Let a hundred flowers blossom

Theo Sowa

Internationally, there is a huge range of philanthropic practices. Africa has a deep, generations-old tradition of philanthropy, albeit under-acknowledged. Indeed, we should be speaking about traditions of philanthropies, to allow for the range of intentions, activities and outcomes involved.

It would be great to get Stephen Dawson and Tony Elumelu in one room to explore their approaches to social change and development issues. Add Akwasi Aidoo, CEO of Trust Africa; Bisi Adeleye Fayemi, co-founder of the African Women’s Development Fund; and maybe Abena Amoah, CEO of Baobab Advisors in Ghana – and watch the fireworks begin. Believe me, there would be fireworks as the different world views were expounded. But there would also be overlap, particularly in relation to an end view they might all propound: a transformed Africa, truly independent and strong, economically, socially, politically and culturally. The difference would be in their ideas about the path you carve out to reach that end.

The interviews with Dawson and Elumelu highlight their belief that the private sector is crucial for the achievement of Africa’s potential. They place the private sector, or public-private collaborations, at the centre of initiatives to drive economic growth and social development. Dawson sees venture capital as more effective than venture philanthropy. Elumelu speaks of the importance of both types of investment, and how they can, and sometimes should, flow into each other. In particular, Elumelu’s conviction about the importance of African investment in African futures is one that resonates with me.

Yet, in my view, neither of these approaches is sufficient. We are witnessing amazing economic growth in Africa, but no corresponding improvement in the lives of Africans at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’. It is good to see Jacana expanding its investment in SMEs in Africa, which Dawson believes will lead to job creation. Yet without other measures in place, it won’t necessarily lead to the creation of safe, decent, sustainable jobs and strengthened economic security. The same can be said of the wider types of investment Elumelu favours. We should remember that the private sector has been operational in Africa for generations, with no greater success in driving positive social change and development than other sectors.

And we should be careful not to mistake economic investment for philanthropic activity. On the spectrum, I see venture capital as an economic investment, while impact investing and venture philanthropy, with their ‘double bottom lines’, bridge towards more traditional philanthropic interventions, which can be catalytic, strategic or purely humanitarian.  In order for entrepreneurs, indeed all Africans, to take advantage of the benefits of any of these forms of investment, we need to establish an enabling environment for the realization of the full range of human rights, including civil, political and economic rights. There are many issues crucial to that enabling environment (including strengthening governance in public, private and civil sectors, rooting accountability systems, protecting human rights) that are not likely to be addressed by private sector investment.

This is not to say that other types of intervention guarantee those outcomes either: I’ve seen philanthropic investment that has prolonged rather than ended economic insecurity for communities. Nor does all purely philanthropic activity address these ‘framework’ issues. Yet as long as some of it does, it seems shortsighted to categorize philanthropy as ‘charity’, useful only in humanitarian emergencies. We need the full range of philanthropic engagement, in collaboration with the public, private and civil society sectors, if Africa is to reach its full potential.

So should we welcome venture capital, impact investing and venture philanthropy? In the spirit of letting ‘a hundred flowers blossom’, yes. But we need other forms of investment in people and infrastructure just as much, if not more – and the success of the activities funded by Dawson and Elumelu will depend partly on those investments being made.

Which brings me full circle: the Aidoos and Adeleye-Fayemis continue to fight for investments in people, human rights and better governance in philanthropic and other spaces; the Amoahs of this world are bridging old and new philanthropic activity and economic interventions; and the Elumelus are bringing economic and philanthropic innovations. We need them all.  Even more, we need to maintain the African traditions of philanthropy, based on solidarity rather than surplus wealth, which have been core to community strength, sustainability, economic and social stability for generations.

Theo Sowa is CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund and chair of the African Grantmakers Network. Email ceo@awdf.org

Photo credit: Nyani Quarmyne

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