Social Justice and Inclusive Partnerships
A Reflection by Barry Smith for the Synergos Global Senior Fellows Meeting, New York, September 2007

Barry Smith is Regional Director, Southern Africa, of The Synergos Institute.

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What do we mean by "social justice?"

To begin, let's listen to what some of our best and brightest say about social justice:


Ours is an unequal society and the [South African] constitution recognises that positive action is necessary to establish conditions in which there is not only equality of rights but also equality of dignity...

Nowhere is the role of dignity in informing the content of all concrete rights more apparent than in the application of social and economic rights entrenched in the constitution. These are rooted in respect for human dignity, for how can there be dignity in a life lived without access to housing, health care, food, water or in the case of people unable to support themselves, without appropriate assistance? ...

The constitution offers a vision of the future: a society in which there will be social justice and respect for human rights, in which the basic needs of all our people will be met, in which we will live together in harmony, showing respect and concern for one another.
--Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson, President of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture, May 2000


Social justice might be thought of as the process through which society attains a more equitable distribution of power in the political, economic and social realms. Although social justice is an ideal toward which we can strive, a completely just society (a utopian state) is unachievable. However, when society is made fairer in economic, social and political realms, when the opportunity for a more equitable distribution of power is achieved, we can say that a society is in the process of becoming more socially just.

Discussions of social justice lead to questions of how equity and power fit into the concept. Equity in social, political and economic realms can mean many things. Equity can mean equal distribution of power (economic, political, social), equal welfare (or utility), or equal opportunity. In the United States, the focus has been on fostering equal opportunity (the ability to pursue happiness) as opposed to the other two. In promoting equality of opportunity, one must address how power relations and imbalances affect the ability of those less well off to pursue opportunity.
--National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 'Understanding Social Justice Philanthropy,' 2003


It is in its distinction from charity that social justice philanthropy is best defined. It aims to not just give starving people fish, or even to teach them how to fish, but to change the terms of trade for fish...A crude measure of injustice in a society is the degree to which an individual or group's current or future access to economic, social, cultural and political resources and power are determined by factors beyond their control -- the age, class, caste, ethnicity, location, gender, religion, physical and mental capacities one happens to be endowed with by chance. In the foundation world, social justice grantmaking involves support to individuals, groups, organisations, campaigns, networks or movements that seek to redress these imbalances in order to create lasting change. Structural change of this kind necessarily requires reform of those societal institutions and policies that perpetuate injustice, not merely providing relief to those who are badly off...

For a philanthropic intervention to truly qualify as being rooted in social justice it would have to recognise the fact that our societies are fundamentally unjust...and that policy-making in all our social, political, economic judicial and cultural institutions either excludes their voices or, at best, presumes to know where their best interests lie. Social justice philanthropy must necessarily have at its core the redress of these imbalances and aim explicitly to build the capacity of marginalised groups to advocate and defend their own interests.
--Ingrid Srinath, Synergos Senior Fellow and Chief Executive, Child Rights and You -- India, 2007


Some might say that the biggest enemy of social justice is charity. Too much charitable activity accepts without question the circumstances which give rise to the need for it in the first place. Charity is about ameliorating intolerable situations, not changing those situations fundamentally. I know this can seem very hard, and insofar as charity is a personal expression of compassion by individuals for the situation of others, I do not want to deny or criticize it. But it is a different thing from change, and justice needs change...

Foundations cannot achieve social justice on their own, and it is hubris to pretend otherwise: by definition, social justice requires action at a societal level. It may require action by many stakeholders, but if it is to be effective then they need to be coordinated. Some may even need to be coerced. Social justice usually requires that some who have a lot will in future have less in order that finite assets should be more fairly distributed. Those who have more are also those with most private power. They are unlikely voluntarily to cede this to others. Many of them are also those who run major foundations. Their motivation in doing so may be perfectly acceptable, in that they want to do good. But doing good is different from changing things.
--Steven Burkeman, Synergos Senior Fellow, "Foundations, the State and Social Justice," 2004



For the purposes of my remarks, social justice grantmaking is defined as the efforts of foundations to change the current power relationships that exist between citizens and their relationship to government, business and the non-governmental sectors. Social justice grantmaking attempts to improve how the society provides equal access to opportunities for all citizens and ensures a minimum quality of life for all...

At its best, social justice philanthropy tries to determine the cause of social inequities and correct them at the source. In fact, a key justification for the existence of foundations is that they provide the risk capital within a society to test innovative solutions to systemic problems. It is this notion of innovative solutions that have the potential to change the underlying system, and not support of charity, that inspires citizens to continue to believe in the power of foundations to make positive contributions to the functioning of society -- even when foundations fail to meet these expectations.
--Emmett Carson, Synergos Senior Fellow and Chair of the Council on Foundations, "Reflections on Foundations and Social Justice," 2003

Looking at social justice means looking at the systems and structures that bring about injustice. These systems are put into place, either knowingly or unknowingly, by different stakeholders. Addressing injustice requires bringing the different stakeholders together to understand their role in the unjust system and to have them agree to begin changing their system. This work, in essence, transforms the people who are part of the problem to become part of the solution...

Linked to social injustice is poverty. If poverty is defined as capability poverty, then it requires that the person is provided access to assets, participation and security. Poverty persists because existing institutional arrangements do not provide access to assets, participation, and security. Therefore, to address poverty one needs to transform institutional arrangements so that these elements are made available. (Ernie Garilao, Director, Mirant Centre for Bridging Societal Divides at the Synergos 20th Anniversary Reflection, 2007)

Synergos on social justice

Synergos has made much progress in outlining its concept of social justice. For Synergos, social justice is a keystone value that is bound up with our mission and vision. Our mission gives central place to poverty reduction and increased equity (fairness), which are intrinsically social justice goals. The recent Board-approved organizational vision goes further and speaks of:

For Synergos, social justice means solving problems by addressing their root causes and advancing systemic change. It also entails the promotion of fair access to resources and equality of opportunities.

Other fundamental Synergos values reinforce and expand on our concept of social justice, such as:

Collaboration

Integrity

Compassion

Taken together, the various elements of the Synergos mission, vision and values statement provide a useful compass to guide us along our way.

Social justice and "systems change"

A social justice approach is a way of perceiving the whole system (with all of its underlying structures, fault lines and divides) that perpetuates poverty and inequity. Synergos Senior Fellow, John Davies from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, has spoken eloquently of the way in which Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, washing away the city's façade to reveal the truth that lay beneath.  In the case of Katrina, it might be said that the greatest disaster was not the short term storm but the dysfunctional, fractured society it revealed, that persists to this day.

In a world of distorted perceptions and "gated communities," a social justice sensibility helps to surface realities in ways that may alarm us but that may also have the potential to transform us. Social justice is about naming the difficult issues we face, like poverty and inequity in the large, or the specific weathervane issues that are the symptoms of structural injustice like racism, gender inequality, the situation of migrants, and so forth. Through its dialogue work around social justice and the "Vital Signs" social indicator initiative, Community Foundations of Canada has demonstrated the power of highlighting in an accessible way the real world of poverty and exclusion in our midst. Such efforts give poverty a human face.

Charity is simple; a social justice approach is more complex and difficult. As well as a value, social justice is an orientation (but not a partisan position). It is a set of challenging questions, an elusive target and an ideal towards which we can strive. It contends not only with economic poverty but also with poverty of the spirit, with social exclusion and alienation. As Ingrid Srinath observes, we may gauge the extent of injustice by the degree to which characteristics one inherits at birth, by chance, determine our present and future circumstances -- whether by virtue of race, class, caste, ethnicity, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation.

Social justice is all about "systems change" and transformation. Certainly, a social justice approach involves such strategies as: changing public policies and legislation; litigation and judicial reform; and realizing civic, social and economic rights. But social justice needs to make common cause with a wider range of tools and resources in the international aid system, in social entrepreneurship, in philanthropy (whether it be "new," "old," or "venture" philanthropy), and in development partnerships.

These days, proponents of "new philanthropy" and "venture philanthropy" sometimes claim a unique ability to take risks, often meaning financial risks. A social justice approach embraces a wide range of risks and opportunities:

Bridging divides, working for systems change

Confronted by the complexity of the world's development challenges, one of the biggest challenges we face is a lack of trust, common purpose and collaborative leadership between the various sectors and stakeholders in development. South Africa, where I am based, is in many ways a reflection of our divided world. It remains a polarized society in which the fault lines of race, class and sector run deep. Thirteen years after the end of apartheid, a "silo mentality" remains widespread. Some leaders in government, business and civil society still lack a basic understanding of the role or potential of other sectors. At worst, cross-sector collaboration is subverted by underlying patterns of mutual hostility, arrogance or indifference.

In this climate of fragmentation, many anti-poverty interventions fail to bring all the relevant players to the table. Too often, inclusive processes are sacrificed for "quick-fix," project-based solutions. Some initiatives are top-heavy on policy but light on system-wide delivery mechanisms. Others are premised on principles of centralist social engineering, top-down technocratic approaches or "one size fits all," market-based models. Too few initiatives really grapple with systemic blockages, marshalling the resources and creativity of all sectors, and working for system-wide change.

Even where progressive policy frameworks, positive intentions and partnership structures exist, the results of anti-poverty work are often disappointing -- characterized by:

Systems change requires inclusive partnerships

The rhetoric of "partnership" is all the rage in development. It is a commonplace that no one sector, or set of actors, can take exclusive responsibility for meeting the challenges of entrenched poverty and social exclusion. But we need to get beyond the conventional discourse of fuzzy, "feel-good" partnerships -- or of "public-private partnerships" that often amount to little more than technical models or variations on the theme of  privatizing public services. A wider and more inclusive notion of "partnership" is needed, based on principles of broad public accountability, citizen participation, equity and fairness, transparency, good governance and "power-sharing" between stakeholders and sectors.

Internationally, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aspire to forge a powerful global alliance to achieve basic social justice outcomes. They are premised on the role of an effective public sector and the importance of coordinated, pro-poor public policies. They provide governments with a rallying point around which dynamic, long term and values-driven partnerships can be formed.

With its pivotal resources of finance, technical capacity, management expertise and innovation, business has a major part to play in partnerships to realize the MDGs. Emerging business imperatives around "corporate citizenship" and corporate social responsibility offer a bridgehead for transforming conventional notions of "public-private partnership."

In the realm of civil society, there is increasing evidence that no one contributes as much to the survival and development of the poor as the poor themselves. In Southern Africa, through a range of informal and formal mechanisms -- like the extended family, neighbour helping neighbour, stokvels, savings clubs, burial societies, local voluntarism, etc. -- the poor enact citizen participation and social solidarity on a daily basis in a very concrete way.

Citizens' organizations, including community-based organizations, NGOs and social movements, play a vital role in giving voice to the poor, mobilizing resources and collective action, and taking forward agendas for pro-poor change. They perform a vital public service by ensuring independent monitoring of both government and business performance in relation to poverty and social justice objectives.

Collaboration between government, business and civil society -- including a vibrant social giving and philanthropy sector -- is a necessity if the world's massive and complex social deficits are to be overcome. More effective dialogue and partnership building is required to bridge deep socio-economic divides. Governments and business in particular need to recognize the necessity for "bridging dialogue" and sustained engagement with other social partners -- to amplify the "voices" of the poor and the civil society sector in both policy making and "delivery;" to protect and expand the public spaces in which the poor can access power and mobilize as citizens; and to create a more level playing field in which civil society organizations and citizens can play a meaningful role in multi-sector partnerships.

Asking the difficult questions about partnerships

Partnerships -- multi-sector or multi-stakeholder -- are not in themselves an answer to the ills of a globalized, vastly unequal world. Conventional development partnership models will not always or necessarily reduce poverty, increase equity or serve social justice goals. Partnerships are not a substitute for politics, leadership, citizen action and long-term development processes. New possibilities for social justice will continue to emerge from popular mobilization, socio-economic upheavals and the everyday struggles of politics, ideas and the economy.

By "inclusive partnerships," Synergos suggests partnerships that are representative of the significant stakeholders in an issue, and particularly that ensure a significant role for communities, the poor and marginalized in determining their own future and finding solutions to their problems. Inclusive partnerships, that give real voice and power to the poor and excluded, must be part of the solution, but they are a tall order. There is much work and thinking to be done about how the less powerful in such partnerships can secure the space, decision-making influence and resources needed to be more than "guests at the table."

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen is famous for his thesis about the importance of "capabilities" i.e. crudely, it is not enough for people to have rights and duties -- important as this may be. This speaks powerfully to our conception and practical application of social justice principles. Dignity, human rights and legitimate entitlements can only realized if citizens have the means -- civic freedoms, access to resources, opportunities, social protections, skills, organizations, etc -- to claim and act on them. The "capabilities" approach could be a powerful tool in developing our strategy and theory of change around partnership-building.

In order to be effective and carry their own constituencies with them in partnerships, the poor and excluded need to be organized and have their own, authentic voice -- and a voice that is heard in the realm of public discourse. One of the key roles and added values of social investors can be to facilitate processes that strengthen the capability of civil society organizations -- including organizations of the poor and excluded -- to engage in more powerful multi-stakeholder partnerships within civil society, and beyond that in multi-sector initiatives.

Non-governmental grantmakers, development trusts, private philanthropists and other social investors, because of there relative independence, are well placed to take risks, to invest in the capacities, innovations and social justice movements of civil society and the poor, and to fund organization development, community empowerment, advocacy, policy formation, etc. "Civil society strengthening" is not by itself a sufficient strategy for poverty reduction; but it is a necessary strategy for the achievement of more effective and inclusive collaboration to shift the systems that entrench poverty.

One of the risks in a focus on partnerships is that we might easily get sucked into a current fad with its own lowest common denominator impulses. Inevitably, many if not most development partnerships will mimic technocratic, "public-private partnerships" models that reproduce the power, accountability and governance imbalances that characterize much of the aid system and most major development institutions.

Some development partnerships are being formed to exploit the opportunities of the market to reduce poverty and increase equity -- as some would say, to capitalize on "the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid." This is especially true of some forms of "new philanthropy," which are currently in the spotlight as private and corporate philanthropists flex their muscles on the development scene. As Sen observes, "market mechanisms are as good as the company they keep." Some partnership enthusiasts are rightly keen on the possibilities of innovative market-based approaches, engagement with business, micro-enterprise, social entrepreneurship, and so forth. But the problem is that a very narrow paradigm of "market orthodoxy" prevails globally, that does not take into account the failure of dominant market forms to reduce poverty and inequality.

From a perspective of social justice, we should be as interested in "multi-stakeholder" partnership-building within civil society, or among the poor and excluded, as we would be in multi-sector partnerships. Civil society and the poor are not an amorphous mass. Within their own ranks, they need to collaborate more effectively in order to act against poverty and exclusion, or to engage in multi-sector initiatives. Innovation and ferment for change often comes from the periphery of society, and the most effective advocates and exemplars of anti-poverty policy or action are usually organized coalitions in civil society and of the poor themselves. Thus, we need to attend to the need for "multi-stakeholder partnerships" within civil society that improve the odds for building more inclusive and effective multi-sector partnerships.

When it comes to methodologies and the marketplace in ideas, the development world is severely imbalanced in favour of methods and ideas from the North -- the aid or philanthropy giving countries. The global South has been bombarded with projects, technical solutions, and methodologies from the North that promise to deliver. A vast industry in the North is paid well to develop and impose "solutions" on the South. But the results have overall been poor, and there is understandable methodology fatigue and suspicion.

Some people worry, with good reason, that an "inclusive partnerships strategy" may risk the co-option of the poor and excluded in a corporatist, elite accommodation model of development. And some fear that close collaboration with government, business or donors may close down the space for debate and contending ideas through some enforced partnership consensus.

I would suggest that giving voice, agency and power to the poor and excluded is a central social justice task for all of us working in development. Effective development partnerships do not require agreement on everything, or joint action on everything. Nor should they silence challenging or dissenting views. Inclusive partnerships may modify but need not compromise fundamentally the independence of the partners, nor their independent voice.

In fact, diversity and difference are a given in multi-stakeholder collaboration. With diversity comes tension and conflict. Clearly, managing conflict will always be a challenge for partnerships. Destructive conflict can blow collaboration out of the water. However, tensions and conflict are also forces for creativity and change. I suspect that much of the social change potential for partnerships lies in their ability to embrace conflict and harness it for good.

Unfortunately, the experience of many civil society organizations in partnerships with government and business is that they are required to suspend critical voices, tone down public advocacy or social justice activism and tow the line of the more powerful partners. Sometimes the representatives of the poor and excluded in multi-sector partnerships drift away from their own constituencies and become "partnership bureaucrats." We need to reflect on these perceptions and risks, and how they may be managed.

Finally, the pursuit of social justice and systems change is not a short term, straightforward undertaking. Decisive shifts in the underlying causes of poverty and social exclusion are unlikely to be achieved in the bounds of a two or three-year project funding cycle. Development is certainly not a linear process, and building partnerships for development is almost certainly more of an art than a science. Useful as they are, "how-to" checklists, "ABCs of partnerships" manuals, and innovative "social technologies" inspired by management theory all have their limitations. We will need varied tools and facilitation skills. We should not expect quick breakthrough solutions, nor should we underestimate the complexity of the work.

Partnerships will inevitably have to contend with an unpredictable cycle of advances and setbacks, a constantly changing environment, and a continually steep learning curve. If we have the courage to engage with complex social systems, we will require the creativity to track many-layered social processes in innovative ways. Subtle shifts in attitudes, relationships, understanding, policy, power and possibility will need to be measured -- conventional tools for planning and evaluation, like the "logical framework approach," may not be adequate to the task.

Synergos leadership on partnerships and collaboration

There is perhaps more discussion about global poverty today than at any time in recent history. There are new voices in this conversation with exciting and innovative ideas. There are also great frustrations being expressed that past efforts to advance the quality of life for the most poor and vulnerable in our global society continue to be so unsuccessful...We will continue to partner with institutions and people who seek to create a more just and equitable society by engaging local communities, addressing root causes and supporting initiatives that bring people together across all sectors and differences.
--Bob Dunn, President and CEO, The Synergos Institute, 2007


As Synergos moves into its third decade, I remain convinced that the complex social, economic and environmental problems the world faces cannot be solved by one part of society alone. Systemic and sustainable solutions require groups and individuals to work together across their differences.

Synergos, since the beginning, has sought to build trust, to include the excluded and to bring together key stakeholders to solve problems of poverty and inequity using collaborative methods. We and our partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America continue to strive to strengthen the financing for and capacity of civil society to work with other sectors of society, to strengthen the impact of philanthropy and philanthropists, and to help groups around the world to build partnerships that produce systemic solutions to local, national and global problems.
--Peggy Dulany, Founder and Chair, The Synergos Institute, 2007