On April 9th, we partnered with World Affairs Council to put on a panel on wealth inequality in Asia - a problem growing in scale all over the world. Give2Asia was present not only as an organizer but also through two speakers: Manager of Fiscal Sponsorship, Alexie Ferreria Mercado, and Executive Director of one of our outstanding Fiscal Sponsorship partner organizations The Karen Hilltribes Trust (KHT), William Harnden. Resources to connect further with KHT's work follow this article.
Suzanne Eloise Siskel. Executive Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, The Asia Foundation
The panel circulated around strategies for local solutions to widespread inequality, including challenges such as uninformed donors seeking to dictate the use of funds and locating communities who are off-the-grid to governments and outsiders.
Harnden, who also spoke earlier that day at a "Lunch and Learn" event as well, provided insights into the driving mission behind his organization. The Karen Hilltribes Trust (KHT) is fundamentally based on a model of local participation wherein members of the community design and implement the projects that will best serve them. At the same time, the participation of internationals and students has been critical - students often come from the UK to work alongside locals to establish the gravity-based water systems that have brought water access to 60,000 members of the Karen tribe since the organization's founding in 1987. KHT operates in Mae Hong Son, the poorest region in Thailand, an area so remote that their small organization is one of the only ones there.
On the subject of wealth distribution, Harnden commented that Thailand's growing GDP makes it appear to be in line with UN Development Goals and yet this does not reflect the actual experience of the Karen people due to their complicated political status within the country. In this way, wealth inequality can be especially problematic as it can mislead outsiders into thinking that the area has less need of support.
Alexie shared some of Give2Asia's role in drawing funds from wealthier donors within the Asian context. After the 2015 Nepal earthquake, for example, funds were mobilized not only from more traditional US-based donors but also from wealthy individuals and corporations based in China, demonstrating a redistribution within the region. She also commented on the mobilization of Asian-American communities to support the regions to which they are personally connected, such as the large turnout of Filipino-Americans donating to recovery efforts after the Haiyan earthquake.
Alexie went on to comment on the critical role that Give2Asia plays in providing guidance not only to our fiscal sponsorship organizations, but also to uninformed donors. When donors insist on their money going towards specific project areas that wouldn't have a strong benefit for local communities, staff members at Give2Asia work diligently to educate them on the nuanced areas of need that have been prescribed by locals within each respective region. This enables a flow of funding that breaks from the shortcomings of more Eurocentric development models.
Tina Sciabica, Executive Director of READ Global, shared inspiring stories of her organization's work empowering rural communities in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. When asked about the role that social media plays in their work, Sciabica described it as an invaluable alternative for people who are unable to come in person to see these projects on the ground. The internet is widely accessible both by the disadvantaged groups that these organizations hope to empower and by the donor communities that may be based elsewhere. Managing digital accounts takes a lot of time and doesn't always show a clear return on investment, but it has many long-term benefits and has even brought in big donors who were inspired by READ's digital storytelling features.
In the end, all three organizations emphasized the power of local development models to reach communities which are otherwise off-the-grid to governments and international communities alike. "Global grassroots model sounds like an oxymoron," Harnden explained, "but that is exactly where we see the most potential." A challenge in philanthropy is the impulse to show a big, marketable impact in the short term rather than patiently invest in truly sustainable projects. Organizations like Give2Asia, The Karen Hilltribes Trust, and READ Global recognize the value of long-term projects that are managed by local communities as critical to navigating the growing challenges of wealth inequality in Asia.