Philanthropy as Active Citizenship
A prominent philanthropy platform executive wondered aloud with me whether my commitment to social justice activism could be a hindrance to facilitating the practice of major philanthropists. The worlds of philanthropy and social justice often seem worlds apart. This may be one of the strongest unresolved tensions that strain the emergence of the field of African philanthropy within a global community of practice: how to do philanthropy in a situation where social and economic justice matters greatly.
The philanthropic sphere has come across as the preserve of an elite set of very smart and well-connected people who quietly and comfortably go about doing great things to make life better for others – often behind the scenes and without causing too much trouble. Philanthropy has, until recently, been identified with an elite club of powerful and respectable people who influence the world positively through big money.
Similarly, activists have seemed like extraordinary champions of social, economic, and environmental justice who held the moral high ground far above the rest of us. Although more troublesome, they were modeled as the elite vanguard in rightness of thought and action for human dignity and the integrity of the earth.
Yet, the biggest fault lines of human progress in the world today are exactly about the capture of social and economic power by elites – of whatever sort. Amongst the greatest contradictions in an increasingly democratized world has been the simultaneous increase in the concentration of power in the hands of fewer people. Even if the concentration of power is shifting poles from North to South.
But the changing patterns of economic inequality and social exclusion – on global, regional, and national scales – are now causing major realignments of power – and of our previously held identities and ways of working for change. The nature of states is in flux with diluted sovereignties and ambivalent attitudes to regionalism and internationalism. National identities are being re-created with massive migration, the emergence of powerful new economies and the failure of others, and simmering popular discontent as a result of social and economic insecurity. The corporate world seems to be in a state of introspection, searching, and re-positioning. Government bureaucracies are increasingly being challenged from within. Citizenship is being redefined, nowhere more than in Africa.
At different paces we are coming to the realization that, whether in government, business, civil society groups, or at home, we are all citizens. Previously held divides between the public, the private, the social, and the personal spheres are in decline. We are coming to realize that we need to do far more work to build institutions of social solidarity that cut through previous divides; institutions that can carry us through to a new era of shared progress rather than ones that recreate our self-defeating winner-takes-all approaches.
That is because questions of inequality and social exclusion are at once deeply structural and deeply personal questions. They are about human dignity and about justice. They are about the human made systems that at least maintain if not exacerbate the current social and economic fault lines in our world. In the end, these are questions about people and power.
For example, the identity of activists is being challenged – from Cairo to Dakar to Marikana and from Wall Street to Delhi. People, in large numbers, are organizing and standing up for themselves. Previously heroic activists are no longer satisfied with being seen as extraordinary champions of social, economic, or environmental justice causes – as “activists” as though they are a citizen of a different order. They are self-identifying simply as active citizens, amongst others. The world of activism is being democratized.
Money is power too – even if it is money used to do good. With the emergence of new philanthropists in Africa, the creation of new forms of popular-based philanthropy, the uncovering of traditional philanthropic practices, and the establishment of new associations of philanthropists, philanthropic power is also being democratized.
In the same way that new social media platforms and mobile smartphones have democratized public debate and diluted the power of the editorial gatekeepers in the media, so the popularization of philanthropy is spreading the concentration of philanthropic power more widely. The practice of philanthropy is shifting from a model of elite benefactors towards a more socialized practice of active citizenship.
Like activism, philanthropy should be seen as nothing more or less than a form of responsible and engaged citizenship that stems from the recognition that we each have the power (and responsibility) to act to change the conditions in which we live. There is too much at stake to depend only on governments, or companies, or civil society groups. Or just on paying taxes.
What’s more, we cannot authentically practice philanthropy in a changing context that demands action to transform power relations if we do not align the identity and practice of being an African philanthropist with new ways of managing power. Philanthropy for social justice in Africa must be about everyone getting involved.
Amongst the biggest shifts in development in the past decade has been to see the people that our help is meant to support no longer as beneficiaries but as citizens – active agents of change in their own lives. Amongst the most significant developments that could happen in philanthropic practice will be to equally realign itself as a form of active citizenship in solidarity with other active citizens.
Neville Gabriel is the executive director of the Southern Africa Trust. He is also the chairperson of the board of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, a member of the Africa policy advisory board of Bono’s ONE campaign, a member of the board of the Goedgedacht Forum for Social Reflection, and a senior fellow of the Synergos Institute.
||By: African Grantmakers Network
African Grantmakers Network (AGN) - Voice and Action for African Philanthropy is a continent-wide network of African grantmaking organizations that facilitates networking and experience-sharing among established and emerging African philanthropic institutions. AGN aims at consolidating the voice for African philanthropy to address social injustice and development issues on the continent.
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