Addressing violence at its roots: a quest for philanthropy

With the ongoing conflicts around the world, and devastating images reaching us on a daily basis, the effect of violence has become very present in people’s minds. Research has shown that exposure to violence at a young age is a major predictor of crime and violent behavior later in life.

Other effects persist throughout life in the form of deficiencies in physical health, social-emotional wellbeing, memory and learning. And recent studies have shown that violence against children is the cause of significant economic burden to the society. What can be done to prevent such chronic stress during the early years, which is the period of greatest vulnerability in someone’s life and what role can philanthropy play in addressing this often neglected issue?

Why is violence in the early years such a critical issue?

The magnitude of the problem is huge. UNICEF reports that a child dies as a result of violence every five minutes, mostly outside of conflict zones and homicide is a leading cause of death in teenagers in many countries. Rough estimates suggest that every year 0.5-1.5 billion (PDF, 991 KB) children experience physical violence, and 133-275 million children (PDF, 168 KB) witness domestic violence. Children in every country, regardless of socio-economic status, are vulnerable. In low- and middle-income countries, 30-40% (PDF, 3 MB) of children aged 2-14 experience physical punishment or aggression in the home.
The lifetime negative impact is manifold, ranging from depression and obesity to alcohol and drug abuse, deficiencies in physical health, social-emotional wellbeing, memory and learning as a result of irreparable brain damage. Victims and witnesses often become perpetrators themselves and perpetuate the cycle of violence. Likewise, the vast majority of criminals charged with serious violent offenses have experienced severe violence in their childhood.
The economic burden on society is unquestionable — due to its immediate effect on morbidity, disability, lost productivity and death. For instance, estimates of the cost of violence in the United States of America reach 3.3% of the gross domestic product. In England and Wales, the total costs from violence — including homicide, wounding and sexual assault — amount to an estimated $40.2 billion annually.
Violence is preventable, not inevitable. The expert community knows what it takes to prevent violence, and has identified that one of the leading root causes behind violence is repeated exposure in the early years. However, violence against children generally ranks low on political priorities and there are only a handful of funders focused on violence prevention.

Can philanthropy fill some gaps?

Philanthropic funders have a few distinct advantages: They can more easily take political or financial risk that allows them to make investments into thorny or sensitive issues. And besides the obvious financial capital, philanthropy has a range of other types of capitals it can offer to move an issue forward.
In other fields, philanthropy can show for a range of successes, in which it successfully capitalized on its advantages. Take the support from the Ford Foundation back in 1976, for example, that helped to launch the Grameen Bank, whose founder Prof. Muhammad Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance. Or the collaboration between the Nike Foundation, the NoVo Foundation and the United Nations Foundation communicated via the Girl Effect campaign, which has been instrumental in promoting the essential role girls play in development. Initiated by a Gates Foundation grant, the Obama administration implemented economic stimulus funds to reward states that accepted the Common Core education standards in the U.S.A.

There are also some successes in the field of the prevention of violence against children that philanthropy can show for —

Generating a sense of urgency: with initiatives such as “Girls not Brides” funded by a coalition of philanthropic donors, a global partnership of more than 350 civil society organizations from over 60 countries committed to ending child marriage, and has succeeded in packaging and framing an important issue in a manner that captures people’s attention and pushed a critical issue onto the policy agenda. 

Pooling funds from philanthropic donors: a few foundations have gathered short of one million Euros and (access to) leading expertise and have developed the Global Evaluation Challenge Fund which aims at reducing violence against children by funding evaluations of violence prevention and child protection interventions in low- and middle-income countries. Another example is the consortium of funders Elevate Children which targets to advocate, coordinate and raise more funds to prevent violence.

Despite some of these successes, overall, philanthropy has not been able to make a significant dent yet to solve the problem of violence against children and a lot remains to be done.

There are still critical gaps to fill such as:

Improve evidence about program effectiveness to avoid cases like Scared Straight, which was designed to reduce rates of repeat offenders through seeing first-hand the realities of prison life and interacting with adult inmates. When the program was finally evaluated, it was not only found to be ineffective, but was even shown to have had a harmful effect on participants, who demonstrated an increased level of delinquency relative to other juvenile delinquents who had not participated in the program.

Attract new funders by promoting coordination of relevant activities and leveraging public awareness around current events related to violence and piggy backing on more “popular” issues such as early childhood development, health or gender-based violence. In the end, progress will largely depend on the funds available and the community’s success in attracting new funders to invest in the issue.

Develop a coordinated advocacy strategy: many experts agree that existing knowledge has not yet been translated into global advocacy for violence prevention and there is a strong need for a common narrative. It is still largely believed that violence is ubiquitous, intractable or even inevitable, when in fact research has shown that it is preventable. A key element in order to attract funders and convince stakeholders of the importance of the issue will be to develop effective mechanisms for communicating both the need to invest in violence prevention and the best solutions to address the problem.

Key recommendations:

With the following key recommendations, we would argue that there is a real opportunity for philanthropy to help effectively address violence against children:

Philanthropy should take risks, whereas governments and the private sector are often risk averse because they have to please their electorate and keep their shareholders happy.

Take financial risk. Some innovative ideas taken forward may inevitably fail. As we know little about what works to prevent violence, it is crucial that innovative ideas to address the problem are tested to see if they reach their intended results and can be implemented at scale, such as adapting a “disease control model” for interrupting violence or income generating parenting interventions to reduce child maltreatment. In addition, by supporting innovative financing mechanisms such as Social/Development Impact Bonds, the philanthropy sector could bring new capital to support violence prevention efforts, focusing on tangible results (rather than new activities) with potential for cost-savings for government agencies.

Take political risks. By advocating for unpopular issues and daring to raise the profile of frequently overlooked sectors of the population and their concerns, philanthropic organizations can aid in depoliticizing scientific findings and bring together unexpected partners from different fields to champion a cause.
Violence against children is such a sensitive and tabooed topic that politicians may be hesitant to talk about it publically and take a leading role. Furthermore, donor-funded agencies are often unable, or unwilling, to seize on such issues like changing social norms, which might be crucial for the purpose of reducing violence against children. Social determinants of violence against children such as alcohol, substance abuse and poverty are structural drivers requiring structural solutions. Hence philanthropy should provide support to initiatives that focus on these structural drivers for violence against children.

Mitigate risk. By providing a broad range of support to implementing organizations beyond financial capital (such as strategic and financial planning; development of results-based programming; documenting best practices; strengthening communications and advocacy; and fundraising for additional financial support), foundations can increase the social impact and effectiveness of the violence prevention sector.
Firstly, prior to designating funding in support of violence prevention measures, due diligence needs to be practiced to assess organizational capacity in order to avoid mismatches or sub-optimal dispersal of the limited funding available to violence prevention to activities. Secondly, in the case of programs proven to be effective, capacity building is needed in order to enable scaling up of activities to achieve impact and move towards integrating violence against children into existing health and social systems.

Philanthropy should leverage its versatile capital: it is usually not restricted in the type of capital it provides - grants, loans or make equity or debt investments or even a combination of any of these. Philanthropy seeks to bridge the gap between social impact and the efficiency of private sector approaches. It is still a small select group of funders that chooses to invest in violence prevention. Currently available funds barely suffice to test innovative approaches to tackle the problem. In order to scale up effective programs, additional funders need to be convinced of the urgency of the cause to further build momentum, with an ultimate goal to hand over some of the philanthropic efforts to multilaterals and later governments.

However, there are also other types of capital beyond financial capital that philanthropy can bring to the table:

Philanthropic organizations usually have patient capital with long-term investment horizons, and the ultimate goal of maximizing social returns rather than short-term electoral cycles or financial gains.

Philanthropic organizations have “connected” capital: it can usually be further amplified as it is often supported by prominent individuals with strong networks of personal and professional connections, and may provide access to corridors of power in ways that may not be as accessible to other donors and researchers.

Stronger efforts are needed to enable access to new innovative partnerships and foster connections among experts working in a range of more specialized fields, each of which is contributing in some manner to the prevention of violence against children (e.g. violence against women, early childhood development). Philanthropy has access to these different segments of experts and has a distinct opportunity to bringing them together. Furthermore, philanthropy must be used to enhance individual efforts by bringing together the disparate and uncoordinated activities of different organizations, academics, multi-lateral agencies, governments, and global NGOs. For example, a global meeting on “How to reduce violence by 50% over the next 30 years” in September 2014, led by the University of Cambridge, convened key global experts to develop evidence-based strategies to reach significant reductions of exposure to violence on a population level globally, which will feed into the World Health Assembly Resolution A67/R15 (strengthening the role of the health system in addressing violence) and the post-2015 sustainable development goals.

Philanthropy can accelerate the provision of emergency capital: providing immediate assistance in the face of emergencies and natural disasters. For such events, national governments and the UN often struggle with extensive bureaucratic hurdles and delays in providing aid and support in a timely manner. In some cases, philanthropic organizations have more flexibility to move quickly and effectively in providing support.

We believe that philanthropy — with its appetite for risk and flexible capital — has a great opportunity to make significant headway towards breaking the intergenerational cycle of violence and reducing violence against children over the next couple of decades.