Analysis: Understanding the Risks of Nonparticipation in Philanthropy
By Daniel Parks
Many examples testify to the fact that when a philanthropic program doesn’t include beneficiaries in its decision-making processes—nonparticipation—it exposes itself to risks that reduce its likelihood of success. These risks include functional risks related to program efficiency and effectiveness, and ethical risks related to the morality of the program and its effects.
The root of nonparticipation’s functional risks is most often the use of bad information, which may come from an inaccurate or incomplete understanding of the program’s intended beneficiaries and the challenges they face. The likely consequences are inefficiency at best or counterproductivity at worst. The root of most ethical risks is the undemocratic exclusion of intended beneficiaries from matters that directly affect their lives. The likely consequence of nonparticipation’s ethical risks is that the philanthropic program amounts to an immoral enterprise, undemocratically doing harm to its intended beneficiaries.
Consider the infamous example of PlayPumps International, an NGO that in the mid-2000s connected children’s merry-go-rounds to water pumps throughout rural Africa, with the aim of providing clean water to remote communities. In due time, a UNICEF report made it clear that access to clean water for these remote communities was contingent on an unintended form of community labor rather than play; that PlayPumps were replacing existing handpumps without community consultation; and that some pumps were reportedly installed on unsuitable sites, fell quickly into disrepair, and often failed to receive promised maintenance.