Taking a stand while finding a position: Africa’s evolving philanthropic discourse

This article was originally published by Global Fund for Community Foundations on 6 August 2013. The original article can be found here.

By Jenny Hodgson

Africa, as we are often told, is rising. The continent has been dubbed the “next economic powerhouse”, its countries “lions on the move” which include six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies. With this growth has come the arrival of a new set of African foundations on the philanthropic scene, which is becoming both more vibrant and more diverse. New networks – such as the African Grantmakers Network and the African Philanthropy Forum – have also emerged to support the fast-growing sector.

The rapid changes in the African philanthropy scene were brought home to me recently when I attended the East Africa Grantmakers Association conference in Mombasa, Kenya. I had last attended an EAAG conference in 2010 in Nairobi. At the time I was struck by how the conference was something of a mixed bag of different, often un-connected, pieces, the product of an emerging philanthropic sector which was still finding its voice, identity – probably even its constituents. So there was a fundraising master class probably more suited to NGOs than grantmakers or foundations, for example. And most of the examples of African philanthropy that were highlighted were individual, community-level, acts of giving and kindness: all very heart-warming and a good reminder of Africa’s strong traditions of social solidarity, but hard to locate in the framework of a regional network of institutional grantmakers. Overall, with the exception of the inspiring story of the Kenyan Red Cross, which had come through a particularly dark chapter in its existence, marked by scandal and financial woes and had forged a new path to financial sustainability, there was very little discussion of the “big” strategic issues for African philanthropy and its potential to develop a collective voice, harness and deploy resources and exercise influence in the social and economic development spheres.

Fast forward three years and this year’s EAAG conference was back Kenya, this time Mombasa. The theme of the conference was “Philanthropy and Business: is it business unusual?” This time, the tenor of the conversation felt very different, with the emphasis firmly on business models and approaches – impact investing, venture philanthropy, corporate social investment etc. Certainly, there were some interesting questions raised about the need for new ways of thinking that marked a departure from the project-funding paradigm that has characterized the delivery of so much external development aid and which has forced Africa’s civil society to exist on a hand to mouth existence, constantly having to respond to the changing interests of external donors. The case of the Kagiso Trust (South Africa), for example, offered a powerful example of the bold and strategic reinvention of itself that it embarked on 15 years ago when it transformed from being a re-granting intermediary for international donors during the apartheid years to organization which funds its own programmes with dividends generated by its own investment company.

And yet, while I fully accept that there is always room for greater efficient, transparency in the philanthropic sector, I did begin to wonder whether, by focusing entirely on the business side of things, we were missing out on some big and important questions about the role and responsibilities of the African philanthropic sector in grappling with big issues around poverty, equity and rights and in empowering communities to act in in the face of conflicting government or corporate interests.

Philanthropy, or the use of private resources for public good, has and will always been fraught with tensions and contradictions. Can resources earned in regressive ways (low wages or even exploitation of its workers, deals cut in corrupt ways that bypass regulation or legislation etc.) ever really achieve progressive social change? Can corporate philanthropy ever really be more than an arm of a company’s marketing and public relations departments? Concerns about philanthropy as a strategy for corporate “greenwashing”, for example, are particularly pertinent in Africa right now because so much of its economic growth is commodity driven which means minerals extracted from ground under which people live, communities displaced and environmental impacts.

At an excellent panel on social justice philanthropy which was, alas, relegated to a break-out session, Kaari Murungi (co-founder of the Urgent Action Fund for Women – Africa) raised important questions that offered rather a stark counter-narrative to tone of the larger plenary discussions around the need for grantmakers to “step up” to the standards of business in their work. “What shapes in justice and what perpetuates it?” she asked. “In order to understand social injustice, we need to understand power, how it is acquired, how it is used and who stands to benefit.” She lamented the lack of resources and research to enable social justice activists to engage corporates, particularly extractive industries, around issues such as land ownership (and by implication urged an essential role for philanthropy in supporting such efforts). And she highlighted the worrying “democratic deficit” across much of Africa, which created a culture of impunity and allowed those with resources to do anything and get away with it. This was particularly true in the corporate sector, where levels of accountability and good governance were often very low. And yet, in the context of the overall conference, this “side-conversation” (of, it has to be said, the already converted) seemed both extremely important and yet out of kilter with the overall narrative of the conference.

As the African philanthropy sector enters a period of rapid growth, with new players and new resources emerging, some level of tension and contradiction is inevitable – and healthy – not least because different kinds of philanthropic money come shaped by different visions and theories of change.

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image: Kingsley Mucheke, Jane Weru The Akiba Mashinani Trust, Kenya; courtesy Donors Forum

I very much believe in the power of networks, associations and philanthropy support organizations in helping to advance and shape both the philanthropic discourse and strengthen the capacities of constituents. This is a collective task for all of us who are engaged in the philanthropy field wherever we are. Some closing thoughts on how we do this.

Take a stand: While we wait for the benefits of Africa’s economic growth to trickle down beyond a handful of elites and a growing middle class, issues of poverty and inequity are ever-present. Philanthropy offers a unique position from which to take risks, seed innovation and ensure the voice of a vibrant civil society to hold governments and big corporates to account. Yes, there are new opportunities for African foundations and NGOs to rethink their business model and models like the Kagiso Trust offer great learning, but business solutions in terms of how development is actually done may not always be the most effective. While civil society may want to look for lessons from the business sector, new business-oriented foundations can also look to the work of the African Women’s Development Fund or the Kenya Community Development Foundation for examples of years of good and effective community and economic development work.

Engage in and encourage debates around language so that it helps to connect dots, denote concrete meaning and move us beyond the abstract or the vague: Over the last couple of years, a group of donor organizations have been engaged in a consultation and reflection process aimed at building up a case for community philanthropy as a practice that could enhance development outcomes. The definition of community philanthropy that has emerged out of this process rests on three cornerstones: assets, capacities and trust. In July, two Kenyans became the first winners of the Olga Alexeeva Memorial Prize: in awarding the prize, the judges were all impressed by the explicit focus of Jane (Weru) and Kingsley (Mucheke) of the Akiba Mashinani Trust on the most marginalized community in Kenya – landless slum dwellers – and “by the way they have developed a philanthropic mechanism to support transformational efforts by that community”.

Jane and Kingsley (who, by the way, wrote the most wonderful blog about his experience) did not nominate themselves: in fact, before they travelled to St Petersburg, Russia, to collect their prize at the Emerging Societies, Emerging Philanthropies Forum, it did not seem that they had ever seen their own work in the context of “doing philanthropy”, so much as “receiving philanthropy” (from foundations that had invested in their work). And yet it so clearly conforms to a form of community philanthropy that is all about building up local assets, capacities and trust. (I’d also be interested to know more about the definition of “community philanthropy” that was used in the EAAG Philanthropy Prize process).

Jenny Hodgson is the Executive Director of Global Fund for Community Foundations, UK/South Africa.

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