The world at a turning point. Will philanthropy rise to the task of the moment?


Briggs Bomba


The world today stands on the edge of a precipice – faced with a confluence of severe crises including deepening poverty and inequality, a looming ecological disaster, heightened risk of nuclear warfare, recurring natural disasters and a sharp deterioration of civic and democratic rights.

At its 2023 global gathering, the World Economic Forum framed it as ‘a critical inflection point’, lamenting the ‘sheer number of ongoing crises’. In a recent statement, the IMF announced that one-third of the world economy is expected to be in recession in 2023, further adding that ‘it would feel like recession for hundreds of millions of people’, even for countries not in recession. Equally, the latest Global Report on Food Crisis highlights that the world is ‘facing hunger at an unprecedented scale’, and points to a worsening global food security situation driven by conflict, economic shocks, the covid-19 pandemic, and climate change-related events such as the recurring droughts and floods. This admission of crisis by the lords of the current global is stunning and ironically underscores the concerns that progressive voices have always voiced.

Nowhere is the impact of these severe multidimensional global crises greater than in Africa. Following years of misplaced structural adjustment policies, and an exploitative global economic order that results in illicit financial flows and net outflow of wealth from the continent as well as endemic corruption and sheer mismanagement of national resources, most African economies are facing very difficult conditions including fast-rising cost of living and widespread unemployment, especially among youth. The situation is made worse by a crippling new debt crisis – UNCTAD reports that more than 60 per cent of African countries are facing debt distress. With practically no social protection mechanisms in place, the conditions are dire for the most vulnerable and poor in society and create growing risks of social fragmentation and instability.

Amidst great uncertainty and deep crisis of the global socio-economic and political order, hope lies in the undying fighting spirit of progressive constituencies and activists who have continued to insist that alternative futures are possible, and relentlessly work to steer humanity towards a more just and sustainable society. History teaches us that moments of deep crisis as acute as the current global political moment are also moments that tear into pieces the existing global order and shatter long-held norms, and open up a contestation over the future of society – paving way for new thinking about vision, values, principles, systems, institutions and structures.

However, we know from Martin Luther King that ‘change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability – it comes from continuous struggle’. We also know from history that moments of deep crisis are also moments of great danger because crisis also gives room for reactionary organising. There are enough examples of reactionary forces taking advantage of moments of crisis to spread fear and mobilize sections of society on divisive agendas based on ‘othering’ and allocating blame to false enemies – typically migrants, poor people, specific racial groups and other minorities. The rise of fascism in Europe and the rise of the right-wing Regan/Trump anti-poor/anti-black lives agenda as well as the current rise of populism in the US and Europe, and the rise of authoritarianism in Africa and other parts of the world point to this worrying tendency.

The big question of today is whether institutional philanthropy will rise to the occasion and meet progressive organizing by movements and social change leaders at the point of need. The moment calls for philanthropy to align with the progressive project of reimagining the future, building people power, and organizing for transformation and to equally make an audacious commitment to act at a much deeper and higher scale than ever before in solidarity with social change leaders on the frontlines of the most important struggles of our time.

Fundamentally, this means philanthropy that is rooted in core principles of solidarity with those leading change on the ground. It means philanthropy supports the agency of these constituencies. At a practical level, this entails an unprecedented commitment to provide increased resources and transformed models of giving to support to those organizing for progressive change.

Too often, philanthropy is divorced from the real-life struggles and dangers faced by activists on the frontlines. What we need is philanthropy that situates its role in relation to and in solidarity with these concrete struggles – and then devise appropriate mechanisms of support suited for those conditions. It must finally dawn that it’s philanthropy that needs to transform in order to be relevant to the reality of people’s struggles, not the other way round.

Ultimately, it means a philanthropic sector that has the courage to boldly question systemic injustices at the heart of the current global order as well as those within our field. This is particularly important in contexts of crisis which compound already existing disparities around gender, class, race, geography as well as economic and political power. Without this nuanced and interrogative lens, philanthropy cannot attain its transformative potential.

Being part of the Reimagining Pan African and Feminist Philanthropy Indaba happening now in Naivasha – co-organized by TrustAfrica and Urgent Action Fund-Africa – holds deep meaning for me because it provides the space to explore the above critical questions collectively and sincerely from lived experiences and work together in shaping a new narrative and transforming philanthropy and advancing a more just society!

Briggs Bomba is Programs Director at TrustAfrica. He is based in Harare, Zimbabwe

Tagged in: Re-Imagining Pan-African and Feminist Philanthropies

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