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Jakarta Post

After COVID-19: Using philanthropy to build back better world

  • Melissa Stevens and Melissa Petros


Washington, DC/Singapore   /   Mon, June 15, 2020   /   03:03 pm
After COVID-19: Using philanthropy to build back better world A man rests in the shade of a stall (R) while another walks past a mural showing images of frontline workers after the government eased a nationwide lockdown imposed as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in New Delhi on June 11, 2020. (AFP/XAVIER GALIANA )

From Wuhan to Singapore, to the United States and beyond, COVID-19's spread continues at an unnerving pace. As the pandemic tears its path through the world, it has forced major changes to daily life and unprecedented disruption to the economy, healthcare systems, and much more.   

The domino effect of the economic downturn cannot be underestimated. In a report released last month, the World Bank noted that contractions in Asian economies would eviscerate Asia’s small and medium sized enterprises, preventing an estimated 24 million people from escaping poverty, and also pushing an additional 11 million people into poverty. 

According to a joint WHO and World Bank report, the Asia region already has the highest rate of health-related poverty,  with 72 percent of households spending 25 percent of their budgets on healthcare. As philanthropists think ahead, and plan to deploy their philanthropy beyond addressing the immediate needs created by COVID-19, there are critical considerations.

The legacy of the pandemic in Asia is likely to persist, even after a vaccine is found. This means that the need to address the inequities that existed long before the pandemic is more urgent than ever. Working together, donors can take steps that create resilient, adaptable communities, and prevent crises like the one we are experiencing.

There are three fundamental components philanthropists in Asia must consider.

First, commitment. Systemic change takes time, and philanthropy is able to be risk tolerant and patient enough to invest in solutions that need time to bear social returns. In order to unlock these solutions, philanthropists must commit to having a long-term strategy that is informed by due diligence, subject matter expertise, and key stakeholders.

Second, collaboration. Collaboration and coordination are essential. Philanthropists need partners not only from a range of sectors, but also at different levels, especially the local community level, so that they have a clear, continuous understanding of needs and how to address them with agility. In addition, good collaboration and coordination helps ensure that philanthropic resources are deployed to fill pressing gaps that other partners cannot.

Third, capital. With the setbacks that COVID-19 has created for mitigating inequality, the region needs an influx of capital that is dedicated to scaling up existing efforts and supporting new ones to build more shock-proof communities.

To be sure, there are some effective philanthropic models to follow. The Lien Foundation, which pioneered collaborative approaches to early childhood development, elderly care, and water & sanitation in Asia, has long demonstrated the effectiveness of innovation paired with long-term commitment. 

The Jack Ma Foundation’s COVID-19 relief strategy, which spans 150 countries, is an example of the impact good coordination can have. The Foundation’s multi-pronged efforts, which include providing urgently needed testing kits and medical equipment/supplies, funding medical research, and facilitating global exchange of medical expertise, demonstrate just how effective philanthropy can be when it is well-coordinated and executed collaboratively.  

Given the fast-moving and unpredictable nature of a crisis, it is critical for philanthropists to stay closely tuned in to the needs of communities and groups so that their efforts remain solution-oriented, additive, timely, and relevant.

In Asia, philanthropic efforts are often undertaken anonymously or without publicity, and, thus can be difficult to track. However, a move towards more concerted philanthropy, both regionally and globally, will be crucial to helping communities and groups, particularly vulnerable ones, to effectively hedge against the impacts of future global crises.    

According to Hurun Global Rich List 2020, 39 percent of total global wealth and 48 percent of billionaires come from Asia, a region with 60 percent of the world’s population. Furthermore, 63 percent of new billionaires who made the list this year hail from Asia.

In light of the deep-rooted inequities that COVID-19 has uncovered and intensified, Asia’s growth creates an important opportunity to increase the amount of philanthropic giving. For well-established philanthropists, the general recommendation is to continue building on current activities, and unlock more resources as they focus on cross-sector collaboration. But perhaps for others, COVID-19 might help re-shape their philanthropy to be more strategic and transformative in the context of a new world order.    

It’s impossible to turn blind eye to the inequities COVID-19 has exposed in Asia, and indeed all over the world. The pandemic has also revealed an opportunity to truly understand the inextricable links between resilient communities and robust economic, health, and social systems. This is where philanthropy can be the catalyst that tackles the immediate needs posed by the crisis, and the truly systemic changes that are designed to prevent and protect, and rebuild a better world.


Melissa Stevens is executive director of the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy. Melissa Petros is director of the Milken Institute Asia Center.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.