Opinion
November 13, 2014

Grant Makers Are Uniquely Suited to Find Lasting Solutions to Global Needs

Michel du Cille/The Washington Post/Getty Images

It may seem that the world is doing everything possible to fight the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $25-million; Bill and Melinda Gates through their foundation committed $50-million; and Paul Allen pledged $100-million.

Despite quarantines in the United States, medical personnel continue to volunteer their assistance. Many governments, as well as United Nations agencies, are also shipping supplies and building treatment centers.

All this activity reflects the generous impulse not only of nations but also of wealthy individuals and of institutions to aid people hurt by natural disasters, global pandemics, and other calamities that can put thousands or even millions of lives in jeopardy.

As in other crises, headlines and tragedy will attend Ebola relief efforts for months to come, and the outbreak will eventually be contained. But then, when the money has been spent, volunteer doctors have headed home, the media spotlight has moved on, and the new treatment centers stand empty, what happens next? Focusing on the answer to that question is one of the primary reasons that foundations exist.

Philanthropic foundations are uniquely positioned to make investments in enduring strategies aimed at creating lasting solutions to problems that span the range of global needs. After all, individuals alarmed by a particular event can really only give money and time. Governments and the United Nations can help in the short run.

But from health to education to nuclear nonproliferation and many other major issues, foundations can do what individuals and governments with their changing leaders and ideologies cannot: plan a course of action, pay for it, and stick with it for the long haul.

With the many disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and violent conflicts that we have witnessed in the past decades, it should be clear to us that these events share one trait: a cycle of short-term attention followed by long-term neglect.

Breaking the cycle requires investing in a country’s institutions and systems of health care, education, and communications so the country itself can better cope with the next crisis. And the only way to do that successfully—or to create any sustainable development—is for foundations to work with and empower responsible local partners who can take the lead in determining where to invest to have the most impact.

This kind of partnership in decision making takes time and trust; that’s always in short supply during a crisis, but it is critical.

Working with local governments and organizations to put in place the social, economic, and educational infrastructure and other underlying policies and programs that will allow for progress on all fronts is the first step toward a more stable and secure future for men, women, and children around the globe. A strong society of educated individuals living in communities with responsive leaders and institutions is better equipped to confront both short-term human tragedies and continuing development needs.

After examining Carnegie Corporation of New York’s history of international grant making over the past century for a book I wrote to document the corporation’s successes—as well as its failures—I am more convinced than ever that philanthropic responses focused only on addressing an immediate tragedy will never provide a lasting remedy.

Sierra Leone, where Ebola has hit hard, is one notable example of where long-term planning has worked in the past. It offers a model of the way philanthropy and a national government have collaborated to promote investments for the long run.

This may seem surprising in today’s context, but in the past the nation made big strides in large part because of the efforts of America’s foundations.

In 1969, soon after Sierra Leone became independent, the Carnegie Corporation responded to a request from its leaders to support a planning commission that would examine how to restructure the country’s higher-education system. The foundation paid for the costs of meetings, data collection, and analysis so that 37 commissioners from Sierra Leone, Britain, and the United States could meet eight times over a year to develop a plan for change.

This enabled the government to focus on more immediate needs like buildings, scholarships, and teacher salaries that would help provide long-term benefits to the entire society.

The success of that effort allowed the corporation to collaborate with Sierra Leone’s leaders on another challenge facing the country: its excessively high rates of maternal mortality.

The foundation worked with policy makers, health-care workers, and researchers to help national teams figure out how to keep more mothers alive during childbirth.

By spending time in local health centers and in communities, the teams documented the need for new policies and programs based on the challenges local women and families described as they talked about their health conditions and the significant risks of childbirth.

They also spotlighted the deplorable state of the country’s overall reproductive health-care system and the need to share information among networks of policy makers, researchers, women’s groups, and their communities.

In 1988, Carnegie, the British Council, and the University of Sierra Leone established a Science and Technology Information Network that connected some 400 institutions, one of the first such networks in any developing country.

But the outbreak of civil war in 1991 halted the formation of these networks, led to setbacks in maternal health, and eventually left foundations unable to maintain their support. One legacy of this broken system is the lack of an infrastructure capable of coping with a health crisis like Ebola.

Today there is an opportunity for philanthropy to strengthen the capacity of local leaders and make grants based on the premise that nothing imposed from outside will last; that local leaders can benefit from sharing experiences, skills, and contacts; that trust is hard to achieve in the wake of civil war and other crises; and that access to information to enhance citizen participation is as critical as access to funding.

It’s not just my work at the Carnegie Corporation that demonstrates the importance of collaborating with local groups.

When I oversaw grant making for social and economic research on tropical diseases at the World Health Organization, results showed that local knowledge of customs and history will usually trump the plans of outside so-called experts, what the noted author and foundation critic Paul Theroux calls "telescopic philanthropists."

Panaceas and quick fixes do not exist. Donors can and should involve local partners in planning, locating, and running original projects, even those started during emergencies. Philanthropists can also make a difference by connecting local researchers and their findings with local policy makers who can work with them.

The success of Carnegie Corporation and other foundations, like Ford and Rockefeller, with comparable experiences in building the management capacity of organizations and in working with local leaders and local agencies can be applied to almost every aspect of grant making in the world’s poorest countries, from supporting economic growth to giving women equal access to university education and leadership roles to creating regional networks of scholars and scientists.

Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, has said that he hopes the Ebola crisis is a wake-up call, a renewed commitment to thinking and acting for the long term, even as Ebola-ravaged West Africa commands global attention for immediate help. And perhaps most important, we need to explain that long-term spending, which has been philanthropy’s special role, has led to important lessons—lessons that should not be forgotten.

Patricia Rosenfield, a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Archive Center, is the author of “A World of Giving: Carnegie Corporation of New York—a Century of International Philanthropy,” which was published this month by Public Affairs. From 1987 to 2011 she oversaw Carnegie’s developing-countries grant making and its Carnegie Scholars grants.

You can join Ms. Rosenfield for a live Twitter chat about @CarnegieCorp international philanthropy on November 19 from 3 to 4 p.m. Eastern time. Simply ask questions using #aworldofgiving.