There’s a special place for grant-making foundations like the DG Murray Trust, which are based in their country of origin. They don’t have the resources of foreign agencies, but they know their local context well and are able to develop long-term relationships with their implementing partners. They can build on international ‘best practice’ but also support ‘test practice’ without necessarily conforming to multilateral consensus. Their relatively small size means that they can’t be the major patrons of ‘upstream’ scientific breakthroughs, but they can play a major role in ensuring that good science translates into real benefits for society and our environment – through a process of ‘downstream’ innovation.
The challenge for foundations in emerging democracies is that they operate in the context of significant social and economic inequality, institutional weakness and often high levels of corruption. The problem is not so much ‘leakage’ in the sense that their money gets diverted from its intended purpose, but that the returns on investment – in terms of public benefit – may not be as high as expected. Let me give an example: We may invest in a school improvement programme, but children’s grades may still not improve because of many of the other factors that affect their lives – such as their nutritional state, absence of parents, and the lack of incentive to achieve. Policy wonks call this inefficiency the ‘stickiness’ of policy implementation, which leads to a culture of apathy and tolerance of corruption.
Solving South Africa’s problems does not just require more money or technical solutions. If we are to move out of a poverty trap of low education, low employment and low-growth, we need to develop a culture of public innovation. The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai refers to this as the capacity to aspire’.
The advantage of foundations that are embedded in the issues of their own country or region is that they can respond to the cultural and political factors that limit the success of implementation. Our society is still highly polarised. We can begin to change the differentials of power by building active citizenship among young people who still feel excluded, and by connecting them to opportunity. But we also need to change the likely trajectory of children’s lives by enriching their experience of early childhood and ensuring that they are able to read, write and think when they go to school. Only then, will we ignite the spark of innovation that we so desperately need.
Sustaining that innovation will require a new social fabric, which we can help weave by fostering a culture of empathy, responsibility, protection and empowerment. A measure of our success is whether we can find new ways to include those who are most left out. This is the logic behind DGMT’s strategy 2011 – 2015. So many good proposals come our way, and we just can’t fund them all, but I hope you will find the investments we do make are true to that logic.