Funding our perpetual state of crisis

Gabrielle Ritchie, Director: The Change Room

26th May 2016

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The World Humanitarian Summit has just taken place (May 23 – 24 in Istanbul), and a Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative now exists to assist in addressing the ongoing rounds of crises generated by weather-related (“natural”) disasters and war.  Somewhere in the region of 218 million people are displaced annually, driven from their homes by floods, mudslides, earthquakes and other disasters.  60 million people are currently displaced by war.

Crisis is a huge hook for philanthropy and for fundraising, and many appeals explicitly use the word in their communications, rightly so.  At a global level at the moment, many questions have been asked about the role of philanthropy in the refugee crisis in Syria and Europe.  At community level, on the international stage, questions have been asked about the role of philanthropy in communities in crisis – such as the Flint water crisis in the USA.

At a local South African level, we have more crises than we can manage – but the question is the same: What is the role of philanthropy in addressing these crises?  And more so, in a world so battered by war, disasters, emergencies, poor decision-making, and disruptive political strategies, what constitutes a crisis ?

We cannot afford to become inured to the general and persistent state of human rights and social justice abuses, the long-term effects of greed and accumulation by those in power (political , economic, social, cultural – however it pans out), and to the systemic violences that so many experience in their daily lives.  In simple terms, we can’t afford to normalise states of crisis.

We are surrounded by crisis. Take the 10km radius around my office – the crisis of the shortage of low-cost housing in Cape Town’s inner city; the crisis of no water-borne sanitation in Cape Town’s informal settlements; the national education crisis; the food pricing crisis; the university funding crisis; the non-profit funding crisis …

The  use of the term “crisis” implies that something has occurred, circumstances have reached a critical point, that things cannot continue, that the situation is a powder keg waiting to blow, that in-your-face disaster has either happened or is about to take place. Crisis is usually understood as a disturbance or disruption in an otherwise steady system.  It can serve as a tipping point.  So what of circumstances where we are in a constant state of crisis, desperately trying to maintain a balance in a situation that is – at any point, with any small shift in conditions – going to crash/ implode/ explode.

How do we engage then, when states of crisis become permanent states of being?  When what seems to be a crisis for some is in effect a permanent life state for others?  Does a situation warrant the term “crisis” if it is the result of systemic, long-term failures on the part of the state or of business, for example.   How do we tackle the “crisis challenge” if it is unlikely to shift anytime soon?

When crisis becomes the rule, what are the processes whereby crisis becomes normalised and de-politicise? I was wanting to share some thoughts about crisis and how we use the term, and how we understand what such circumstances mean for whom, and how that affects our decision-making on where and how to invest our philanthropic resources. But it turns out states of crisis and notions of crisis are complex things, and the subject of much critical theory and debate.

Regardless of theory, though, what crisis does mean – unavoidably so – is that people, other humans, are in a state of need.  And that always means that, if you care at all, your support (money, voice, action) is required.

So stand up, take a position, get involved.  In fact do this, crisis or not.

SDG Philanthropy’s latest report on The World Humanitarian Summit: A Pivot Point in Philanthropy’s Contribution to Addressing Humanitarian Crises takes a close look at how donors and funders can engage most effectively in humanitarian crises.



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