Fire in Cairo

I’m a big fan of The Cure, but that was an obscure song to use for a blog post title.

“What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?” is one of my two questions behind this blog. I started writing in the fall about the CIVETS, emerging economies that may be the next BRICs – lo and behold, the E in CIVETS is for Egypt. Time to start paying attention to Egypt!

Brad Smith has a post on the Foundation Center’s blog about the role of philanthropy in supporting the institutions that are helping this potential-regime-change happen and that will support the country in the long term, specifically the press. This reminds me that in thinking about philanthropy internationally, we need to remember that many of the things we take for granted in the U.S. as having been “solved” many years ago – free press, infrastructure, relatively open elections – are still being “figured out” in other parts of the world. Granted, our own solutions may be falling apart, but the point remains that you go to a newsstand and buy a newspaper, and you turn on the faucet and water comes out. Provision of water, for example, was solved here and in Western Europe through public investment; in other parts of the world, it may need to be a mix of public and private investment – the nature of the solution will be different, the incentives of the actors to arrive at that solution will also be different.

So it is with building the institutions that, as Brad points out, can be a helpful role for philanthropy. Not just promoting a free press, but supporting universities to supply the human capital a growing economy needs. We take institutions like the press and academia so much for granted in the U.S. that we look for innovations at the margin, in the start-up business or the grassroots nonprofit. Those are indeed important sources of innovation, but in a developing-world context, where formal institutions are thinner on the ground and less closely linked to each other, it’s important to have those centers of intellectual life doing the meat-and-potatoes work of keeping people informed and getting them educated.

Doesn’t sound glamorous, but in a pre-democratic context, it can be hugely empowering, and can build a base for an eventual transition without explicitly attempting to do so. In other words, it’s a long-term investment that’s not about control and wanting to see immediate-term results. The theory of change is, this society needs skilled, educated people for its economic and political future, and we’re going to invest in helping them achieve that tool, to whatever end it ends up getting used.

If many foundations are reluctant to be intentionally “on the edge,” as Brad puts it, it’s important to remember that supporting institutions and infrastructure can help build the conditions for a larger-scale change when the time is right – and to make it possible for those in the midst of the change to imagine what a post-transition world looks like, and fight for it.

(Not to mention the fact that what it means for “the time to be right” for this kind of a democratic potential-transition to happen keeps changing – the phenomenon of diffusion (or spillover, contagion, whatever you want to call it) from Algeria to Egypt is fascinating, and worth exploring in another post….)


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One Response to “Fire in Cairo”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » The Rising Says:

    […] The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" BETA version, new title in the works. New post each Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday (for now). « Fire in Cairo […]

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