29 May 2019

Championing collaboration in an era of isolation

In February 2019, hundreds of diplomats, heads of state, cabinet ministers, parliamentarians, and high-ranking military officers gathered in Germany to discuss the fractured state of geopolitics and the daunting question it poses: Who will pick up the pieces?

This was the theme of the 2019 Munich Security Conference, an annual event I have attended each year for the past decade. As the president of a philanthropic foundation, I’m something of an oddity in this crowd. But the ambassadors, the politicians, and the generals won’t be able to pick up the pieces alone.

A literal and figurative rising tide of global challenges, even civilisational crises, presages a future haunted by destruction and strewn with debris. Conflicts rage in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Venezuela, and elsewhere in the Global South, causing humanitarian crises that have displaced millions of people and created a steady flow of refugees seeking safety. Pervasive anxiety plays into the hands of autocrats and demagogues around the globe who stoke fear to achieve, wield, and consolidate power. And surging temperatures and rising seas may soon leave little to fight over, as the world’s scientists warn that catastrophic consequences of global warming are now nearly unavoidable.

The international order, too, resembles the melting icecaps, with great pieces breaking off and drifting away. Ethnonationalism and authoritarianism are dividing Europe spiritually. Brexit, a looming question at the time of this writing, threatens to divide Europe materially. And a widening transatlantic rift has already divided Europe diplomatically from its once most trusted ally. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, citizens of Germany and France have greater confidence in the leaders of China and Russia than they do in the leader of the United States. Division is the reality of our age.

Civil society must step in where conventional politics have failed. The challenges of today require radical new conceptual thinking. Philanthropy can provide for this task the much-needed convening space to nurture shared values, resources for innovative solutions to shared challenges, and commitment to shield against shared risks.

This is why, thirty years after its founding, the EFC has never been more important. Its vision of Europe champions collaboration and diversity of voices at a moment when identity is becoming a centripetal force in European politics, threatening to catapult its nations into a future of isolationism.

Cross-border European philanthropy can help realise the vision of a strong and united Europe that the world desperately needs. But, whereas the free movement of people, goods, and capital across borders is foundational to Europe’s modern identity, philanthropy is still largely governed by national, rather than EU, law. Cross-border philanthropy is often fraught with legal peril. The EFC is one of the few resources available to help.

The EFC’s substantive work to define and bolster an environment that will enable human progress also reaches beyond the philanthropic sector and beyond continental boundaries. European and US philanthropy have different histories and are governed by different laws, but they are premised on the same Enlightenment and humanist values. Transatlantic philanthropy can help reaffirm those values at a time when they are under assault.

The Rockefeller Brothers Fund shares this commitment to collaborative philanthropy across borders − and across oceans. I am proud that the RBF has supported the EFC since its earliest days and that we are one of the few US foundations represented on the EFC’s Governing Council today. We have gained much from this longstanding relationship: It has been critical to deepening our understanding of global challenges and their manifestations across Europe, to developing constructive partnerships with numerous European foundations, and to guiding our modest resources to where they are most needed and have the greatest impact.

The highlight of this year’s Munich Security Conference was Angela Merkel’s speech. Imploring Europe to take control of its own destiny, the famously reserved and soft-spoken politician delivered a passionate defence of multilateralism and western values. “Who will pick up the pieces?” she asked.

“Only all of us, together.”

We all have a role to play in reimagining a new future. Philanthropy must stand at the ready to nurture this effort and, together with organisations like the EFC, preserve and model the shared commitment it demands.





Stephen Heintz

President, Rockefeller Brothers Fund