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A New Kind of Investing: The Philanthropy Secretariat in Liberia

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Successfully transitioning a post-conflict country is a long-term, highly-skilled and resource-intensive process. After 14 years of civil war, Liberia's democracy is just beginning to turn a new page, and a group of strategic international philanthropists are hoping to play a role in catalyzing precisely that process. Recently, at the start of the Global Philanthropy Forum in San Francisco, a number of key stakeholders of this initiative provided a progress report to an eagerly-interested audience. First, however, the seeds of this engagement trace back to the Clinton Global Initiative in 2008, where Pam Omidyar's Humanity United, the Global Philanthropy Forum, the Open Society Institute, the Daphne Foundation, the NoVo Foundation, McCall-MacBain, Trust Africa and the government of Liberia made a "commitment to action." This commitment formed the basis for a new kind of investing.

Established in April 2009 within the Office of the President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf--Africa's first female elected Head of State--is Africa's first Philanthropy Secretariat, financed entirely by foundations and charged with aligning philanthropic investments with Liberia's Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). Encompassing policies that range from integrating former combatants to encouraging the growth of civil society, the PRS was formed through a highly inclusive public process, and because of such widespread participation, earned the necessary legitimacy and buy-in required to set a genuine national strategy moving forward. According to Jane Wales, President and CEO of the World Affairs Council and Founder of the Global Philanthropy Forum, the PRS is "a blueprint that has persuaded wealthy countries to provide much-needed debt relief and both private philanthropists and investors to work in close coordination with each other -- and with a government they feel they can trust."

With an annual budget of about $200,000, the two-person secretariat is officially part of President Sirleaf's executive office and is overseen by Natty B. Davis, a senior adviser to the president. The secretariat is a bold new adventure for the world of post-conflict philanthropy, and has the potential to serve as a model for expediting the transitional process for countries seeking to lift themselves from a crisis-ridden past.

It is important to note that the new body is strictly one of coordination and facilitation. Rory Eakin, associate director of Investments at Humanity United explained to the Chronicle of Philanthropy that, "To his credit, Minister Davis has done a good job trying to broker partnerships while keeping the foundations doing what they do best, which is flexible, independent projects that can be quicker moving than some of the bilateral donors and government resources."

"Issues of corruption, how money might be used, and who your interlocutors are, and so forth, are issues you'd really want to vet," continued Ed Marcum, Humanity United's director of investments. "There are some unique circumstances in Liberia that allow us to have a real high-level of comfort with it."

Critical voices of the new venture caution that such a project ties philanthropic engagements too closely with the President's office, and thus the potential for improperly leveraging resources or authority and misguiding funds based on political agendas is one we cannot ignore. Therefore, investing in the President's character, legitimacy, leadership, and vision are essential to the success of coordinating capital interventions.

In speaking with Mike Boyer, a spokesman for Humanity United, regarding the vetting process and the notion of unique circumstances in Liberia, he commented, "Are there risks associated with linking philanthropy and politics in this way? Yes, there are risks, but we have in Liberia a government that is uniquely committed to cultivating a healthy and robust civil society in the country. The Secretariat is mandated only with serving as a facilitator for philanthropists who share that vision. It does not dictate what projects philanthropists do or do not work on. Building off the Poverty Reduction Strategy, which was a consultative process across the country, it merely opens doors, answers questions, and provides advice. We recognize that this is a special relationship. We're not saying this is a model that would work anywhere under any circumstances."

Time will tell as to whether the Philanthropy Secretariat will ultimately succeed in its purpose in the coming years, but already, the unit has played a key role in facilitating and aligning projects and endeavors with national strategy, and that is certainly a good start. Whether the model can be exported to other countries emerging from crises is a longer-term question, but the very fact that we can ponder such a question demonstrates the unique ability of the philanthropic sector to engage in riskier initiatives than others. Grant-makers around the world interested in post-conflict recovery, development and growth should pay close attention to this unique partnership as it unfolds, and we must never forget that the beauty of the philanthropic sector and the industry at large is the ability to take calculated risks in hopes of achieving world-changing impact.

For more information on Liberia's Philanthropy Secretariat, visit their website here.

To read a recent piece I wrote on the Global Philanthropy Forum on harnessing technology for change, please click here.

For more articles by Rahim Kanani, click here.