Alumna Asks: Does Global Philanthropy Really Make People’s Lives Better?

May 14, 2009
By Lindsay Hodges Anderson

When organizations dig wells and build schools in impoverished areas and donate cows to families in need, the reaction by most observers is typically very positive. However, Farahnaz Karim MPA 2001, founder and CEO of the newly created global philanthropic fund Insaan Group, says that these projects are often not making lives better at all.

At a brown bag lunch Wednesday (13 May) sponsored by the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, Karim addressed the question “Does Global Philanthropy Really Make People’s Lives Better?” Karim said that the current model of philanthropic donation, while paved with good intentions, focuses on the short-term and often neglects the long-term commitment and costs that are necessary.

Karim said that organizations need to consider three criteria before starting a project: Can they find capital that is flexible? Have they consulted the end users on the legitimacy and details of the project, and will they follow through to see if it makes a difference? And, does the organization have a way to use metrics to measure the effectiveness of a project?

For instance, when building wells as a source of clean water for a village, organizations do not always consult the villagers about whether they want it, where they want it, and how it will be maintained.

“Often, the actual physical output of building a well is done at the detriment of looking at whether the hand pump is going to work in three months or six months, or whether there is a community infrastructure to repair the hand pump,” she said. “We tend to build wells to provide clean water, but actually most organizations do not stay long enough to measure whether the water is actually clean. More importantly, no one stays long enough to measure whether that water is actually reducing the incidence of water bourn diseases in the particular villages.”

Karim, who sits on the Harvard Kennedy School Alumni Board, cited a learning experience she had while working in Afghanistan: At the request of the manager of an orphanage, she organized an oven and bread-making operation in the orphanage so the children could get freshly baked bread. When she returned a few years later, she found the orphanage still had all the tools and oven, but they weren’t being used because they lacked the funding to pay for a baker.

This kind of long-term thinking is what Karim emphasized as critically important when evaluating the potential value of a philanthropic project – not only stretching the dollar as far as possible, but putting the dollar to good, long-term use so it really does make a positive difference in people’s lives.

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Farahnaz Karim MPA 2001

Karim said that the current model of philanthropic donation, while paved with good intentions, focuses on the short-term and often neglects the long-term commitment and costs that are necessary. Photo credit Lindsay Hodges Anderson.

Farahnaz Karim MPA 2001

At a brown bag lunch sponsored by the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, Karim addressed the question “Does Global Philanthropy Really Make People’s Lives Better?” Photo credit Lindsay Hodges Anderson.