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Hilton Symposium Celebrates Success, and Highlights Development Challenges

By Tom Watson on September 13, 2007No Comment

Hilton Symposium Celebrates Success... by Tom Watson

Hilton Symposium Celebrates Success, and Highlights Development Challenges
By Tom Watson, 9/13/07

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon looked around the Starlight Roof at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel last night at the tables filled with philanthropists, foundation officers, nonprofit executives and social entrepreneurs and struck a hopeful note of collaboration in his remarks at the annual Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Symposium.

“We cannot reach all around the world,” he said. “Only with people like you can the United Nations make a difference in helping people overcome abject poverty and diseases.”

The Secretary General called for a renewed partnership between the world organization and its member governments and the private philanthropic sector which he said is vital in meeting humanitarian needs, particularly in times of disaster or war.

“Civilians continue to bear the intolerable brunt of crises not of their own making….and life-saving assistance cannot wait for the next round of peace talks.”

His address followed an emotional tribute to one organization that is changing lives in West Africa. Tostan, a Senegal-based NGO that has dramatically changed West African villagers’ lives through its innovative education programs that use African oral traditions, was the recipient of the $1.5 million Hilton Humanitarian Prize. Hilton Foundation CEO Steven Hilton presented the check and Tiffany prize sculpture to Molly Melching, founder and executive director of Tostan, during a moving presentation that highlighted the organization’s work.

Tostan uses a program of nonformal education in local languages called the Community Empowerment Program that has been effective in ending harmful traditional practices such as female genital cutting and child marriage. Tostan currently operates in six countries in West and East Africa.

The prize ceremony capped the full-day symposium, entitled “The Changing Face of Philanthropy: Evolution or Revolution?” I was privileged to be included as a speaker, and joined the first panel with Jonathan Greenblatt, founder of Ethos water, a brand of bottled water acquired by Starbucks, whose proceeds go to help children around the world get clean drinking water.

We discussed the next generation of philanthropists, and the power of media and brands to power causes for change. As Jonathan pointed out, “young people accessorize their causes.”

I agreed, and pointed out that while the fundraising numbers are still small in terms of the social networks populated by what I call the “Facebook generation,” the involvement factor is very high.  Societal aspirations have so permeated the “net native” population that causes have become like musical tastes, style choices. And Jonathan’s point about brands was right on: a survey conducted by Cone Communications found that 83% of Americans say companies have a responsibility to help support causes, and 87% would switch from one brand to another if the other brand is associated with a good cause.

Or as Susan Davis, president and CEO of BRAC USA, put it during the next panel: “shift happens.”

Susan and author/journalist David Bornstein discussed the growth of social entrepreneurs and she called Bangladesh where BRAC, a renowned micro-enterprise success story, was founded “the Wall Street of development, a hotbed of innovation.” It was an assertion backed up by the founder of BRAC, Fazle Hasan Abed, who built BRAC (which stands for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) into the largest non-governmental organization in the word with nearly 100,000 employees; he likened social entrepreneurs to “change agents in society.”

Susan argued for going beyond “revolution” in philanthropy to “devolution” what she called the “philanthropy of you,” which tied in rather neatly to the idea of the Facebook generation wearing their causes like fashion.

“I believe a change is coming between palliative philanthropy and what I call jujitsu philanthropy,” she said. Palliative philanthropy is “about saving lives and it’s based on compassion and a sense of social justice.” But “jujitsu philanthropy is all about finding the point of highest leverage to effect systems change.”

The sort of systems change Susan spoke of was evident in the work of Tim Hanstad, president of the Rural Development Institute, a nonprofit organization of attorneys helping the rural poor in developing countries obtain legal rights to land. Tim said that bringing land rights to the rural poor which almost always lifts them out of the cycle of day labor status and poverty “requires courageous political leadership.”

The role of government in partnering with private philanthropy and development efforts clearly presaged Secretary-General Ban’s remarks in the evening, and several speakers addressed it, including Helene Gayle, President and CEO of CARE, one of the world’s largest private international relief and development organizations. Prompted by a question from our moderator, the veteran international correspondent Ralph Begleiter, she said that the organization was seeking “long-term pragmatic commitments” including a “new mix of government and corporate philanthropy partnerships.”

Steven Radelet, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a former Treasury Department official for overseas development under Presidents Clinton and Bush, noted that official U.S. aid is tiny when compared to philanthropy and may not be up to the task of repairing the American reputation overseas. He said it was a good sign that the current crop of Presidential candidates is discussing foreign aid on the campaign trail, but suggested that the robust American philanthropic sector is an even stronger force than governmental aid and may well “create the greatest opportunity [for change] since the Kennedy Administration.”

So it fell to Sir John Holmes, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, to issue a warning. Sir John said that the need for humanitarian assistance will only grow worldwide- natural disasters, extreme weather events tied to global warming, and continued political unrest will continue to challenge an international development scene that he suggested can be viewed in two different ways: “either diverse or fragmented.” And while one view is sunny and the other quite challenging, the problems he sees throughout the world yield a single demand on the sector:
“We’re going to have to upgrade our game.”

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