In her recent post “Evolutionary Philanthropy,” Jean Russell asks, “How do we move upstream of the issues? . . . Is there some greater leverage we can apply further upstream that better catalyzes a world with less suffering and more joy?” Drawing on a conversation she and I have been having for some years, Russell concludes that change at the level of culture offers “the greatest potential for broad and deep reach with longstanding change.”
I’d like to build on Russell’s exploration in this post, and focus on what it means to move “upstream” and some examples of how this process might play out.
The stream, in this metaphor, represents the complex flow of layered cause and effect that characterizes many of the problems facing our world today. The symptoms that trigger us to want to help remedy a problem often manifest far downstream of the causes of the problem. Philanthropy that focuses only on these symptoms, while it can provide critical and much-needed short-term relief, is akin to a doctor treating a patient’s condition only with pain-killers, not attempting to diagnose or treat the disease, let alone to take preventative measures to help the patient live a more healthy life.
There are a number of ways we can shift our approach to intervention in order to more effectively address the problems we see. As illustrated in the chart on the right, we become more effective when we shift from taking individual action to institutionalized, collective action. A soup kitchen has a broader reach than one individual giving some spare change to a hungry man on the street. As we move beyond even institutionalized charity, we can shift from symptoms to causes, and start to address the systemic roots of problems. Farther “upstream” than even this, I believe, we can begin to work at the level of ideas, worldviews, and cultures—the underlying patterns and structures in human consciousness that give rise to the systems that create the problems we want to solve.
Going further upstream, has always called on us to stretch our imagination. Russell points out that for donors, it is challenging because it “offers less of a direct connection to the suffering a donor is alleviating.” We have to shift from trying to help a homeless person on the street in front of us, to wondering why people become homeless in the first place and looking at how we might prevent those problems at a systemic level, to questioning the underlying belief systems that foster social inequality. And even once we come to an understanding of the causes, moving philanthropic dollars away from direct services to also include preventative measures can take lots of imagination.
The discovery of a more upstream approach can often, at first, appear removed from the direct problems we face. Some change agents who are on the ground, responding to immediate needs, may feel it is abstract and even dangerously disconnected from the reality and urgency of the problems at hand. Looking at the root causes of homelessness may seem like it isn’t going to help the homeless and hungry person that needs food and shelter today.
In reality, all levels of intervention are essential. There will always be a demand for a direct and immediate alleviation of symptoms, and there is also a pressing need to tackle the more complex causes, and especially those that we cannot see—the invisible currents of culture. Because the “upstream” approach is more challenging to relate to, it is important, in forums like this, to continue to define and clarify what it means to go further upstream and concretize what can be accomplished by doing so.
Let’s examine a few examples to see how this multi-leveled approach can be effective.
Poverty is a tremendous and seemingly intractable global problem, particularly in the developing world. It makes a difference when people give food or money as charity on an individual basis. It also makes a difference to put in place more efficient and effective forms of charity, for example, using distribution networks and multiple parties to channel relief to where it’s needed in a way that individuals would not be able to do on their own. Improving education (particularly of women) and economic development (through social capital or microfinance schemes) can address some of the more systemic causes of poverty within a local community. Changing broader political, economic, and social structures at a national level can create a more peaceful and stable environment for development, reduce corruption, and increase justice. Addressing the deeper cultural patterns, ideas, and assumptions that foster inequality is critical if social mobility is to be supported and encouraged.
Another example that illustrates the potential of an upstream approach coupled with all other levels is the spread of HIV through the rape of virgin girls in sub-Saharan Africa. The most downstream approach is to deal with the illness itself, and support the victims. Taking a step upstream, we can attempt to prevent such crimes through fear of incarceration and its consequences. However, it is also critical to move further upstream and address the specific belief or idea that causes the problem. In this case, there is a powerful cultural myth that leads men to commit such a heinous crime: the conviction that it will cure their own sickness. A more effective long-term form of prevention, then, is to developing educational programs to undercut these mythical beliefs. And going further upstream, we can work to help these cultures embrace new values, such as the honoring and protection of innocent children. If the men in these cases could embrace a new identity as protectors of girls, a cultural solution to the problem would have emerged.
Similarly, the all-too-common cultural practice of female genital mutilation can be addressed at many layers. Currently, funding is being cut to the social organizations that facilitate new approaches to gender development and rites of passage. Instead, emphasis is being put on regulation. Regulation is used to try to save women’s lives, which are often at risk from this practice, but while it may be a useful short-term solution, it does not address the cultural vacuum created by the disappearance of these customs. In situations where cultural pride plays strongly, it is necessary to replace one set of behaviors with a new and more healthy one. If the practice of female genital mutilation is to be eradicated, those cultures will need help in creating new rituals for the passage into womanhood. Simply dismissing these practices as “barbaric” and dangerous, from the standpoint of a modern Western perspective, may cause their cultural pride to become more deeply entrenched.
Using a portfolio of interventions and activities, we can address the issues we face today while also being strategic about our long-term impact. It’s important to work at all levels of the stream. We certainly need the downstream approach of directly helping victims, and deterring perpetrators. Education is essential to begin to shift individual values and beliefs. And the more upstream approach of attempting to develop a higher shared culture or worldview is not meant to replace the other approaches but to supplement them.
An evolutionary philanthropy, as I understand it, focuses on “fit.” We evolve more complex, adaptive, and systematic forms of intervention, while retaining previous forms that still fit the needs of the system.
As Jean Russell outlines in her article, we have made great progress in moving upstream to address some of the systemic causes of our societal problems. For instance, we have understood that by increasing education, we can reduce crime, poverty, and other related issues. A non-profit organization called VisionSpring is able to help create economic development in certain populations not by giving funds or creating jobs but by giving eyeglasses at a very low cost to people who are no longer able to work because of poor eyesight.
In order to illustrate what it means to go further upstream, I’d like to propose this simple table. It illustrates that we can work at the level of symptoms, or the material level (I call this the “visible”) or at the level of causes—the level of ideas, beliefs, values, ways of defining meaning, etc. (I call this the “invisible”). Again they support each other and both are important.
|Levels of Symptoms (Visible)||Level of Causes (Invisible)|
|Applied at the level of the Individual||Applied at the collective or institutional level||Applied by impacting the ideas, values, worldviews at the level of the individual||Applied by impacting the ideas, values, worldviews at the level of culture|
When approaching the invisible level, we can aim to impact individual values, ideas, or ways of thinking, and we can aim to evolve culture—to impact sets of shared values, core identities, and ways of defining meaning. This form of intervention is the most challenging, but I believe that understanding the currents of culture and learning what allows shared ideas, beliefs, and identities to evolve holds extraordinary potential.
We are uncovering a new emerging field for intervention, and it is a very important time to support research, education and public awareness of this approach. Working at the level of culture will not only allow us to tackle some of the pressing problems we face at a more upstream level, but it will also empower leaders to consider the conscious cultivation of the culture of the future.