Horizontal Philanthropy (2)

Susan Wilkinson-Maposa and Alan Fowler

An article in the June edition of Alliance introduced the notion of horizontal philanthropy – poor people helping others in need – contrasted with the more conventional and visible vertical philanthropy from rich to poor. This article takes a closer look at horizontal philanthropy and reflects on some of its implications. It constructs a schema that links four factors affecting the likelihood that a poor person will help another.

Information gathered through the Building Community Philanthropy Project (BCP) project in Southern Africa[2] suggests a system of horizontal philanthropy which operates as a self-organized and self-regulating process where people who are poor, in response to a need or problem, mobilize and share resources among themselves. These transactions provide types of mutual assistance and social cohesion that largely increase the chance of survival, share risk, and help resist further deprivation. In some cases they act as savings or investment to improve conditions and future prospects. Since it is so much a part of everyday life, horizontal help can often be invisible and is rarely celebrated.

A horizontal philanthropy act: four key factors

The BCP data so far indicate that four elements are at work in horizontal philanthropy:

A – Affinity
N – Need, urgent and normal
M – Motivation
R – Reputation

To aid presentation, a horizontal philanthropy act (HPA) is illustrated in the schema below as a function of the four factors and their interplay.

HPA = (N+ A+ M) x R


Each factor requires clarification. First, A or affinity refers to the relationship between the actors in a help transaction. It is composed of three elements – closeness in terms of blood (CB); closeness in distance (CD), ie physical proximity; and finally close socio-economic relations (CSe), which would include shared livelihood, sense of identity, or common membership in a club or church. Affinity between the giver and receiver can be represented thus:

A = CB + CD+ CSe


With regard to need (N), poor people make a critical distinction between the types of demand or need that require help. These appear to be normal needs and urgent needs. There are three factors at work here. F – Frequency How often the problem or need occurs and hence how often help is actually requested or offered. P – Proportionality How much of a potential giver’s own resources (material asset/time/effort) are required to address the need/problem. T – Time The duration of help and period/risk before a required or expected return.

Typically normal needs are small, such as cooking oil, a blanket, minding children, visiting to provide regular company and support, or fetching water for the elderly/disabled. They are often regular and frequent. As such they can usually be planned for or anticipated and their proportional demands tend to be low and manageable. Often based on reciprocity, return is usually rapid. For example, when neighbour A runs out of cooking oil, neighbour B will satisfy A’s consumption needs. Such assistance will be returned – not necessary directly in a cup of oil but by means of a similar act of help – for example providing bread to B the next day.

Urgent needs can be generated by emergencies such as fire or flooding as well as death. Poor people also see urgency in terms of dangerous levels of debt or in financial constraints like lack of lobola/bride price, which can prevent marriage. While perhaps infrequent and ad hoc, such needs require a rapid response and can demand a significant proportion of the giver’s available resources. To help cope with this eventuality, poor people across the four countries use pooling or sharing mechanisms either to create a strategic reserve (eg a burial society) that can be called upon under agreed conditions or to mobilize goods, labour and support for a collective response to a problem.

In practice, the probability of a need generating help depends on its size in relation to the giver’s capabilities and the frequency of requests. Big needs that are not urgent are less likely to receive a positive response. Requests based on big needs – like long-term support for school fees or for orphans – are more likely to be directed at family (wherever they are located) than at neighbours.


In the case of underlying motivations (M), two factors are at work: choice and principles. The decision to help or ask for help could be voluntary and informed by free choice or it could be a function of duty and obligation, for example produced by the combination of one’s status and a particular need or problem.

Three key principles are also in play when a potential giver decides whether or not to help. These are altruism, reciprocity and cooperation. Results so far suggest that reciprocity is the most frequent motivation for giving, followed by cooperation (doing together what you cannot do alone) and then altruism. The latter – understood by the poor as compassion and pity – is often reserved for strangers or for those that cannot help themselves. Regarded largely as receivers and not givers, these include the poorest of the poor, the elderly and the disabled. In this regard, findings to date point to the significance of the philosophy and principles of Ubuntu – the recognition of oneself through others – as a motivational force.


Finally, R refers to the reputation and status of an individual to be helped and is central in determining eligibility for assistance. It is shown as a multiplier to the other factors because a ‘zero’ reputation or total lack of trust precludes being helped. The R factor appears to have two aspects. First, status – for example, as a mother, elder, headman or political representative – may imply a particular level of due respect. The second consideration is the individual’s character – is the person ‘good’? What this means specifically is: does the person adhere to the cardinal rule ‘if you have you give, no matter how little’, and comply with agreed conditions or expectations of help.

Determining the likelihood of an HPA

Under what conditions does a poor person decide to help? What is the relative importance of A, N, M and R? As a new and exploratory area, it is premature to propose indicators or proxies to quantify each factor and their effect on the likelihood of an HPA. The BCP study does, however, provide a starting point for understanding the likelihood of one poor person helping another.

The data suggest that where affinity and individual reputation are high, need is urgent and motivation is strong, it is very likely that a poor person will help another. Where demands are frequent and large in terms of the giver’s available resources, and a return is far in the future and perhaps more uncertain, help is less likely. In the worst case, help will not be forthcoming to those who have abused assistance in the past and not positively responded to advice and correction. If an individual is considered not trustworthy, of low moral character, ungrateful, or unable to use help wisely, it is likely that they will eventually be denied membership of the ‘community of help’.

Perspectives and implications

The above conclusions are tentative ones, but they have interesting implications for those wishing to build or otherwise rely on community supportive practices to achieve their (development) objectives. In fact, it poses a particular combination of challenges and dilemmas.

It is clear that affinity matters, so interventions that create greater ‘distance’ between poor people will work against their helping each other. Kinship and physical proximity are less amenable to change, so interventions are more likely to affect socio-economic closeness, for instance through selection and preferring of the ‘more promising’. This could create divisive jealousies as well as weakening the ‘common condition’ that appears to foster help – that is, you help people who are like you and understand your situation.

Similarly, reputation is vital. Interventions that introduce resources and initiatives at speeds and in ways that that do not ensure probity and adequate oversight can produce temptations that may be difficult to resist and put reputations at risk. Initiatives that undermine practices that already provide for local accountability and effective sanction should therefore be avoided.

Survival vs development

In theory, the reduction of both types of need, urgent and normal, would allow horizontal philanthropy to move from being simply a survival mechanism that helps prevent the poor from sinking under the weight of their poverty to being a form of mutual assistance that can help poor people lift themselves out of poverty. Certainly, reduction of urgent need as a reason for horizontal philanthropy would prevent the unforeseen attrition of assets. Smaller normal needs, too, would seem to produce a combination of less frequent requests, a smaller claim on available assets and/or a shorter time before or greater assurance of the agreed return.

In both cases, this would seem likely to make poor people more secure and horizontal philanthropy could thus focus on development rather than mere survival. But there is no evidence of this happening in the countries we studied.

The answer might be that the deteriorating economic conditions in the region – exacerbated by HIV/AIDS – have prevented this. A way to make horizontal philanthropy into an instrument of development may lie in increasing the asset base of poor communities without disrupting the system’s ability to regulate and organize itself, the core of its resilience and sustainability.

The development side

But there is also a side to it that is more developmental and supports movement out of adversity. Examples include giving people advice about where to find work, providing school fees, or transferring skills that are used to earn a livelihood. The developmental effect of these acts, however, needs further investigation. A useful step might be to test if a correlation exists between help among individuals and help that is based on groups and between maintenance and movement, respectively.

The fact that motivation to help will be stronger when there is a prospect of reciprocity suggests that shared obligations are treated as a prudent distribution of ‘assets’ that can be relied upon when the need arises. It also indicates that the principle of reciprocity is used by the poor to stretch and re-circulate resources, which cannot afford to be idle when resources are scant.

Summing up

The HPA schema is a first step towards understanding how and when horizontal philanthropy occurs. In the previous article, we started to explore a comparison with aspects of community foundations and further work in this direction could help to improve community foundation practice. One obvious caution here is not to expect horizontal philanthropy to offer a source of finance for capitalizing community foundations.

Horizontal philanthropy is a development device that appears to operate with low, network-oriented transaction costs. The challenge ahead is to stimulate it without burdening it with costly formalities, unrealistic demands, and excessive expectations about its potential as an anti-poverty remedy.

1 For a description of the research on which this article is based, see Alliance Vol 10, No 2, June 2005.

2 The BCP study draws on the results of some 87 focus group, with a total of around 700 informants and data from interviews in four countries – Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Susan Wilkinson-Maposa is Director, Building Community Philanthropy Project. She can be contacted at susanwil@gsb.uct.ac.za
Alan Fowler is an adviser to the project. He can be contacted at alanfowler@compuserve.com

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