African philanthropy on the move: celebrating the AGN Assembly

Barry Smith

Over the last several months, I have had the pleasure of being part of the organizing team for the Second Biennial African Grantmakers Network (AGN) Assembly – What’s New? What’s Now? What’s Next: Growing African Philanthropy – held in Johannesburg, with satellite events, from 29 October to 2 November 2012. So I am in no way impartial about the success of the Assembly last week. But I can honestly say that the breadth, depth and energy of the proceedings exceeded all my expectations. To be present was to witness a vibrant and expanding movement for African philanthropy, deeply committed to a vision of active citizenship and social justice. It was fitting that the Assembly took place in the restored Turbine Hall in central Johannesburg, a former power station that was reclaimed by Assembly participants as their engine room for change.

Building on the landmark founding AGN Assembly in Nairobi (2010), the Johannesburg Assembly was unprecedented in its scale and representation of African philanthropy, with nearly 400 participants and speakers from more than 25 countries in 30 structured conversations – and countless informal ones. The feeling of the Assembly was one of Africans taking ownership of philanthropy on their own ground, on their own terms. Delegates represented all of Africa’s regions, its rich diversity and key players in philanthropy, civil society, business and government and regional organizations. Breaking from traditional ‘talking heads’ conference mode, the 75 speakers (54% of whom were women and 46% men) engaged with participants and each other in real dialogue, showcasing perspectives and experience from across the continent. Several non-African guests remarked on the impressive spirit of inclusive participation on display.

The content of the plenary and parallel sessions was wide-ranging, from landscaping African philanthropy to building common purpose, intergenerational dialogue, a post-Millennium Development Goal agenda for African development, inclusive business, accountability in philanthropy, building a culture of giving and citizen action, and much more. Focus sessions examined key issues like the role of faith-based giving, the emergence of philanthropic leaders from the arts and sports, links with the ‘development effectiveness’ debate, the challenges of building an enabling environment for philanthropy in Africa, and the growth of volunteering. Recurring themes throughout were social justice, civic engagement and African leadership.

In her clarion message at the opening of the Assembly, leading African stateswoman Graça Machel set the tone by calling on delegates to redefine philanthropy for Africa – ‘to write our own story of African philanthropy’. She proposed that defining features of that story should go well beyond grantmaking to embody African values of empathy, humility and solidarity.

Mamphela Ramphele, founder of the Citizen’s Movement for Social Change, challenged us to take on the challenge of promoting good governance and transforming the relationship between states and citizens. Africa, she argued, has generally failed to move beyond a narrow postcolonial paradigm of citizenship. It is time for ‘a revolution of the mind’, for citizens to reclaim their power. Philanthropy has a significant part to play in laying the groundwork for social justice through civic education and democracy building. Speakers from North Africa reinforced that message with their stories fresh from the youth-led citizen movements forged in the Arab Spring.

The Assembly provided the setting for the first ever African Philanthropy Award, established to celebrate and recognize African philanthropic initiatives that are innovative in leveraging social and financial capital, that are sustainable, and that signify renewed African agency in solving Africa’s problems. The Award, given in conjunction with the Annual Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards, recognized the innovative potential of community foundations by honouring Ms Marwa El Daly, the founder and chairperson of Maadi Community Foundation in Egypt, as its inaugural recipient. The judges applauded Ms El Daly’s efforts ‘to mobilize communities and channel traditional cultural practices of charity into participative community development’. The Maadi Community Foundation is the first of its kind in Egypt, and is shifting the strong culture of local giving from one that addresses immediate crises to one that is more transformational and long term.

The AGN Assembly exemplified the name of one its plenary sessions, ‘The Big Lekgotla’. In Southern Africa, ‘lekgotla’ means ‘meeting place’ and commonly refers to an inclusive community gathering for purposeful dialogue. It is no accident that this week of ‘legkotla’ provided space for other important events, including the AGN’s Annual General Meeting, the Southern Africa Trust/Mail & Guardian Drivers of Change Awards, a meeting of the South African Private Philanthropy Circle, a networking meeting of African grantmaker associations, a workshop on social justice philanthropy, a meeting of the ‘Ikoyi Initiative’ of leading African-owned foundations, and a WINGS Africa and Arab region consultation on improving accountability in international philanthropy.

Other bloggers have covered more of the content of the Assembly. I want particularly to celebrate the occasion and its significance. Rarely can it be said of conferences that what happened in the sessions was just as compelling as what happened in the corridors. As my colleague David Cutler of the Baring Foundation observed, it is unusual to be able to describe an event as both intensely serious and joyful. These things can be said of the AGN 2012 Assembly, and I left with the sense of a philanthropy community coalescing across Africa’s divides, growing in confidence, claiming its place and setting its agenda for a better, fairer future.

Barry Smith has recently joined Social Development Direct, an international provider of social development consultancy and research services, as Senior Consultant (Voice and Accountability).

Event: African Grantmakers Network Assembly

Date: 29 October-2 November 2012 

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

Organizer: African Grantmakers Network

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