This was the question I asked myself after the opening session of the 2014 Africa Grantmakers Affinity Group (AGAG) conference, held in New York from 18 to 20 March. The theme of the conference was ‘Funding in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities’. The opening session was a departure from the norm, focusing on ‘Art, Philanthropy and Africa’. I didn’t know what to expect, but after two brilliant presentations by Dr. Omi Osun Jones, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Sean Barlow, an Afropop expert and executive producer of Afropop Worldwide, I believe I was transformed. I had an ‘Aha’ moment whose significance I’m still digesting.
At platforms that discuss Africa’s development, we often complain about the images that are used by fundraisers and various do-gooders of a sad and poverty-stricken Africa, but often the discussions don’t go beyond feeling offended by the images. Of course, in recent times there has been a shift: Fundraising materials now show the faces of healthy children and depict a more vibrant Africa. However, I don’t think arts and culture are used sufficiently to communicate the soul of African people. I believe we need to have more discussions of the kind we had at AGAG in March, and explore how we can use various arts to communicate to the world what Africa is about. I don’t think the world gets us, as we are often reduced to statistics about wars, poverty, and misery, and there is not much said about the vibrancy that characterizes Africa, amidst all the poverty.
I’ve attended at least half a dozen AGAG conferences since 2006. AGAG was established as a network of funders funding in Africa, and continues to be driven by the interests of its members. Initially founded by a number of big U.S. foundations, AGAG has expanded over the years to include various types of Africa grantmakers from the U.S., Africa and Europe. Of the meetings I’ve attended, this was one of the best. The diversity of funders and interests always makes for richer conversations, and I always learn something new.
This year’s conference attracted about 60 people – including AGAG members and non-members funding in Africa. AGAG recently revised its strategy, and the new goal is to promote effective, robust and responsive philanthropy to Africa. The retreats/conferences continue to offer a safe space to learn and share on various topics, including grantmaking approaches, innovations, and economic and political developments in various countries or regions of the continent.
The first day focused on broad thematic areas, including a session on ‘Funding Flows, Cash Transfers, African Philanthropy and Diaspora Giving’. The Atlantic Philanthropies shared its story of grantmaking in South Africa, and how it conceived its exit strategy and executed it delicately over a number of years. This is what members most value: the opportunity to learn, firsthand, from fellow foundations about their practices.
The second day covered a range of themes, from funding youth-led organizations as catalysts for change in Africa to a session on theories of change in grantmaking in southern Africa. This is always the more delicate part of the meetings as, given the range of issues that members are interested in – themes, regions, countries, approaches – it’s difficult to predict if everyone will have an interest in at least one of the concurrent sessions. Several sessions also focused on specific issue areas in Burundi, the DRC, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.
It feels like a privilege to be able to spend two whole days with colleagues from all walks of life, sharing experiences, learning and exploring together. Over the years, I’ve observed how the tone of the conversations has changed as people better understand not only the continent but the issue areas, and get more comfortable with each other. Although I wouldn’t say that AGAG retreats are the only reason members’ perceptions about Africa are changing, I can say they’ve certainly played a role.
There is much excitement about the refreshed AGAG, which is adjusting to remain responsive to its members and true to its objectives to grow interest among northern donors to fund in Africa; be a knowledge repository about funding in Africa; and to promote collaboration among donors with similar interests. I am also pleased that AGAG will continue to collaborate with its sister organization, the African Grantmakers Network, a network of African funders currently hosted by the Southern Africa Trust in Johannesburg, South Africa.