African philanthropy: still work to be done

Tendai Murisa

There is a growing recognition of the role that philanthropy can play in Africa’s quest for equitable and democratic transformation. Until recently, philanthropy (and, more broadly, aid) has mostly been viewed as a form of support given from outside the continent. Indeed, the story of Africa’s liberation and even early post-independence development initiatives would have been very different if it were not for the investments made by a number of philanthropic foundations based outside the continent. However, there is a new excitement in the continent around the possibilities of home-grown philanthropy. Many important strategy documents have been developed about the key role for philanthropy: at a continental level, the African Union’s Agenda 2063; at a regional level, the SADC Industrialization Strategy and Roadmap 2015–2063; and at a national level, strategies such as those in Rwanda.

Since the turn of the century the continent has seen a growth in the number of wealthy individuals (those with an annual income of more than $150,000 or with investible assets of more than $500,000). According to a 2013 report by UBS and TrustAfrica[1], there are approximately 130,000 millionaires across the continent, and more foundations have been established in this period than at any other moment in the history of Africa. Africa’s richest man is estimated to be worth $21.6 billion. Africa’s high net worth individuals (HNWIs) have been making significant philanthropic investments in health, education, entrepreneurial development and infrastructure improvements, in the process helping to counter the begging-bowl narrative that has so strongly defined African development discourse over the decades.

Caution: African philanthropy not a silver bullet

There are several reasons, however, why this optimism and excitement might be misplaced. First, the projections discussed above tell only half the story. Recent economic performance has not generated enough economic diversification, job growth or social development to create wealth and lift millions of Africans out of poverty. The impact of commodity-driven growth on employment and social development has been limited, maybe because there has been so little integration between downstream and upstream industries that can add value to the primary goods currently driving the boom. Africa’s economic boom has yielded highly unequal societies, characterized by a minority of elites at the top of the pyramid and a growing bottom of the pyramid. This has led some organizations (such as COSATU) to argue that the much-lauded economic development could lead to what they call ‘jobless growth’.

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