Year one of the Inclusive Governance strategy: Q&A with Diakhoumba Gassama and David Sasaki

(Photo by Carmen Abd Ali / AFP)

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In April 2022, the Hewlett Foundation launched its Inclusive Governance strategy, intended to promote the efforts of underserved populations — especially women and youth — to exercise power to make government more responsive to their needs. We sat down with Diakhoumba Gassama, one of the team’s newest program officers, and David Sasaki, whose eight-year term with the foundation will end this year, to discuss progress and challenges in implementing the new strategy and their vision for what comes next.

After one year of working on implementing Hewlett’s Inclusive Governance strategy, what has excited you the most?

Diakhoumba: What has most excited me has been learning the art and science of grantmaking. A close second was co-creating implementation plans with our grantee partners, inclusive governance experts, and national consultants to tailor the strategy to the various country contexts. And last but not least, looking at how to leverage existing grant partnerships for more human rights-centered, participatory, and diverse approaches to transparency and accountability.

David: I’ve been most excited about learning more deeply about the politics and history of our focus countries so we can tailor our global strategy to each national context.

Throughout my eight years working on this agenda at the Hewlett Foundation, we’ve recognized the importance of history and politics in how governments provide services and protect rights. But it wasn’t until our 2022-2026 strategy that we made the difficult decision to focus on four priority countries to be more responsive to the particular opportunities and challenges in each national context. We intentionally chose countries with some political similarities — for instance, established democratic institutions facing new threats, increasing socio-political polarization, and politically competitive elections — but those challenges and opportunities manifest differently depending on the electoral cycle and political coalitions of each country.

The Inclusive Governance strategy intends to apply a gender and power lens to all the work. What have you learned about this process? And what has it meant for grantmaking?

Diakhoumba: This process requires a lot of listening, unlearning, daring, and effectively “running” the walk of open, participatory, and trust-based philanthropy. We have been learning from grantee partners, especially in Mexico, who were already applying these lenses. And we’ve learned that many others in philanthropy, social justice, and feminist movements around the world are ready to partner and need resources to advance the same agenda.

David: There is the rhetoric and then there is the reality. Advocates like Wangari Maathai in Kenya and Marta Lamas in Mexico have emphasized the importance of applying a gender and power lens since the 1990s at least. Despite this rhetoric, men still held most of the financial and decision-making power in government, civil society, and the media.

And while men still hold more decision-making power today, women have made incredible gains. When I participated in my first Hewlett grantee convening in Mexico City in 2010, more than 90% of the executive directors of grantee organizations were men. A decade later and more than 90% of the executive directors were women. In Mexico, half of all congressional seats are now held by women. We can celebrate the gains that women have made in government, civil society, and the media while recognizing that women still don’t have the same opportunities or legal rights as men, according to the latest Women, Business and the Law dataset.

When it comes to our grantmaking, though, the updated strategy is really catching up with our practice and the work of our partners. I can’t imagine, for instance, making a grant to an organization without understanding how their work confronts systemic discrimination against women — and especially women from communities that suffer multiple forms of discrimination. I do imagine that the binary way I described gender above will look very outdated in a few years if it doesn’t already.

Where have you made most progress and where are you finding more challenges in the strategy implementation?

Diakhoumba: I feel very proud of having found several grantee partners based in the geographies where we focus. These partners provide increased, flexible, longer-term resources to organizations, movements, and coalitions who are close to specific governance issues and their solutions. We’ve also made direct grants to organizations led or allied with underserved populations — especially women and girls in all their diversity — who were not able to access those funds before. And by upgrading restricted grants into unrestricted general operating support grants, I believe we’ve built stronger partnerships grounded in respect and trust.

The biggest challenge is to meet the immense level of needs and demands with the limited financial and human resources we have at our disposal.

David: I’m happy with our progress in cultivating community and coordination across civil society organizations in each of the priority countries — including coordination between national and subnational organizations. I think we can do better in coordination with our fellow donors — especially with domestic philanthropy and corporate social responsibility in each country. I’m optimistic that we’ll make progress, as we are taking concrete steps toward better coordination.

Thinking about the broader inclusive governance field, what are you most looking forward to in the coming years?

Diakhoumba: I look forward to seeing activists, organizations, and movements having the necessary resources to succeed in ensuring that our societies are fair, equitable, and free from authoritarianism and injustice. I look forward to a future of funding that is community-driven, grounded in equity, collective care, power sharing and shifting, accountable to those it supports, adaptable, and open to learning. This means applying human rights principles to our funding practices and addressing the drivers of exclusion in governance head-on.

David: There are at least as many names for this field as donors that fund it: public innovation, open government, democratic rights, and so on. Whatever you want to call it, my hope is that we continue to see the decline of “on-behalfism.” For years, “international organizations” spoke on behalf of “national organizations.” Even today, we see many “national organizations” speak on behalf of “subnational organizations,” which speak on behalf of “community-based organizations.” I’m looking forward to a future in which every organization is community-based and national and international — and they can all speak for themselves.

You are at very different stages in your journey as program officers at Hewlett. How would you describe your time at the foundation in one sentence?

Diakhoumba: Since I joined philanthropy two years ago, and especially since I moved to the Bay Area a year ago with my toddler son, I feel blessed and grateful to be able to learn every day from everyone around me, from every opportunity, and from every challenge, with a very comforting and growing sense of clarity, purpose, and determination.

David: Call me terrible at Twitter, but there’s no way I can represent the past eight years in one sentence. I have learned more than I had ever imagined possible when I started, and yet I leave with more questions than when I started!

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