At a time when an emergent global civil society is advancing the idea of universal standards with respect to governance and accountability, one of the key questions about global philanthropy is when, how, or even whether foundations can be effective agents in strengthening civil society abroad.
Taking a social sciences approach to the question, the editors of Globalization, Philanthropy and Civil Society: Projecting Institutional Logics Abroad present a range of case studies that illustrate how foundations and nongovernmental organizations project their "logics" — i.e., "models for the organization of civil society, foundations, advocacy, entrepreneurialism, and public health" — abroad and how such models are received by local nonprofits and communities. Or, more precisely, the ways in which efforts "to spread organizational norms and practices by means of the donation of money, goods, human efforts, and ideas" are affected by specific geopolitical, economic, and societal contexts.
As one might expect from a project conceived, written, and edited by academics, the ten chapters in this volume are informed by a series of big questions, questions such as: Do funders' institutional models limit the effectiveness of local grantees engaged in building civil society? How are Western organizations implicated in patron-client relationships governing the distribution of resources and political power? And how does culture affect a funder's ability to adapt its strategies to local contexts? It's serious stuff, and even though the academic prose can get a little sticky in spots, the resulting discussions are surprisingly engaging.
In "Social Entrepreneurship: Success Stories and Logic Construction," for example, Michael Lounsbury and David Strang describe how Ashoka, the Skoll Foundation, and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship promote an American belief in individual action and innovation for social good by recognizing the innovative work of social entrepreneurs through awards and fellowships. Indeed, by helping entrepreneurs build social capital rather than funding programs, the authors argue, the "success story" approach favored by these funders avoids the imposition of an external model, fosters a more balanced power dynamic between funder and recipient, and challenges the one-size-fits-all approach to the civil society imperative in developing countries.
At the same time, the very idea that private actors can and should contribute to the public good is largely a Western import, argues John W. Slocum in "Philanthropic Foundations in Russia: Western Projection and Local Legitimacy." What's more, the widespread perception within Russia that private foundations encroach upon the state's functions can, and often does, limit the role and effectiveness of U.S. foundations working there. Open Russia is a good example, writes Slocum. Modeled after the George Soros-funded Open Society Institute and shut down after its founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was arrested in the Yukos affair, its fate has come to be seen as a cautionary tale for funders who would support politically fraught issues such as human rights and freedom of the press in countries with centuries-old traditions of authoritarian rule.
In "Promoting Civil Society or Diffusing NGOs? U.S. Donors in the Former Soviet Union," Sada Aksartova focuses on the equivocal impact in the former Soviet Union of the "Western grant economy." Among other things, Aksartova suggests that disparities in wealth, combined with funders' lack of knowledge about local NGOs and their tendency to measure impact in terms of grant dollars, typically result in large grants to a handful of projects. In turn, that creates perverse incentives for grantees to prioritize the cultivation of relationships with funders and to do what they can to position themselves as "gatekeepers" of resources. Through training, seminars, and roundtables, local grantees are thus socialized into accepting the donor-recipient relationship and adopting Western concepts of active citizenship, democracy, and civil society — concepts that are carried over into NGOs' own terminology, which ends up mimicking that used by donors and includes English words such as "grant," "advocacy," and "fundraising." While the institutionalization of the funder-recipient infrastructure fulfills funders' needs, writes Aksartova, the ultimate effect is to isolate NGOs from the communities they serve and to weaken their influence within society.
Similarly, Ann Swidler ("Dialectics of Patronage: Logics of Accountability at the African AIDS-NGO Interface") describes how international NGO interventions are often inserted into existing patterns of political, social, and institutional patronage, thereby limiting the development of new, locally developed forms and principles. Moreover, the local perception of NGOs as patrons, writes Swidler, ties them to village leaders, local staff, and volunteers, who in turn wield enormous influence over the distribution of resources in their communities. Eager to keep the resources flowing, clients will repay their patrons by showing up to be counted for one activity or another, thereby fulfilling NGOs' need for accountability. Indeed, the effort to quantify program results seems to complicate the very models of which it is an important element.
Alas, the book does not offer definitive answers to the myriad questions it raises. Nor does it treat "Western" as synonymous with "American," as is evident in Sandra Moog's analysis of U.S. and German approaches to protecting the Amazon rain forest. It does, however, offer diverse perspectives on topics ranging from attempts to import South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a model for transitional justice to the advocacy strategies of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in four different countries.
And that may be its biggest weakness. For all the detail included in each chapter, Globalization, Philanthropy and Civil Society, like the many variations in the local contexts it examines, is a hodge-podge of ideas, arguments, and conclusions. Informative and provocative? Yes. The last word on the subject? No. That book has yet to be written.