Jennifer Brennan is the Head of Canada Programs at the Mastercard Foundation. She has led public policy negotiations on behalf of Indigenous Nations advancing key issues including education and land rights. As an advocate, analyst, and facilitator, she worked within and for Indigenous communities and organizations throughout Canada for twenty years. Jennifer served as Chief of Staff at the Assembly of First Nations and prior to that as Director of Strategic Policy serving all First Nation Governments and working across sectors to enable strategic advancements in fiscal relationships, legal and policy developments.
Interview led by Manuel Litalien, Co-director of the Ontario Hub
Manuel Litalien (ML): How is your work connected to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? And how has COVID-19 impacted that work?
Jennifer Brennan (JB): By 2016–2017 the Mastercard Foundation had been operating for 10 years and the staff, along with the board, engaged in deep strategy development to consider carefully the global context including the SDGs and our role within it. This led us to consider our role within the philanthropic sector and how to approach global challenges. We acknowledged that we needed to work differently and with others, including the private sector. The SDGs are ambitious and important; all sectors need to be engaged. We realized that we could not continue working on projects in our own separate silo, without engaging with the private sector for example. We then started thinking about which singular challenge or metric we could get behind as a foundation that would advance many of the SDGs simultaneously.
From our research, we discovered that the challenge and opportunity of youth employment in Africa hit many of the SDG targets in tangible ways. By mastering the development of dignified and fulfilling work for young people, many other SDGs would be addressed. We have put forward a bold target of assisting approximately 30 million young Africans to gain access to dignified and fulfilling work, with a target of 70% of them being young women. This endeavour would thus combine questions of education and gender while adopting a holistic approach in supporting families and their communities. The SDGs have influenced our work by allowing us to recognize that we need to work with others and focus on clear, ambitious goals. In the past, our foundation hadn’t been as ambitious when setting big targets. Reeta Roy, our president and CEO, responds to questions on how we plan on providing dignified and fulfilling work for 30 million young Africans with “It will be our work together.” We might not know how we will go about it, but we have made a commitment to be bold and ambitious, and see it as an opportunity for others to engage with us. The SDGs have played a big role in pushing the Foundation to think bigger and more strategically. This can also be seen through our work with Canadian Indigenous communities as we think of long-term strategies and how we can work with others across sectors to address such complex challenges.
The current COVID-19 crisis has accelerated this reflection process and helped us realize that the future of work and education will be digital and online. In Indigenous communities as on the African continent, online learning has yet to be adopted for different reasons, which include lack of access and the perception of it being a less effective form of education. COVID-19 has accelerated e-learning and has improved the availability of many degree-level programs. This makes it important to highlight the work needed to ensure widespread internet connectivity and to develop the support platforms necessary for online learning success. What role can we play in filling the gaps? It will require collaboration with others and I have had conversations with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Industry Canada and big telecommunication providers, amongst others, to address these challenges. COVID-19 has helped us recognize the need to view challenges more broadly and the importance of working together.
Recently, I had the opportunity to join a conversation with Manitoba Hydro and the Government of Manitoba. They came to the realization that fibre-optic cables laid out throughout rural and remote parts of Manitoba have bandwidth capacity that has not yet been tapped into. It took a pandemic for this to come to light as a solution! There is much innovation needed regarding connectivity, and we are thinking of ways to incentivize people to get involved. We have always known that the future of work and learning will require digital and technological skills. COVID-19 has pushed us to realize that the future is now and we need to be able to adapt to changing realities. It will be important to have good digital platforms that support learning and entrepreneurs. Regarding SDGs, COVID-19 has allowed us to actively think about these challenges and the current environment has taught us how quickly we can adapt. We are fortunate in that we were already challenging ourselves to work with others, including the government and the private sector, which can be difficult for the philanthropic sector. However, the SDGs, as well as the current crisis, have demonstrated that collaboration is essential to meet these targets.
ML: Why has it been difficult for the philanthropic sector to work with the government and the private sector?
JB: I think the philanthropic sector enjoys a certain level of freedom and flexibility when choosing its mission and mandate. This can lead to an inward focus when looking at how to serve their mission. We recognized that as we expanded and had a greater responsibility as good stewards of the trust and the resources given to us. It takes humility to realize that alone we are not the answer and that we must work with others to achieve our goals. When looking at our efforts in Africa, we work with representative and democratic institutions to ensure the people themselves are guiding our decisions rather than deciding on the priorities internally. We took a similar approach in Canada following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We developed a decolonized approach, being in direct partnership with Indigenous communities to better understand how to best support their needs. We have to acknowledge that we are part of a larger system and discover where we can best contribute.
ML: Have you noticed a shift in focus with SDGs, from local to more global initiatives?
JB: COVID-19 has shown everyone how fundamentally interconnected and exposed to certain vulnerabilities we are. It has added a new lens to how we collaborate on some of these larger, global solutions. The SDGs are important in understanding the way our systems are all interconnected. We cannot focus on the local without considering the global, and vice versa.
ML: How significant are SDGs to the Mastercard foundation?
JB: We have been a part of the SDGs since the beginning. It wasn’t difficult for the Mastercard Foundation to integrate the SDG framework as it meshed naturally with the way we had already been evolving. Previously our engagement was focused on education or particular sectors. Our research and engagement with the SDGs have contributed to our understanding of how a singular goal, such as youth employment in Africa, can be a key determinant in achieving many of the SDGs at once. Given that they are broad and ambitious, it was our job to develop a roadmap to articulate a clear path of contribution for the Foundation. The SDGs have challenged us to think strategically and ambitiously about our role in a bigger, global system.
ML: How did you measure achievement, before and after COVID-19?
JB: The Mastercard Foundation has many ways in which we engage in measurement; we see it as part of our learning process. We have an impact team that we work with on all of our initiatives. We establish with each of our partners what we need to learn together and what impact we are looking to achieve. In Canada, each of our partnerships with Canadian institutions and communities has a dedicated capacity for learning. It is less likely to be a consultant group or measurement and evaluation group, and more likely a member of the community who we trust to work with and give insight into what we are learning and how to move forward. A lot of our partners appreciate the learning component because it becomes part of the way in which we work together. At the Foundation, we have impact teams that help knit the learning partners together and who meet regularly to reflect on what we are learning.
With COVID-19, as with our other efforts, the qualitative insight is just as important as the quantitative aspect. For example, we supported various frontline agencies in accessing proper equipment and hygiene. People might ask how we measure the gender impact of such an initiative. For us, it isn’t about counting who is getting what, but more about hearing the stories on the barriers to access the equipment and the vulnerabilities. This is made possible by becoming embedded within the community. We have prided ourselves in being a learning partner and learning institution, where we set out learning goals with our partners from the start.
ML: Has the Foundation’s governance changed because of COVID-19?
JB: I would not say the governance system has changed, although COVID-19 has pushed us in a certain direction. For instance, the Indigenous Response and Resiliency program stemmed from a recognition of the need for leadership from inside the communities to give us real-time feedback. We have become aware of just how important working on the ground with our partners is. A national Indigenous Leadership and Insight Circle was developed to guide us towards where to look for partners and funding. Similarly, our partners seem deeply engaged with our country leads, and committees have been set up to have real-time analysis with partner organizations. While the governance has not changed per se, the way we work on projects, working more with local knowledge and insight, has come about because of the pandemic. This will have a long-term impact on the Mastercard Foundation at the structural level
ML: Thank you Jennifer for taking the time to shed some light on the impact of SDGs and COVID-19 on the Mastercard Foundation.