Reframing African Philanthropy

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The recent African Grantmakers Network Assembly held in Johannesburg, South Africa, provided a defining opportunity, a space where African philanthropic institutions of many varieties and orientations and African activists, thinkers and leaders, came together to take a strong hard look at how to reframe the conversations around philanthropy and Africa’s development agenda.

The Assembly brought together more than 300 people in around 30 structured conversations. Whether it was on exploring challenges and opportunities in building a culture of giving and citizen action or the necessity of moving beyond the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); whether it was provoking us to address our existing limitations in developing a shared agenda for equitable development or redefining the role of philanthropy in shifting power from North to South, these structured conversations provided space for much critical reflection, interrogation and examination of our work and the role that philanthropy does play – and the role it should play – in advancing social justice on the African continent.

Debunking old narratives on African philanthropy

The Assembly raised several core issues, but I want to concentrate on what I think is an issue that received such emphasis that it fundamentally shifted the nature of many discussions. I’m talking about the affirmation of African philanthropy being defined by its own narrative.

The traditional narrative on philanthropy, globally, has by and large tended to be dominated by some core assertions or assumptions: (i) that philanthropy is about the rich giving to the poor, (ii) that this philanthropy happens primarily through formal institutions, (iii) that philanthropy is equated with money and (iv) that the poor do not really give, but only receive, and when they do, it’s ad hoc and small amounts, so it is not really recognised as meaningful.

The reality on the African continent is very different, but in the absence of an organized philanthropy voice, very little research on the nature of African philanthropy(1) and the non resonance of the terminology of ‘philanthropy’ on the continent - in many local languages, there is no literal translation for the term philanthropy; instead giving is understood in relation to deeply ingrained cultural traditions, practices and ways of living - this global discourse was transferred and applied to how we understand philanthropy on the African continent. 

A new narrative...

The emerging narrative on African philanthropy challenges these dominant assumptions. It reflects on giving that originates from across the range of socio-economic classes (and at significantly large levels at local community levels); giving that is directed through individual and communal channels (formal or informal); giving that is manifested in a variety of ways beyond money (time, labour, assets, expertise) and a variety of simple and complex communal arrangements; and giving that, cumulatively, happens at significant scale.

The prominence given, at this Assembly, to emphasizing an African narrative on philanthropy, is vital for several reasons.

First, while there has been, slowly but steadily, an emerging narrative that seeks to reframe the conversation on what is recognised as philanthropy on the continent, it is a narrative that is far from being the dominant one, and this Assembly in a sense, provided a space for emphasizing and entrenching this narrative as one that can no longer be ignored, and in fact, as one that finally needs to take its rightful place.

Different giving patterns

Second, African societies have long-standing, ingrained, embedded cultures of giving and these have been instrumentalized through a variety of systems and mechanisms, individual and collective, informal and formal ...and, institutional – yes, institutional.

I stress this latter part for, even where local giving is recognised, the narrative reflects that Africans do not give to institutions, when in fact, motivated by religious mandates, they give millions to churches and mosques, which are religious institutions.

But that giving is not limited to religious activities. There are local institutions which receive significant religiously motivated giving, but who work solely on humanitarian and/or development related activities. Moving beyond these, there exist a variety of institutions in local communities, formal and informal, but organized. And Africans give to and through these, because they are rooted within communities, or reflect a sense of ownership or are embedded in relationships of trust.

The impact of philanthropy

Third, as the narrative(s) on African forms of philanthropy emerge, there is the argument that says: well ok, but that’s not transformational. By whose standards is this ‘transformation’ being measured and on what timeframe? When local community members pool money to support a young women to attain higher education; that is transformational in her immediate context. When this is done, in thousands of communities, a different sense of scale emerges.

I think back to the inaugural African Grantmakers Network Assembly that took place in Nairobi in 2010, where Gerry Salole, the Chair of TrustAfrica, asked the room (in excess of 200 delegates, majority of whom would call themselves civil society activists) how many of us had received some kind of help to undertake our education?

More than 90% of the Africans in the room raised their hands. While the giving that supported each of us with a raised hand was not by any means intentioned to strategically develop a cadre of civil society activists, the impact of that giving has been transformational at scale far beyond our individual environments.

Philanthropy is not just money

Fourth, the global philanthropy narrative has focused on philanthropy as “money”. Whether the practice is aligned to this or not, the narrative on philanthropy - and by implication its analysis, measurement, and assessment of impact have been primarily monetarily focused.

What was emphasized at this Assembly was the reframing of philanthropy, not just as money, but as solidarity, and with the lens of solidarity at the core, recognition of different forms of philanthropy -assets, time, expertise, simple and complex systems of mutuality and reciprocity - all come into much sharper focus.

Recognizing these alternative narratives plays a vital role in challenging the dominant discourse around African agency, the discourse around patterns of aid flows and the discourse around Africans as one-way recipients of aid. This is not intended to romanticize African systems of giving or to advocate it as a cure all, but to emphasize that this broader reflection of African philanthropy plays a vital role, in both survivalist and transformational ways. Moreover, the current overemphasis on formality of structure and function needs to be balanced with a recognition of the relevance and impact of significant systems and practices that do not conform with the dominant narrative.

1. In recent years this has begin to change. For instance, The ‘Poor Philanthropist’ by Maposa et al. made significant strides in reflecting and understanding horizontal giving; TrustAfrica is collating reflections on of giving on the continent , and the Global Fund for Community Foundations is doing work reflecting on the role that community philanthropy organizations are playing. These are but few and far between, and much more needs to be done. 
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