­ves is that what are the socio-econo­mic and poli­ti­cal frame­works which conti­nue to feed the inequi­ties and how can they be fixed? These frame­works create the need of global phil­an­thropy, the depen­dency culture and the begging bowl.

Can phil­an­thropy between emer­ging and western count­ries take place on an equal footing as long as there is a large wealth gap — or can it possi­bly take on a pionee­ring role?

In my opinion, phil­an­thropy between emer­ging and western count­ries cannot be on equal footing because of multi­ple reasons inclu­ding the massive wealth gap. Econo­mic­ally disad­van­ta­ged count­ries — whose inef­fi­ci­ent and inef­fec­tive govern­ments are many a times supported by Western count­ries are not in a posi­tion to be equal part­ners to their “econo­mic masters” in any aspect inclu­ding philanthropy.

Desmond Tutu, the great South Afri­can Angli­can bishop and anti-apart­heid figh­ter once talked about the concept of neutra­lity, the oppres­sor and the oppres­sed in terms of an elephant and a mouse. I will use the same analogy of a mouse and an elephant and ask if anyone has ever seen a mouse and an elephant as equals?

This rigged game of power and money is what needs to change. 

Gul Rukh Rahman

Many western count­ries were previous colo­nial occu­p­iers and they conti­nue to exer­cise poli­ti­cal, econo­mic and social influence on their previous colo­nies. My frus­tra­tion is that there are amazing phil­an­thro­pists in emer­ging markets but they do not receive the reco­gni­tion nor does the media provide them with the plat­form that they deserve.

This rigged game of power and money is what needs to change. There needs to be a para­digm shift in how phil­an­thropy from global South and global North is recei­ved and percei­ved. This means phil­an­thropy and phil­an­thro­pists from the South be given respect they deserve while there needs to be push back against those who are using phil­an­thropy as a tool to embel­lish their creden­ti­als in the West.

Phil­an­thropy can be and has been in a pionee­ring posi­tion. Howe­ver, I will come back to my initial asser­tion that phil­an­thro­pic capi­tal flows or idea flows from North to South re-enforces the old age colo­nial, master-slave mind-set.

A relapse into old structures?

As Western poli­ti­cal powers crea­ted the struc­tures that conti­nue to perpe­tuate human misery, Phil­an­thropy from the North in parti­cu­lar, needs to look at those under­ly­ing causes and try to address them in part­ner­ship with their peers in the South.

Inno­va­tion is needed  in our approach to phil­an­thropy and poten­ti­ally buil­ding new systems and pathways of giving and recei­ving. These are uncom­for­ta­ble conver­sa­ti­ons about rigged systems, broken approa­ches and inequi­ta­ble phil­an­thropy. Inno­va­tive thin­king is needed to fix it all.

DAS Stra­te­gic and Opera­tio­nal Phil­an­thropy

Module 9 – Inter­ac­tion with regio­nal phil­an­thro­pic reali­ties
Spea­ker: Gul RUKH RAHMAN, Direc­tor, Empowe­ring Fami­lies for Inno­va­tive Phil­an­thropy (ERFIP) Foundation

Univer­sité de Genève

The DAS is deve­lo­ped by UNIGE and co-deve­lo­ped with Geneva Centre for Phil­an­thropy GCP, Geneva Finance Rese­arch Insti­tute GFRI and Geneven­sis communications.


StiftungSchweiz is committed to enabling a modern philanthropy that unites and excites people and has maximum impact with minimal time and effort.

Follow StiftungSchweiz on