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A billion dollar question

July 26, 2013

 

Carla Funk was a newly graduated master’s student from the Prairies when she faced a famine that would become the cause celebre of a generation.

After studying agriculture at the University of Manitoba, Funk accepted a position in 1985 to manage the UN Refugee Agency food distribution program in Ethiopia’s Ogaden Desert.

“The UN had not anticipated the magnitude of the famine Ethiopia is famous for. Instead we thought we were winding down a food program for 30,000 people,” Funk says.

She wound up being responsible for feeding hundreds of thousands of people at the height of a disaster that killed more than a million Ethiopians. Around the world, Bob Geldof rallied celebrities to stage fundraising concerts in major cities and songs like Feed the World hit the top of music charts.

For Funk, the experience was a crash course in the world of development, one that would change her.

“I was 27 years old when I went to Ethiopia, my first experience of a developing nation. The experience in Ethiopia has never left me and has shaped my life in innumerable ways.”  

After working in Zimbabwe for four years as a development consultant, Funk’s career shifted to the philanthropic sector in Canada. But now, nearly three decades later, her career has come full circle.

While celebrity causes captured the world’s attention in the ’80s and ’90s, nowadays benevolent billionaires such as Bill Gates are giving away their fortunes to help end poverty. But Funk wants to know, are private charities any better at aid work?

The Doctor of Social Sciences student recently was awarded a $90,000 Mitacs-Accelerate Fellowship to study the role private funding has played in shaping international aid over the past decade. It’s an important shift that Funk is eager to examine.

“Private funding is skyrocketing. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is in its own class but it’s indicative of the number of millionaires who are saying, ‘I was very good at earning money and now I’m going to give it away,” she says.

“Private charities, however, are a very different animal to public aid. I am interested in seeing what that means for people in developing countries and poverty reduction in general. It’s a very under-examined area.”

In the past seven years in Canada, private foundations started by families or individuals have doubled to nearly 4,900, holding some $12 billion in assets. And private funding from the world’s developed economies to poor ones rose to $56 billion in 2010, a $3-billion increase in just one year.

As part of her fellowship, Funk will work the Victoria-based non-government group Development Action Canada, which will incorporate her research findings into its leadership training. She also will travel to Tanzania to study privately funded development projects, during which she will interview donors, aid recipients and workers hired to implement programs.

“Tanzania has been a darling of Canadian development aid. It’s politically stable, has a long term policy of poverty reduction in place, and there is a lot of development aid there, private and public. Because of that long history, it would be a very good place to have a close look at,” she says.

Funk plans to produce a collection of photographs and stories that will illustrate the difference between the expectations of private donors and aid recipients’ experiences. It’s a resource she hopes charitable groups will use to improve their practices.

“I’d like the results of my study to be as applied as possible. I was excited to get the Mitacs fellowship and to work with Development Action Canada because it will broaden out the perspective of my research to the point where it can also be useful outside academia,” she says.

Funk’s supervisor, Prof. Leslie King from the School of Environment and Sustainability, says the research project will have significant societal benefits– in Africa and beyond.

“It’s a remarkably good fit for Royal Roads because Mitacs and RRU are both interested in applied research, community engagement, and research partnerships,” she says.

“Carla’s work is extremely innovative. No academic investigation of philanthropy that we are aware of has been done from the point of view of the recipients.”

Funk, meanwhile, is keen to return to the continent where her life changed.

“Ethiopia, despite having being in such turmoil and extreme poverty, has a rich and ancient culture and there is huge pride in the country’s origins,” she says.

“Yes, development work is about helping people get out of the cycle of poverty. But we don’t have all the right ideas. It’s about working together.”