Region: Rudimentary Thoughts on Funding Academics and Civil Society

2005

Phar Kim Beng

How should a Western or Japanese foundation understand its funding priorities? Indeed, how should the funds best be used?

This issue warrants attention as foundations' agendas and funds could significantly shape the research community in particular countries, granted that academics in many Asian countries may not be well funded within their own institutions.

While civil society (non-governmental) organizations in Malaysia, for instance, are generally not dependent on such foreign funding, since they can request the assistance of the Malaysian government, provisions do exist for NGOs to seek seed and other funding from various agencies.

While statistics as to the quantum of such funding are not readily available, since most academics and NGOs do not declare the funds they receive, funding in Malaysia has generally come from several familiar sources. They have been used by academics, and NGOs to augment their own research or special programs. Together these agencies have done much to strengthen the presence of Malaysian academics and NGOs in their respective intellectual and social-political pursuits.

The Friedrich Siftung Foundation, the Canadian Institute of Development Assistance (CIDA), The Asia Foundation, The Sasakawa Peace Foundation, The Japan Foundation, The Sumitomo Foundation and The Nippon Foundation, for example, have all done their part. The programs, which they have sponsored, have enhanced international understanding between the recipient and other countries, and allowed academics to sustain their research output.

In June 2005, The Asia Foundation will be setting up its office in Kuala Lumpur. When this comes to be, there is the likelihood that the Asia Foundation will further sponsor groups that seek to promote a more moderate version of Islam.

The Ford Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation have in turn operated out of their offices in Bangkok, and Jakarta, with Thailand serving as the hub to reach out to Indo-China, while Indonesia has been more independent in nature.

Although the involvement of Western and even Japanese foundations was once looked upon with great suspicion, that period is now but a blip. The faux pas, for example, of the Asia Society in receiving CIA funding back in the 1950s is no longer an issue in the Malaysian intellectual or NGO communities.

But in the post September 11 context, where the US and Japan are both seeking to position 'Islam' as a moderate force, the time is both right for the respective foundations to be asking more critical questions as to how much, both financially and otherwise, they can be involved in activities geared towards inculcating democracy, progressive interpretations of Islam, and the consolidation of civil society? Once again, in the post September 11 context, the three agendas may not be entirely separate.

The best way for foundations to do so is by first understanding the 'fault-lines' of the particular society first; whether real or imagined. Even if imagined, how can the foundations avoid being caught in the crossfire?

In Malaysia, for instance, there is currently a controversy over the formation of the Inter-Faith Commission. Arrayed on one side are more than 200 Muslim NGOs that reject any attempts to 'talk about Islam' that could lead to constitutional amendments. Standing diametrically opposed to these NGOS are an assorted collection of groups, such as the Bar Council, the Christian and Buddhist Associations that believe in the utility in having such a commission; an initiative supported by some liberal Islamic groups too.

Western and Japanese foundations interested in the further formation of moderate Islam would of course support such a commission. Yet in doing so, the foundations expose themselves to being accused of 'secular political favouritism'-a dangerous moniker.

To be sure, there is no easy way out of this conundrum. What the funding agencies must do is to perhaps hire respectable scholars and academics, not necessarily local ones only, to understand the fault lines. This is to ensure greater sensitivity to the dynamics on the ground. It is also to avoid improper weight being given to too few projects. The funds-rather their usage thereof-should then be assessed on a quarterly basis to ensure propriety and due diligence.

Another approach is to specify clearly, albeit thematically, how the donating institutions or foundations want the funds to be used. Academics or NGOs that fall outside of this institutional mandate would not be able to seek the requisite sponsorships; an approach favoured by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

For what it is worth, there is no one single formula to guide the efficient allocation of resources. Japanese foundations constantly send their representatives to collaborate with the academics and groups on the ground. Invariably, a lot also depends on the training of project managers to understand the strategic implications of each project, and whether the name and reputation of the foundation could be adversely affected. Out of this matrix, a healthy debate should then be allowed between the donor and funds seeker as to how the money should be used from project to project, or year to year.

WATCHPOINT: To what extent have the events of September 11 shaped research and civil society funding; and what directions in approach will funding institutions follow in the future?

 

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