A Lesson In Astronomy—Why Post 2015 could be an opportunity to rethink the Milky Way

image courtesy OECD

By Bathylle Missika

“What will success look like to you?”, was what I was asked by a netFWD member before I started my journey to New York. The OECD Network of Foundations Working for Development (netFWD) had been invited to be one of the co-organisers of a workshop on Global Development After 2015: The Role of Civil Society and Foundations, together with the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, UNDP, EFC and WINGS.

It’s a good question: what makes for the success of a side event to the UN General Assembly, at a time when world leaders are discussing the contours of a new development framework and are expected to sign an “outcome document” on post-2015? What do we, as representatives of the philanthropic sector, want out of this important event: high level attendance? Stimulating discussions? A sense that key challenges are being unfolded and dissected to help us walk the talk? Surely, all of the above would be good. Yet, this time, my metrics for success will be linked to our ability to redefine the way we look at the Milky Way of development.

Think about the development galaxy as the Milky Way, with its many (at times fragmented) stakeholders—pole stars—some more familiar than others (think “Polaris”), forming constellations made of bigger and smaller stars. If you know your astronomy a bit, you can take a peak on a clear night and recognise some of them. By so looking, you however run the risk of losing sight of what is really in front of you: a multidimensional, multi-layered complex galaxy of stars, which have only been connected to resemble images by the ever-practical human mind. Some of them might even be dead, but they are so far away by light years that you will only see them fade away years after they have actually disappeared.

The development galaxy is a bit the same. After the Millennium Declaration and the MDGs were agreed on in 2000, we had named our constellations and thought we could make better sense of the sky. Poverty eradication would happen if we stayed on target; we knew what constellations we were part of and where we all fit.

The extent to which philanthropic organisations were part of the “MDG-era” Milky Way is unclear. Surely they were part of our skies, but in a rather scattered and less bright way. Some larger stars emerged like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and other bright ones caught our eye like the Rockefeller Foundation, with its collaborative and innovative efforts like “Digital Jobs Africa”, but they were not central back in 2000 when we defined the “mental mapping” of our skies.

We are now at a turning point, less than 850 days to the 2015 target date for achieving the MDGs. Yet, it is unclear how foundations are to contribute to the new development framework about to emerge. As identified in the UN High Level Panel Report, foundations are to contribute to renewed partnerships while providing innovative finance for development. This confirms that undoubtedly, foundations supporting development have now made it on the map of the Development Galaxy, alongside more “traditional actors”, such as bilateral and multilateral development agencies, NGOs and the private sector.

First of all, foundations are now on the map because they have become an increasingly significant source of financing for development. This is even more visible at times of shrinking ODA and skepticism about development assistance’s ability to help address poverty and inequality. Secondly, foundations are definitely on the map because they have indeed been forming their own constellations, in various sizes and shapes. They have engaged in partnerships and coalitions, ranging from the “Better than Cash Alliance”—founded by USAID, the UN, Ford foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Visa and Citi—to the “Giving Pledge” of the world’s richest philanthropists.

But how are foundations to work together (which is not a synonym for “being the ATM”) with key development players, and help shape a collective and inclusive vision towards inclusive growth and poverty eradication?

As we get together on 27th September with about 200 representatives from foundations, civil society, member states and the private sector, we will discuss experiences and explore new ways to optimise the collaboration between the “4th (philanthropic) sector” and other key development stakeholders. Without having a crystal ball, I can safely assume we will come to the conclusion that they just “cannot do it alone”; if foundations are to contribute to poverty eradication and a “life of dignity for all”, they have to support existing national development plans, support recipient governments in their endogenous efforts, empower local actors as well as think of ways to go to scale and have their initiatives be sustainable.

But what else makes for successful alliances? I believe successful partnerships are the ones that manage to adapt over time and are resilient.

In the case of foundations and their many development partners, successful partnerships will be premised on an ability to redefine themselves differently as part of the Milky Way. Some stars are bright but they might be dead, with their disappearance invisible to the human eye. The same goes for development assistance. Some of its incarnations look bright but they have not delivered on their promises.

More importantly, what the exchange of views on the 27th will most likely demonstrate, is that we can no longer have one and only mental representation of the Milky Way. Not only because the sky looks different based on whether one looks from the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, but also because constellations, like partnerships, are man-made; they are not set in stone.

Surely, the lens through which one should look at the sky should be one premised upon the “five transformative shifts” (such as “forging a new partnership”—which, together with the other proposed shifts of the UN HLP Report [1], could bring together  social, economic and environmental issues in a coherent, effective, and sustainable way)—or by paying greater attention to cross-cutting issues like peace, inequality, climate change, cities, young people, and girls and women, as identified in the UN HLP Report, alongside a call for more and better long-term finance.

But with the same lens, one can see very different skies.

Success on the 27th will be premised upon our ability to agree on this shift and identify ways in which to draw new maps to navigate the development galaxy as it is today. Thus, partnerships between foundations and other development stakeholders have to be formed in an issues-based manner, originating with specific local and national needs, backed by partners that are emerging as “drivers of change” in their own smaller local galaxies. In other words, our ability to rethink the post MDG framework, taking better account of the role of foundations, will be premised on our ability to re-think how to make sense of the Milky Way and its constellations.

The OECD netFWD, together with its co-organising partners such as WINGS, will allow this “amateur astronomy” policy dialogue to continue and help foundations make better sense of how they can optimise their understanding of the Development Galaxy, long after all seasoned and aspiring astronomers have gone home from NYC.

Bathylle Missika is the Head of the OECD Network of Foundations Working for Development (netFWD) and the Deputy Head of Division of the Policy Dialogue Division at the OECD Development Center.

[1] Report of the UN HLP on the post 2015 development agenda “A new global partnership: Eradicate poverty and transform economies towards sustainable development”

One thought on “A Lesson In Astronomy—Why Post 2015 could be an opportunity to rethink the Milky Way

  1. Pingback: WINGS As a Network of Stars—Using connected philanthropy to chart the development galaxy | Philanthropy In Focus

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