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No one is an island

By Gordon Conway - posted Saturday, 24 August 2002

The forces of globalisation have delivered us into a time of uncertainty and confusion - what we uneasily call a transition.

But transition to what? A world of greater opportunity and prosperity for all? Or one in which the gap between rich and poor grows steadily larger? Would I seem overly pessimistic if I worried aloud that neither governments nor business are working very hard to bring about the former, that we are sliding almost passively into the latter?

Our new world is a place in which everybody, no matter how remote, is connected to everyone else. No one is an island and no island is protected by isolation - not Great Britain, the island where I grew up; not Manhattan, where the Rockefeller Foundation is located and where I now work; and not this great and fiercely independent island of yours. Thanks to the airplane, the Internet, that global market and a host of other new forces, we cannot afford to enjoy our blessings while ignoring those several billion people who live on the edge of survival.


What the English philosopher Herbert Spencer wrote a century ago - "No one can be perfectly happy till all are happy" - is even truer today with today’s bigger "all". Today we might say: "Globalization will not work for anyone until it works for everyone."

If we are now truly one world, don’t we need to create some international solidarity on the values needed to guide such a world - values such as fairness, openness, freedom, and equality of opportunity? I believe that modern philanthropy can be a powerful force in creating this solidarity.

Australians distrust foundations, or so I read in a report written by Australians for the Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium. Many of you think of philanthropy as charity, which collides with your strongly held belief that people should take care of themselves. There is a robust culture of mateship and equality here, the report says, and "European" notions of noblesse oblige do not thrive.

Australians (I am told) particularly distrust the motivations of the media-loving multi-billionaires who make a splash of giving. As one local pundit expressed it: "Once you’ve got the houses, the cars, the private jet, the very big boat … and a big PR problem, what else you gonna do?"

These suspicions are healthy: always beware those bearing gifts. But modern international philanthropy is not so much about giving as about change.

We who work in international philanthropy are scarcely any less uncertain and confused about globalization than people in business and government. But we have had practice in thinking globally, and we have long operated across national borders. At our best, we can move more quickly and flexibly, and take more risks, than governments, and we have a longer time horizon than most companies.


And we can do two things that are particularly needed now. We can help to create major partnerships of governments, companies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and foundations, such as the ones that are now working to eradicate polio on the planet, develop new tuberculosis drugs, vaccinate children against common but deadly diseases in Africa and make drugs available to treat expectant mothers who have the HIV virus so that it will not be transmitted to their new babies.

The second thing we can do is to help citizens’ groups "speak truth to power" - to monitor and report on corporate and government behavior around the world. These watchdogs, largely funded by foundations, bring the daily truths of local communities onto the world stage. Their work is part of the way we will develop the international solidarity and reliability a true global community requires.

For example, Transparency International is a tiny NGO that reports widely on corruption by both companies and government bureaucrats. Its work helps markets function and lowers transaction costs for all. Another group, Human Rights Watch, ‘names and shame’ those involved in torture and other violations of human rights. It saves lives and holds before us basic values of justice. Without the information these groups provide, we cannot insist that these values underpin our interdependent global community.

Australians are beginning to overcome their distrust of philanthropy. Giving by individuals, which lagged far behind Europe and the US, now appears on the rise. There has been a rapid upswing of community foundations, which collect gifts from donors for a specific geographic region. Your government has made some important changes, most notably creating the Partnership for Rural and Regional Renewal.

The planet needs for Australia’s innovative and energetic foundations, NGO’s and citizens’ groups now to go global, to be an Asia-Pacific anchor for the newly developing solidarity of values our newly global world needs.

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About the Author

Gordon Conway is President of the Rockefeller Foundation, New York.

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