Big philanthropy and policy change in Africa

Halima Mahomed

‘Africa is not a country’ goes the popular saying, and broad generalizations about the continent – including the philanthropy of its wealthy – are extremely tricky. Discussions about the power of African philanthropy in relation to policy change are thus by nature varied, both between and within different African countries, and need to be seen within context. However, the potential and use of philanthropic power generally is not an issue that is raised often enough: too often we celebrate the increasing African philanthropy in and of itself without adequately interrogating the power of philanthropy and, indeed, the philanthropy of the powerful.

When discussions about the influence of philanthropy on policymaking take place in the global north, critiques tend to revolve around placing a check on philanthropy’s influence. Is philanthropy accountable as it shifts the development priorities of citizens and states? Is it wielding excessive power over development and policy decisions? On the African continent, we have a different dilemma: that of wealthy individuals’ philanthropic power being underused. In fact, there is a big contrast between the power that such philanthropy can potentially wield on the continent, and the actual philanthropy of those who are powerful because of their wealth. This may seem contradictory given the many stories emerging about Africa’s growth and its philanthropists’ largesse, but perhaps some context may help.

The potential power of Africa’s wealthy

The African continent has been on an upward growth path. Africa’s GDP has risen from just above 2 per cent per year during the 1980s and 1990s to above 5 per cent in 2001–14. Although this has slowed a bit in the last two years, further strengthening is expected in 2017.[1] Driven in the main by extractive industries, financial services, construction and real estate, this growth has brought about progress and wealth creation in areas that lend themselves to wealth concentration rather than distribution. While there has been some limited trickle-down, the proceeds of this growth have, by and large, not been equitably spread among the continent’s people. While poverty remains high and inequality is increasing, concentrated pockets of wealth are still the norm: 2016 data from Research and Markets reflect that the continent now has more than 165,000 high net worth individuals (HNWIs), with combined wealth of US$860 billion. The number of HNWIs has seen a more than 145 per cent increase between 2001 and 2014 (more than twice the pace of the rest of the world) and is expected to increase considerably over the next decade.[2]

Next Special feature to read

Foundations or philanthropy: what’s in a name? Interview with Gerry Salole

Charles Keidan