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Former UK prime minister Tony Blair

Patrick McMullan

This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.

One of the most important lessons I learned as U.K. prime minister for 10 years was not about the power of government, but about its limits. Some of the best, most creative ideas came from outside government. Many of these were from the voluntary sector. Philanthropy, therefore, is not just about giving but about giving creatively. The mechanism through which one is working – whether it is a government, company or foundation – can only be pushed so far until the system itself needs outside support. That's one reason why, when I left office, I founded the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

In the work we are doing, I draw on my experience as prime minister as well as my own personal convictions. We need to understand the power of faith as a force for good to affect social change. Faith matters to 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the world's population. Billions of people are deeply influenced in what they do day to day by the faiths they hold. To ignore faith as unimportant to the work of philanthropy is to often ignore the very people we are trying to reach.

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To me, philanthropy means to help human flourishing. In the age of globalization, we must understand one another so we can allow others to live lives of excellence and not simply existence.

The interconnectedness of the world is a familiar theme, particularly as an explanation of the depth of the current financial crisis. This integration requires us to intensify both our giving and our desire to seek global solutions to global problems. In times of crisis, we cannot retreat so that support and concern is only directed to our immediate families, neighbourhoods and countries. The human flourishing of my immediate family is connected to the well-being (or lack thereof) of those in other parts of the world that are suffering.

This year, my foundation has 34 Faiths Act Fellows who, rather than shying away from the world's challenges, have decided to tackle them head on. In interfaith pairs, they work to raise awareness and funds for malaria prevention. In India, they bring faith communities together to reduce risks of malaria and maternal mortality. In Sierra Leone, our interfaith pairs work with interreligious leaders to spread malaria prevention messages in congregations to support the government's malaria control program.

Our Canadian Faiths Act Fellows are partnering with the International Development and Relief Foundation, an organization whose development programs take into account the Islamic principles of human dignity, self-reliance and justice. This deliberate engagement with those around the world in times of crisis creates people of excellence.

In giving, whether it is privately or through global aid budgets, we need to be creative about our philanthropy. In my foundation, this means taking an intellectual understanding of the needs in the countries in which we are working and turning them into effective and innovative solutions. Moreover, philanthropy and aid are not the same.

Effective philanthropy aims to support flourishing alongside one another, not for one country to be dependent on the aid of the other. This means changing the way rich and poor countries interact. We must move on from thinking in terms of rich countries helping poor countries, to an understanding of how everyone can contribute to common, shared goals – such as eliminating malaria.

Philanthropy is not simply about signing a cheque. More and more often, supporters donate technology, supplies or infrastructure to a cause they are passionate about. Time, expertise, passion and education can all be deployed for social return.

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In our Face to Faith program, we use technology to bring students aged 11 to 16 from around the world face to face through video-conferencing to learn alongside one another. This would be impossible to implement if it weren't for the generous donations of our supporters. I recently joined a video conference with students in India, Pakistan and the United States, where they discussed global issues and learned from one another rather than about each other. These classroom sessions, which use curriculum materials developed by an international board of teachers and religious leaders, immediately break down barriers. This itself is a step toward human flourishing.

I am a practical optimist. Together, faith-based communities could ensure that the 21st century is remembered not as a time of interreligious violence, but as a period when people of all faiths co-operated to combat the giant ills affecting humankind.

Tony Blair is founder and patron of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

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