How African philanthropy responds in a crisis


Jan Schwier and Maddie Holland


Africa will likely not be spared from the public health and economic ravages of the COVID-19 global pandemic. But while the global community struggles to respond with timely aid and as funders focus on addressing the crisis in their own countries, homegrown sources of support have already sprung into action. African philanthropists have made large commitments in response to the crisis in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and elsewhere on the continent. 

While the coronavirus is novel, the local philanthropic response to crisis is not. Our new report at The Bridgespan Group on large-scale giving by African donors highlights a history of giving by African philanthropy toward disaster relief. In a five-country sample of 63 gifts of $1 million+ by African donors made between 2010 and 2019, roughly 30 per cent of the gifts were in response to natural disasters (floods, famine, fires, cyclones) and disease outbreaks (Ebola and cholera). These gifts totalled $130 million, roughly 13 per cent of the $1 billion total value of gifts in our sample. (The five countries in our sample are Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.)

For example, in 2018, Strive and Tsitsi Masiyiwa, London-based Zimbabwean philanthropists, made an emergency donation of $10 million through their company, Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, at the onset of the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe. The next year, they made a $60 million follow-up gift. This gift went beyond emergency aid to support a multiyear effort to eliminate water-borne diseases in the country, a longer-term effort designed to bring a more lasting solution. Another example is the 2015 donation of $5 million from the Dangote Foundation in Nigeria to the African Union’s Ebola Fund, to be distributed across multiple West African countries fighting outbreaks of the disease. 

Giving to disaster relief reflects a larger focus by African donors on basic needs. Of the gifts in our five-country sample, 77 per cent went to basic needs (in terms of dollar value) – with the greatest focus being on poverty reduction, representing 42 per cent of gifts.

‘In most African countries there is a focus on addressing basic needs – health, education, jobs,’ explained Ali Awni, Professor of Practice at the Business School, The American University in Cairo, one of more than two dozen experts, donors, and foundation staff we interviewed for our study. ‘It’s the natural hierarchy. Once people have good health, education and jobs then everything else such as democracy will follow.’ 

It could be that by funding basic needs, donors steer clear of causes that may have more political risk. ‘In society, there is often a close relationship between the business elites and political elites, which can make it difficult for business or philanthropies to support causes that are considered politically charged,’ said Audrey Elster, executive director of the RAITH Foundation in South Africa. Donors may be reticent to fund issues which could potentially be politicised, such as social justice.

The demand to service basic needs is soaring with the current pandemic. In late April, the World Food Programme predicted that 265 million people globally may be at risk of starvation by the end of 2020, as the pandemic has exacerbated food security challenges. Much of this will be felt across sub-Saharan Africa, where an estimated 1 in 5 people were going hungry even before the crisis hit. This has clearly caught the attention of some African donors, and demonstrated again the potential of African philanthropy to make a difference on the continent – even if donations by non-African philanthropists and multilaterals often get most of the attention in the Global North. While not an exhaustive list, what follows is a set of examples of substantial gifts made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as of early May 2020.

South African billionaires Patrice Motsepe, Nicky Oppenheimer, Johann Rupert, and Mary Oppenheimer have each pledged $57 million to assist with the current pandemic and its related challenges in South Africa. Nearly $10 million has been committed through philanthropic entities linked to the late billionaire Allan Gray, and the ELMA South Africa Foundation announced over $13 million to the Solidarity Fund, an independent entity created to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in South Africa. Many corporations have also made significant contributions in South Africa (for example, Yellowwood, Anglo American)- including over $84 million committed by Naspers to the Solidarity Fund.

In Nigeria, Tony Elumelu has donated $14 million to COVID-19 response across 20 African countries, and Aliko Dangote has committed over $5 million through a newly-formed coalition, CACOVID, which has mobilized over $75 million in total donations. And in Kenya, Equity Group Foundation, with help from several partners, has committed over $11 million to support relief efforts in Kenya and frontline medical staff. 

Large-scale African philanthropy has distinct characteristics that do not necessarily follow the pattern of large-scale giving in the US or Europe. It is shaped by culture, politics, economics, and – as around the globe – by the preferences of donors.

African philanthropy may not be enough to ensure the continent’s recovery from the crisis; more support will be needed to help African governments stamp out the disease, restart their economies, and ensure the basic needs of communities are met. Yet, the scale of African giving is substantial – $1 billion in our five-country sample alone, with hundreds of millions more in large gifts now flowing to address the current pandemic. And the growth of African economies and of the number of wealthy Africans underline that this kind of philanthropy will likely play an important and growing role in supporting development and social change on the continent.

Jan Schwier is a partner at The Bridgespan Group and leads its Africa Initiative in Johannesburg. Maddie Holland is a case team leader at The Bridgespan Group, currently based in Johannesburg.

This article was originally published by WINGS.

Tagged in: Covid-19

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