'We are not a humanitarian agency': The Ford Foundation's COVID-19 lens

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Medical staff at work at a COVID-19 ICU in Machakos, Kenya. The Ford Foundation has awarded $50,000 to support monitoring the expenditure of COVID-19 resources in Kenya's Lower Eastern Province. Photo by: Baz Ratner / Reuters

From the production of a documentary film on the impact of COVID-19 in Nigeria to telling the stories of LGBTQ youth in the pandemic, the Ford Foundation is extending its expertise for addressing inequality into documenting the various ways in which people continue to be affected by the coronavirus. They are among many donors providing a financial response to COVID-19 that has seen trillions of dollars in funding announcements made globally.

“We are not a humanitarian agency — that is not our comparative advantage and not our main area of work,” Martin Abregu, vice president of international programs at the Ford Foundation, explained to Devex.

Where the Ford Foundation sees its comparative advantage, Abregu explained, is in supporting civil society organizations — including supporting them in building resilience, holding government responses to account, and documenting the impact of the pandemic on communities whose voices may not otherwise be heard.

“We have been trying to look at how communities we care the most about have been impacted,” he said. “A lot of it has been documenting, for example, whether the communities we think are vulnerable or have historically been marginalized are being taken care of.”

Analyzing Ford Foundation grants

As of Feb. 11, the Ford Foundation grant database showed 65 grants awarded in response to COVID-19, totalling $5.8 million. Ranging from $5,000 to $1 million, regions supported by these grants include Africa, Central America, the Middle East, and South America. Subjects areas targeted include economics; education; sexual and reproductive health; and urban and rural land management. Civic participation; civil and human rights; and arts, culture and the media have been the main focus of grants to date.

“The gap is twofold — it is about not knowing the topic, but also who is producing the knowledge.”

— Martin Abregu, vice president of international programs at the Ford Foundation

Documenting local experiences from a local perspective is a critical objective in supporting marginalized voices and sharing local knowledge. In Nigeria, the award of a $50,000 grant to a local production company will develop a video documentary on Nigeria's response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, enabling voices on the ground to be heard.

Nayanaya Trust, an organization which supports young women in driving social change through film, has been awarded $50,000 to document the experiences of “young LGBTIQ+ persons, black womxn and other vulnerable persons” in South Africa during the pandemic. This will support their challenges being communicated.

The Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning has been awarded $40,000 to collect data and information that can contribute to a better understanding of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the black population in Brazil, supporting localized insights and solutions.

$22,000 to promote the work of contemporary artists from the Maya and Zoque communities in Mexico and Central America will bring their reflections on the effects of COVID-19 on their communities and beyond to the global conversation.

Accountability in COVID-19 funding, ensuring that promised funds are being directed to communities in need, is another key area of funding. The foundation has awarded the International Research and Exchanges Board a grant of $50,000 to provide “timely and accurate data” which will improve accountability for resources allocated to the pandemic response in Kenya.

Also in Kenya, $50,000 will support monitoring the expenditure of COVID-19 resources in the Lower Eastern Province. And $135,000 will support multidisciplinary research to “enable local governments to implement economic reforms, initiate discussions on the role of the public sector and financial, intermediaries of COVID-19 financial aid and advance work on property rights initiatives.”

Understanding the focus

For Abregu, supporting documentation of the impact and response to COVID-19 among diverse communities globally — as well as holding governments accountable in their responses — fills a “huge” knowledge gap.

“The gap is twofold — it is about not knowing the topic, but also who is producing the knowledge,” he said. “For us, it is extremely important that the knowledge is not generated by external players coming in and saying what is happening in a community after one month of experience. The diagnosis of the problem needs to come from those communities.”

Through grants and other programs responding to the pandemic, the Ford Foundation is supporting local communities to produce their own knowledge about the issues they care about. And this is information critical to the global response as well.

“If we are going to have adequate responses globally, they need to be the result of well-documented local knowledge,” Abregu said. “What we don’t want is to work at the global level based on global assumptions.”

The diversity in the foundation’s grants — including film and art — enabled a form of narrative that best suited its speakers, he said.

“Part of the problem with misinformation and everything that we have been dealing with is the perception in communities that they have been excluded from producing knowledge. We need to ensure that those communities see a role for themselves in producing the knowledge they have, in the form they want. And then we can channel that knowledge to the places where it should be.”

In 2021, a focus on COVID-19 impacts will continue

Grants awarded in 2020 were focused on supporting the changing needs of existing partners and communities being served. In 2020, Abregu explained that they had more renewals than usual with existing partners due to them needing additional resources to cope with the crisis.

“The way that we work with our partners is that we always talk about our grantees in the driver’s seat,” he said. “They basically are the ones closer to the problem and understand the challenges. So we want to give our partners that leadership role in terms of assessing the need and identifying potential responses.”

But the pandemic also allowed for new partners who could better respond to new and changing situations. This year is expected to see the awarding of grants that continue to respond to the pandemic — including supporting marginalized voices in communicating their perspectives on the impacts and recovery.

“All of our areas of focus will continue to work on areas related to COVID,” Abregu said. “If we are thinking about gender-based violence for example, we continue to work from a COVID lens. When we are thinking about corruption in East Africa, it is now related to COVID. All of our ordinary grant making continues, and we continue to receive proposals related to COVID for the foreseeable future.”

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.