Poverty in the Netherlands – the challenges for philanthropists
by Bodille Arensman
On 20 September 2017 the Erasmus Centre for Strategic Philanthropy (ECSP) organised a learning event on poverty for philanthropists in the Netherlands with the aim of discussing the challenges faced by philanthropists working on poverty interventions. Is there a way out of poverty together and how can philanthropists make a difference?
For this event we invited Barry Knight to discuss the findings of his seminal research on what a good society would look like, presented in his recently published book Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society?, with an eye out for the context in which philanthropists work and the role of strategic philanthropy. His message was positive and inspiring as he told the participants that philanthropy can – and does – make a difference! However, emphasising also that they may not grasp this opportunity enough.
We need to discuss poverty not as a political or social issue per se, but to look at it from the point of agency: who is responsible, and how to take and stimulate taking responsibility? Who can contribute to what kinds of solutions?
During the event, the many challenges were discussed and also – albeit in a limited way since poverty contexts and interventions are so complicated, politically and emotionally – ways to move forward. Participants mentioned that it is very useful to involve those people it is about, in this case ‘the poor’ (although this is a very large conceptualisation). It was stressed most of all that we are talking about human lives, about human needs and human challenges. This also aligns to Barry’s argument that we need to discuss poverty not as a political or social issue per se, but to look at it from the point of agency: who is responsible, and how to take and stimulate taking responsibility? Who can contribute to what kinds of solutions?
We tried to steer the discussion towards making explicit what kinds of capacity philanthropists can bring to the table. Philanthropists could take more risks and inspire and implement innovative ways of working. They could take a more strategic role, being agents of change, working in evidence-based and outcome-directed ways. They could be more proactive in terms of strategies. They could seek to add value to each other’s expertise by combining the two strengths of philanthropy: those that are proactive and those that are more reactive or politically neutral in their roles (not seeking to put direct pressure on governments or institutions to change). Meaning also that not every philanthropic fund should do the same: diversity is a strength, especially once the diverse elements are brought together and built upon. For example, philanthropists could share more of the information they surface from the field, such as the trends they spot from requests and proposals coming in or from their strategic meetings with governments, civil society, activists and companies.
Rogier van der Weerd, Managing Director of the Adessium Foundation, on the ECSP Poverty Learning Event:
ECSP’s Poverty Learning Lab has shown that poverty is more than just lack of money: people living in poverty and debt are unable to participate sufficiently in society. This raises the question of how we can work towards a society in which there is a place for everyone. During the discussion of the problems associated with debt at the Learning Event the need to remove the stigma surrounding debt was identified: it is not just the person who is in debt who is responsible for the problem, but also the complex system. Foundations can play a role in supporting innovative approaches to break open this system. They can also facilitate community-based organisations in lobbying local and national government about this, using convincing examples from their own work in the field. By getting involved on both fronts through its Social Initiatives programme, Adessium Foundation seeks to play a role in eradicating the problems associated with debt and poverty in the Netherlands
Two explicit examples were mentioned of ways to move forward. The first was a social fund for lending money to those in need who are on the brink of being in debt. This way money could be lent with a zero interest rate, and prevent people’s debt spiralling exponentially. This is an example of a project that is already implemented in one city in the Netherlands in close cooperation with the local government. It could also be a potentially good idea for further expansion to other cities and districts and maybe even nationally.
Another example, which is still in the development phase, was a national fund based on almost the same principles, but for those already in a lot of debt. This fund could prevent people from getting in more debt, and eventually this could prevent high costs for society in terms of social welfare systems, debt collectors, evictions, etc. These examples show the urgency of issues of debt, embedded also in the normative values of society and the assumption that those in poverty and debt are having these problems through their own fault.
What could foundations add to the discussion around the whole ‘debt industry’? How could they facilitate interaction and dialogue with companies that have major outstanding debt claims?
For me one of the major gaps in the discussions was that there was no mention of the companies that collect the debts and impose exponentially high interest rates on those that cannot pay what they owe. This is an interesting gap given that most philanthropic foundations have board members and employees that work or have worked in the for-profit sector. What could foundations add to the discussion around the whole ‘debt industry’? How could they facilitate interaction and dialogue with companies that have major outstanding debt claims? Could they use their connections and networks to invite companies to learning sessions, to bring together companies and implementing organisations, to put pressure on companies to change their policies and practices, taking into account social issues and problems that are currently seen as the responsibility of the ‘debt industry’?
One of the main points that surfaced was the need for far more cooperation among philanthropists themselves and with other stakeholders (governments, implementing organisations that work on the ground – and I would also suggest seeking cooperation with companies). They need to engage, to share knowledge, to build on each other’s expertise and to discuss the challenges and solutions together.
To conclude, a lot is happening in terms of poverty interventions in the Netherlands and a lot of interesting new developments are being spurred on by the growing problems and an increasingly reticent government. These developments hold out the inspiring prospect of a future without poverty. However, a lot still has to happen and all stakeholders could do more and take more responsibility, and maybe it is ECSP’s role to facilitate a platform for cooperation, and inspire the development of strategic philanthropy towards this end.
Bodille Arensman is project manager, Erasmus Centre for Strategic Philanthropy.
Read more from the Rethinking Poverty discussion forum:
- Rethinking ideology, a view from the US – former Ford Foundation senior program officer, Christopher Harris
- Forget “Global North” & “Global South” – when it comes to poverty, power and progress, it’s a global conversation – Webb Memorial Trust Director, Barry Knight
- The solutions lie in communities, the world over – Jon Edwards, international philanthropy adviser