In 2014, the outbreak of Ebola in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone sent a chill around the world. The disease claimed over 11,000 lives, the majority in those three countries. However, it was the handful of cases that were reported in Europe and the United States that really fuelled the headlines. Suddenly the world’s attention was on ‘Africa’ and a continent made up of 54 countries and over a billion people, which shrank dramatically in the popular imagination to a rather tiny corner of West Africa.
One of the effects of this global panic was that the Third African Grantmakers Network Conference that had been due to take place in Ghana – in West Africa yes, but not affected by Ebola – in November 2014 was cancelled. Cancelled, that is, until the Foundation for Civil Society in Tanzania stepped in and proposed Arusha, Tanzania as an alternate venue, for a July 2015 date.
It was highly appropriate, therefore, that a topic for discussion at the conference was that of African philanthropy’s role in disaster response.
‘How can we challenge the perception that Africa is always “saved” by outsiders?’ asked Theo Sowa of the African Women’s Development Fund, ‘When, in fact, the people who ‘saved’ Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, were from those countries, not from International NGOs.’ In the case of Ebola, it was a small grant from the Urgent Action Fund-Africa that had sent a Ugandan doctor to West Africa to raise early warnings about the outbreak of the disease. And further south, the Southern Africa Trust organized its own response: although far from the epicentre of the crisis, the organization was quick to see the knock-on effects that Ebola was having across the continent.
Increasingly, observed Kepta Obati, local African institutions – because they have strong local networks and an ear to the ground – are being called upon to respond to emergency situations, whether or not it is their area of expertise. Certainly, that has been the experience within the Global Fund for Community Foundations’ network, where local partners have found themselves at the epicentres of floods, hurricanes and earthquakes: they respond whether this moves them ‘off-mission’ or not.
Conference participants heard many powerful stories of the local, often ‘below the radar’ responses of different kinds of African philanthropic institutions, responding creatively to extraordinary situations on the ground. They are developing new business models that build communities’ capacities and assets as an alternative to the ‘projectization’ of traditional development aid. An underlying theme throughout the conference was the idea that ‘African philanthropy’ is nothing new and that practices and cultures of solidarity and support are stronger and more established across this continent than other regions of the world. They may even be a defining feature of African communities. While speakers emphasised the implicit strengths and potential of African philanthropy, however, a number of questions and dilemmas emerged, both explicitly and by implication:
- Being a local philanthropic institution in Africa can certainly offer all manner of advantages and benefits when it comes to fostering local development: a long-term view and institutional memory, proximity to the ground, an appreciation of the complexity of context. However, none of it means anything if an African grantmaker simply adopts all the behaviours – so hotly criticized in Arusha – of external donors, with their upward accountability and power dynamics.
- Reconciling the philanthropy of the wealthy with the philanthropy of the poor. Organized African philanthropy is rapidly growing and much of is it associated with the assets of the extremely wealthy. At the same time the established narrative of African philanthropy tends to emphasise giving and solidarity systems – the survival strategies, if you like – of the poor. How to bridge the two? What is the role of multi-donor institutions that can unlock assets across different demographic groups, including the middle class, who still have few organized giving options at their disposal?
- Encouraging organized systems of giving is one thing, but how do we ensure they address and do not reinforce long-term structural issues of inequality and marginalization? The ‘Kenyans for Kenya’ campaign, for example, raised more than US $7 million for drought and famine relief in the north part of the country, but did it result in long-term changes for poor communities there?
- Learning from the experience of decades of ‘bad’ development practices. More than any other region of the world, Africa’s civil society sector and its communities have been on the receiving end of poorly formulated, costly and often ineffective development programmes. How can its emerging local foundation sector learn from those mistakes and resolve to do things differently?
The complex questions need to be addressed if the African philanthropic sector is to start to define its role, its values and its way of working. A good job for a regional network perhaps? With a new name, the Africa Philanthropy Network, new director, Karen Sai, and a new board, let’s hope this home-grown network is up to the job.