International funders make way for African grantmakers


Karen Colvard


The 2015 Africa Grantmakers’ Affinity Group (AGAG) conference, held in New York 16-17 April, provided further evidence that decision-making in relation to international donor money is increasingly passing to local institutions and actors who have much closer knowledge of the needs and realities of African people.

Grantmakers in Africa have become stronger and their missions clearer, as we saw from the participation of TrustAfrica, Southern Africa Trust, the African Women’s Development Fund and The Other Foundation. In the future I expect much more of the decision-making and agenda-setting to rest on the shoulders of Africans themselves, who have already demonstrated ample capacity.

At the conference we discussed peer-group decision-making and, briefly, crowdfunding, as other indicators that responsibility is moving towards those who are more directly affected by the problems that international funders wish to address. The challenge to international grantmakers is to support this shift, which in my opinion may well lead to more effective interventions, more productive relationships with local civil society groups and young people, and – eventually – more trusting relationships between private foundations, NGOs and governments. Western funders must realize that far too often in the past their donations have been given to support their own interests, so they should get out of the way as African institutions become predominant.

The presentations argued that young people in Africa want what young people all over the world want: education, experiences, opportunities and influence. They are reviving Pan-Africanism, they are crossing borders but staying in Africa for university programmes, starting businesses, carving out careers in music, theatre and art. Many programmes for young Africans are small ones, and great care should be taken that ‘scaling up’ does not dilute their advantages.

The opportunities small programmes provide for young Africans to build up their own networks across the continent and undertake their own analyses of problems and opportunities should not be dismissed in favour of scale. However, these programmes also need to underscore fairness and ensure they do not neglect the poor in favour of the middle class. If they are in touch with each other, they can further expand the network of young activists beyond any single programme.

CODESRIA, the Africa Leadership Centre, the Social Science Research Council, Future Generations, and the HF Guggenheim Foundation have taken the first steps to work together for the welfare of young African scholars, and we could do better at communicating and sharing our experiences. However, what I’ve seen of the best emerging scholarship gives me hope that the next generation have the tools and will to change their societies and to demand greater autonomy from donors.

Karen Colvard is program director, HF Guggenheim Foundation.

Comments (3)

Daniel Taylor

Karen Colvard makes very timely observations about growing capacity in Africa-based grantmaking, and in that she references the Future Generations experience. Hence, as the chief executive of Future Generations, a word of explanation. Traditionally we had a small grants program (small amounts and few grants) so alumni of our graduate school could apply ideas from their education and continue collaboration as they had had as students. By all measures the work was successful--so it would have been easy to continue. But, a change of control was given because of the evident capacity. An alumni task force was given the decisionmaking as to grant distribution. The first consequence was more participation from alumni in asking for grants--and with more applications quality went up. A second consequence was that alumni spotted how cost-savings could be built in--and so grant savings resulted. A third consequence is that donors who give to this fund see greater success--so the fund is growing. What is lost is that the USA-based Future Generations no longer takes the administrative overhead on a mini-grants project, also resulting in more funds to pass along to project work. Doing the right thing with money sometimes ends up being not in the advantage of the money-handler. Karen suggests that "The opportunities small programmes provide for young Africans to build up their own networks across the continent and undertake their own analyses of problems and opportunities should not be dismissed in favour of scale. " While this observation may be true in the short term, our growing experience is that mobilizing capacity among the constituency is the sustainable way to reach scale--and I believe that in this Karen will also agree. Her comments are right on.

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