Empowerment is about people, not things

Of the many things to get right in excellent social investment, the most difficult is keeping it people-centred. Yet that is probably the most critical thing.

Private social investors and the state are working with different mandates. The state is enjoined by the constitution to protect a long list of rights – some being things it mustn’t do (torture, censor, etc.) and some being things it must do (provide education, healthcare, etc.). Access to the latter (“positive”) rights must, says the Constitutional Court, be realised “progressively”.

So, the state has a big job of delivering all manner of physical things in the conditions in which people live – like housing, clean running water, clinics, and so forth. That forms the bedrock of service delivery.

For private social investors, the mandate is much looser. Most of them can support whatever they want. Some will fix on strengthening islands of excellence, such as schools that get good results. Others may support “tipping point” interventions that, although small in scale compared to the state, can help improve, say, the overall school management system.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the mandates of the state and private social investors is in different emphases on delivery and development – a difference that is crucial.

If delivery is mainly the provision of things, then development can be thought of more deeply – as “improving people’s lives and their life chances”, as Tshikululu founding CEO Margie Keeton once put it. “It usually takes off once (people) feel empowered to take the first, small steps towards influencing their own destiny. Delivery can take place without development; thoughtful social investment can provide elements of both” (emphasis added).

Development, understood in this humanist and empowering way, is as important a part of effective social investing as counting the widgets of physical deliverables. It is about looking to inter-generational liberation that becomes organically self-sustaining long after a particular project has ended.

That isn’t nearly as easy to aim at, achieve, or even measure, as we might like. But then it requires an approach that is profoundly curious and respectful about the human condition; appreciates the infinite variance among people, communities, and situations; and needs approaches that are co-created and co-owned by different stakeholders.

Importantly, these co-owners must include “beneficiaries” wherever possible – people who aren’t always formal project partners but who form the core of developmental purpose. Their horizons of opportunity, and thus real empowerment, must be broadened in any developmental work, and they will know better than anyone what that looks like.

Such an approach to social investment surely comes down to the force and philosophical approach of particular personalities involved in this work, people with a requisite mix of high IQ and relevant EQ.

SA’s first concrete attempt at a formalised approach to corporate social investment (CSI) came in the formation of the Anglo American and De Beers Chairman’s Fund in 1967, and its ramping up to a professional unit of that corporation in 1973. It’s executive head until 1997, Michael O’Dowd, seemed to understand intimately the need for peopled-based development, arguing for:

“…the importance of the people behind a project you are considering for possible support. It’s not whether the project is a good idea or not, but whether the people behind it will be able to make it work. Successful CSI is all about ordinary citizens rising above themselves to make a difference.

“This is what the CSI technocrats miss – for them, one project is the same as another. But if you lose sight of the people – and especially the ones who are supposed to be the beneficiaries – then you lose everything.”

Disciplining social investment to include such an appreciation of human nature along with our own limitations, takes clear-sighted humility. It likely includes a natural wariness of over-arching “big solutions”, and it is the stuff of true social investment leadership.

This is not to suggest a dilution of other important aspects of social investment success – such as those of practical measurement and evaluation. Rather, it is the critical add-on: to always keep development people-centred. It is to quietly remind ourselves that all things described as “philanthropic” are, after all, derived from the Greek for “love of one’s fellow man”.

Paul Pereira, WHAM! Media. First published on Nation Builder (www.proudnationbuilder.co.za) in March 2021.  

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