Philanthropy: a closed system

"It is my belief that we at EdelGive have been practicing a systems approach to social transformation" Vidya Shah, CEO, EdelGive Foundation.


In the last couple of decades, the development sector has been looking at Systems thinking as an approach to facilitate sustainable development. At EdelGive too, understanding and debating the theoretical framework behind systems thinking is helping us refine and strengthen our approach; particularly in the context of women’s empowerment. While building my understanding of the Systems Thinking approach, I came across an interesting article about failure “The right way and the wrong way to fail”- Barry Rhitholz1, illustrated through an unlikely choice of an example; a story from World War 2.

Abraham Wald was a mathematician at Columbia University and a member of the war department‘s statistical research group. The challenge posed before the group was how to armor bombers so that they could better survive anti-aircraft missiles, and the fearsome attack of fighter planes. The group reviewed a study showing the damage patterns of returning aircraft and recommended adding armor to those areas that showed the most damage; the wings, the fuselage, and the tail. Wald rejected this recommendation reasoning, if a plane could return with its wings shot up, that was not where the armor was needed. Wald advised that the group consider the data set of all planes; especially the ones that did not return. He said, ‘the armor doesn’t go where the bullets holes are. It goes where the bullet holes aren’t…’ The study of where the bullet holds aren’t “has made aviation an excellent study case of system thinking in action. The rigor applied in analyzing data over almost a century has resulted in advances in Cockpit Voice Recorder and Flight Data Recorder (black box) technology being subject to exhaustive review and improvement. In point of fact, the black box is now orange, has submersible locator beacons, making it easier to spot and locate.

Putting this in context, with regards to air safety, an average of 2.4 million flights are needed for a single accident. Compare this with a closed system like health care and hospitals. In the US alone, preventable medical errors result in half a million deaths at a cost of $17 Billion every year; the third cause of death after heart disease and cancer, equivalent to two 747 jumbo jets falling out of the sky every day killing roughly 900 people. A closed system has little publicly available data and no sort of standardized review process when errors occur. There is only private self-examination if any, and nothing is readily available for public scrutiny.

My fear is that philanthropy is also more of a closed system. There is a feeling that like doctors, philanthropists and NGO leaders and indeed everyone in the philanthropic ecosystem are infallible survivors, with a reluctance to admit error and share failures; and open up our work to public scrutiny.

It is my belief that we at EdelGive have been practicing a systems approach to social transformation. The rudimentary principles of system thinking that we adopted were Being open to knowing that we don’t know- hence finding partners who: have tried to identify the causes and dimensions of the problems, are data-driven, highly community based, and community-led; deeply committed in the communities they served. Knowing that solutions may involve changes in beliefs, attitudes or approaches that may be context-specific and cannot be derived from generic ‘’best practice”. People will be resistant to behavior change; it may be two steps back before one step forward. Solutions that may, therefore, require experimentation and adaptation over time. Solutions that involve risk capital, patience; the move towards an advocacy and rights-based approach; and the acceptance of a lack of short-term measurability. We need multiple stakeholders to diagnose the problems. The solutions will have to be driven by the affected stakeholders, including so-called “adversaries” like patriarchal communities (including men and boys). Stakeholder solutions will be required across numerous places, across organizational and systems boundaries, across societal, political, markets, governance, ecological, systems and into the personal, social, political and economic sphere of women and girls.

Within the dialogue around sustainability and transformational change also lies the concept of participatory leadership wherein the conventional beneficiary is considered an active agent in his/her development process. Intertwined with this is the consciousness about the power relationships embedded within the most liberal, bottom-up, grassroots, developmental programs.

The systems approach insists on involving the last of the last-mile stakeholders in the development process from inception till conclusion, as active participants in the process; who will have a say in what transformational change look like for them, and have the right to evaluate, and/or dissent even. Agencies like Oxfam, EdelGive and other funding agencies may have a more indirect role in the intervention, playing the role of the facilitator, a sutradhar of sorts who can facilitate common ground forums, bringing multiple stakeholders together for collective impact.

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