#TA10 Blog Series

Looking back, Looking ahead: African Philanthropy for Socio-Economic and Political Justice in the 21st Century

Does Africa Need Philanthropy?

Our theme for our 10th Anniversary is “Looking Back, Looking Ahead”, and in this moment of reflection, we are also taking the time to ask the big questions. We have been interrogating our own assumptions and role in Africa’s processes of democratic development. In the process, questions on the meaning of development and Pan-Africanism emerge, but what we found compelling was a question posed by a colleague, “Does Africa really need us?” The ‘us’ here does not only refer to TrustAfrica but the entire philanthropy sector that we are a part of. It may sound like a strange question but if you consider the fact that Africa is arguably the wealthiest continent and also that it has its own centuries old rich traditions of giving. In terms of material wealth, the facts speak for themselves-the continent is the repository of 15% of the planet’s crude oil reserves, 40% of its gold, 80% of the chromium and the platinum metal group and it also holds about one third of the world’s hydro-carbon and mineral resources. In 2010 alone exports of fuel and other minerals from Africa were worth $333 billion; more than seven times the value of aid that Africa received. Which begs the question, why are we even talking about philanthropy and official development aid?   

Sadly, Africa is a contradiction in itself, it is on one end the richest continent and also the poorest. Whilst it accounts for 13% of the world’s population it only contributes 2% to the global GDP. Despite its own traditions of giving (which manifest as Ubuntu in Southern Africa, Harambee in East Africa, susu and many other forms of solidarity) and numerous philanthropy related initiatives and investments in Africa, the continent remains highly underdeveloped with some regions experiencing fragile peace, high levels of food insecurity and poverty. Africa has in the past received significant amounts of support for both her liberation and also post-colonial development through philanthropy.

There is renewed optimism for Africa - others have already claimed the 21st century as Africa’s century popularly coined as ‘Africa Rising’. It is also in this context that we ask does Africa need philanthropy then - if it’s indeed rising. The continent, cannot, unfortunately deliver on her potential alone - she needs a capable midwife. Could philanthropy be that mid-wife, working towards the birth of the new? However, given the past failures of the philanthropy and development project we need to rethink how we insert philanthropy into Africa’s change processes. For the record philanthropy is potentially a force for good but it has its own challenges especially around power relations between the giver and the recipient, predictability, sustainability, conditionalities and in some cases its relevance.

Philanthropy Design and Purpose

Literature is awash with criticisms of donor based interventions. Africa faces systemic and structural challenges to do with the historically established processes of underdevelopment in the form of slavery and colonialism. In many instances philanthropy based forms of intervention have been accused of taking softer and non-threatening approaches, especially in cases where there are historically established structures that enforce inequality. There seems to be a disconnect between donor priorities and the real challenges that African countries and citizens have to address. At times, philanthropy falls into the trap of assuming superior knowledge over those receiving support and becomes prescriptive. In the process missing opportunities of learning from the experiences of the ‘subjects’ and also past failures of others who have been to the same areas. Philanthropy in may instance risks taking on the unimaginative linear-process-like approach to development akin to the ‘catch-up’ processes associated with modernisation theory.

We do acknowledge that within the modernisation framework some success has been achieved, however, if economic growth alone was the missing element Africa would have by now probably overtaken other developed regions. Indicators of growth, such as GDP, across most of Africa have been positive and in some countries in the double digit zone for close to a decade. But we are still nowhere close to poverty reduction despite the positive economic growth and also the often cited statistic about mobile phone penetration - as if that addresses material consumption needs. What we have instead witnessed is the widening of the gap between the very few rich and the many poor.  Interestingly there is a huge focus on the growing middle class instead of also the equally if not faster growth of groups living on less than a dollar a day at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP).

Since the dawn of the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative youth unemployment has been on the rise across the continent.  State based provision of social goods has been decimated. We urgently need a new matrix to measure socio-economic development. Issues of access to quality healthcare, education (early, middle and higher), sanitation services should be given prime of place when discussing indicators of progress. The brazenly profit driven model has also yielded high levels of corruption which threaten the moral and social wellbeing of many countries.

It is, however, also important to recognize the ubiquitous nature of philanthropy, its purpose is legion. It covers areas such as welfare support (e.g. food relief), governance reforms, infrastructure development, enhancing production capacities in many economic sub-sectors, etc. First, we have to acknowledge that processes of socio-economic and political change are complex by nature. I can imagine the complexities that senior decision makers in the big foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, Open Society or MacArthur Foundations have to contend with especially given the fact that they are essentially aiming at a moving target - human (political and socio-economic) development in a highly uncertain world. We face similar challenges - today is the fight against impunity, tomorrow we are talking food security and the next day something else. Furthermore, this has to be done within the confines of very limited budgets.

Conclusion: Philanthropy and the Quest for an Inclusive Africa

Philanthropy can be a real force for good by playing a catalytic role of fostering Africa’s inclusive and democratic transition. We urgently need a new compact of inclusive democratic development, driven by values of equity and sustainability. It cannot be business as usual based on the dominant for profit framework which has only served to enrich a few at the expense of not only the majority but also the environment. We are in a period of systemic uncertainty and the reconfiguring of the global economic architecture, and it provides challenges and opportunities for a new approach that could deliver on the potential of the continent.

Others, studying the phenomenon of illicit financial flows (see our forthcoming post on this subject), have already demonstrated that Africa has sufficient resources for equitable transformation but her current challenge is the extraction and beneficiation of these commodities. Where this function has been outsourced to the market, the challenge has been to collect sufficient rents from the market players. Where the private corporation is the preferred economic agent, adequate measures should be put in place to support local participation. Our research at TrustAfrica has demonstrated the need for philanthropy to support initiatives aimed at creating an enabling environment through policy, concessionary lending and also tariff preferences in certain sectors to allow for the emergence and strengthening of a national and inclusive capitalist sector.

Philanthropy’s ultimate focus thus is to make itself eventually irrelevant to Africa’s development needs.  Given the reality of decreasing levels of philanthropy dollars and increasing number of institutions dependent on this kind of support there is need to refine and improve the targeting of support towards addressing wider systemic and structural issues currently constraining political stability, economic growth and development. This can only be achieved through a multi-pronged approach that supports ongoing political and governance reforms, economic turn-around strategies and social inclusion processes. Philanthropy (and any form of support for that matter) needs to be alert to the cultural underpinnings of development - which have mostly been dismissed as an attempt of romanticizing Africa’s past instead of recognizing how that past can be used to invigorate processes of development and also to capture models of economic organisation for replication.

So, to answer my colleague (in a long-winded way) TrustAfrica and the philanthropy sector at large remain relevant, perhaps now more than ever, as we reshape the discourse of development and democracy, we need more Africans sitting at the table to chart the course for the future. It is indeed future positive for Africa only if we commit to changing the rules of the game.      

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