Ephemeral Philanthropy – A Discussion Note

When it rains small pools of water are formed. These pools can last a day, a week, a month or a couple of months.  They are largely temporary or seasonal and are mostly referred to as ephemeral pools. Life in the form of plants, little creatures exist in these pools, some visible and some invisible. A number of studies have since been carried out to understand the different life forms that emerge which coexist on these pools. Similarly, when it rains (metaphorically) in communities- for instance when unexpected life events happen such as death, sudden weather-related disasters which include floods, cyclones, droughts, communities establish temporary mechanisms of responses. These have been mostly studied under the rubric of coping mechanisms or community solidarity. I am borrowing from various fields (especially those steeped in Biology)  in proposing that we consider these as ephemeral pools of philanthropy as the glue that keeps societies together. Communities and the authority structures they establish are by nature the obvious features, but the intricate relationships of solidarity/welfare can be hidden from the outsider as they are usually seasonal and are triggered by codes that are at times embedded either in tradition or cultural practices. These include for instance, the different forms of asset and labour pooling initiatives that emerge during the farming seasons and are non-existent during the dry seasons or community mechanisms of pooling together resources (food, transport and money) during a funeral. In the absence of a funeral you will never know of a community initiative called ‘Zibutheni’ (let’s gather) popular across most of the low income suburbs of Bulawayo.

Why does this matter? We have noticed similar patterns where solidarity congeals during life events and disruptions such as natural disasters, epidemics, and pandemics. Zimbabwe has in the past three years gone through a cholera epidemic, floods and displacement caused by cyclone Idai and like the rest of the world is also confronted with COVID-19. These have served to test not only state capacity but also the extent of solidarity within communities.  During the COVID-19 period for instance we noted a number of ad hoc citizens led initiatives focused on expanding access to health services and improving access to food for underprivileged sections of the community.

There is a real risk amongst those studying community philanthropy to conflate / confuse these forms of solidarity with community foundations[1]. In the process our methodologies of studying these have mostly focused on formal organisations, their internal processes and roles in communities. Is it possible that we have missed out on a large swathe of community based and led initiatives that are pooling together resources, yet have no office, no website or set of reports but are at the core of community survival. These relationships of solidarity are probably related to what Robert Putnam has called social capital[2].  Solidarity, where it occurs is characterized and influenced by bonds of trust, familiarity, mutuality and literally what many have referred to as Ubuntu (I am because you are). It also has undertones of coercion- once in a community one cannot opt out of providing support during a funeral or where there is need for a labour pool. These practices are eventually coded through cultural norms and traditions.

There are many in rural communities and even urban areas who have not directly engaged with what one can call mainstream philanthropy. The generosity of the rich. But these same households or individuals have at some point received support from family and friends. Indeed Moyo (2010) has explained philanthropy as part of a life cycle from birth to death where one is always either a beneficiary or source of support for others. In 2005, Maphosa and Fowler wrote about the “Poor Philanthropist” referring to acts of kindness/solidarity carried out by ordinary actions. That set of writings contributed to debunking myths about philanthropy being the domain of the rich.

Furthermore, there is reason to believe that with increased urbanization these norms of solidarity have been replicated within urban settings. COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to test this assertion. Whilst visible and at times hierarchical they operate more or less in the same ways as the ephemeral pools of philanthropy discussed above. Religion also plays a significant  role. Many of those who have engaged in adhoc giving or creation of ephemeral pools cite their Christian and Muslim backgrounds as reasons behind their involvement. Perhaps the most visible formations in the COVID-19 period are initiatives like Solidarity Trust Zimbabwe, IAM4Bulawayo Fighting COVID-19 (www.iam4byo.org.zw) and City of Progress Trust were established purely in response to the threat of Covid-19. These kinds of responses are ad hoc in nature. There is no clear-cut long term strategy of giving or existence beyond the lifespan of the disaster. Their intervention is crucial. They are in most instances the first responders in disaster. In the case of Zimbabwe they have played a significant role in mobilising financial and in-kind donations to help resuscitate a health delivery sector that was already under severe constraints prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. Furthermore similar ephemeral pools have emerged in response to livelihood challenges that have been worsened by COVID-19. The main actors behind the drive for collecting food and feeding the vulnerable are coincidental. The majority of them have no background in running feeding kitchens. They saw a need and decided to do something about it without having to write a strategy and no formal institution backing them but they just mobilised their own resources and reached out to others within and outside the community. For instance Caroline and Sandra of Epworth established their feeding kitchen after noticing that a number of very young children were literally scavenging for food at a dumpsite. What started as an initiative to feed around 250 children quickly grew to feed approximately 1,000 children and the elderly daily before the local authorities shut it down.

The donor community and local authorities have struggled to support these initiatives. The  response of donors has been to deploy the usual due diligence which normally leads to formalisation and long term thinking despite the immediate agenda that these entities respond to. When Solidarity Trust Zimbabwe (SOTZIM) approached donors it was asked to produce; (i)three-year strategy document, (ii) financial policy, (ii) procurement policy, (iii) a set of audited financial statements and (iv) and the organogram with a full set of job descriptions. In another instance, another donor requested for a secretariat to be established within SOTZIM despite the fact that this was not a part of the trust’s plans. These suggestions / requirements made by donors on how an ephemeral form of philanthropy has to organise / structure itself may contribute towards inadvertently creating an entity that the actors had no intention of doing so. On the other hand local authorities have insisted on certain conditions being met before the community kitchens/feeding schemes can operate. In Epworth the Local Board asked Caroline and Sandra, founders of Our Children Our Hope Foundation, to secure registration as a Private Voluntary Organisation (PVO) through the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare. It can take up to 36 months for one to secure this form of registration. According to Mswelantho (2018), the registration of an organisation as a PVO, must receive approval from the Office of the President, can take over two years for approval and would require at least US$10,000 in the form of a non-refundable application fee. In the end Caroline and Sandra registered their initiative as a Trust, which was a quicker and less expensive process, it has also taken away the focus of the ladies involved in the initiative away from helping their community.  In addition, their registration as a Trust comes with it certain legal requirements that they must now ensure they meet.

Is there a way of creating alignment between due process and ensuring timeous response? To date the preoccupations of donors and authorities have been focused on institutionalisation and to a lesser extent sustainability. Both sites of power have been pre-occupied with questions of formalisation such as; has the entity registered with the relevant authorities (although they are fully aware of the attendant bottlenecks) and compliance with elaborate governance mechanisms. A question that looms large in desperate situations such as a pandemic is whether flexibility could be created to allow for these ephemeral pools to operate without having adequately fulfilled the local authorities’ and donors’ conditions. When it comes to sustainability- the main question raised is whether the initiative has an endowment or resources. Sustainability has been narrowly framed as consisting of securing financial resources. The discussions on sustainability of philanthropy within communities should probably focus more on social relations, the quality of informal and formal institutions in terms, the extent to which these are owned and driven by the communities. In many instances, communities have actually not been in contact with a philanthropy foundation from outside. Literature and debates in the sector need to explore further how philanthropy can ensure that it is not encumbered by bureaucratic fiat and is responsive to needs on the ground.

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