Peer dialogue: It’s time to fly…

Judith Symonds

Women in Africa president Hafsat Abiola talks to guest editor Judith Symonds and expert philanthropy consultant Julie Fry, about her work with the democracy movement in Nigeria, how the climate crisis is fundamentally a trust issue and about the central role of women in building the relationships necessary to achieve that trust.  

Judith Symonds: Hafsat, could you start by telling us about your relationship to philanthropy, democracy and the common good? 

Hafsat Abiola, President, Women in Africa

Hafsat Abiola: My father was a philanthropist who funded scholarships at universities and high schools and who later decided to go into politics because he felt his philanthropy was like pouring water into a basket. He was giving aid to people who would later return, still in need. He decided that the problem was that our country needed to be better governed, so, he ran for president and was elected but the military rejected the results and arrested him. My mum then decided to lead the movement for democracy. One result was the oil workers union went on strike. Nigeria is an oil-dependent economy and shutting the industry down nearly caused the government to collapse, so the military assassinated my mother. This was in 1996. 

Both my parents gave their lives so that things would improve in Nigeria, the notion that I would betray their sacrifice for money was obscene.

I joined the movement then, although I was in the US, because the leadership was forced into exile. We used the South African anti-apartheid movement as our template and worked with a lot of the same American organisations that helped in that struggle – the American Committee for Africa, the Africa Fund and global organisations like Amnesty International; and because of the oil link, Greenpeace, and Earth Action and even oil companies through their shareholders. Finally, in 1999, the military decided to transfer the country to democratic rule and released all the political prisoners but, unfortunately, not my dad. They said he died on the eve of his release.  

Hafsat at the 2023 Africa Climate Summit. Credit: Project Dandelion & Favier Productions, 2023

The country has had a democratic system since, so in a way, my parents’ sacrifice made a difference. That’s how I got started.  

Julie Fry: Did you make a conscious decision to take the democracy movement forward? 

I always felt that my mother passed on a baton to me to carry forward the movement. I didn’t want to let her down by dropping it.  

JS: How did your understanding of the common good evolve within your family?  

When I went back to Nigeria after the struggle for democracy, I realised that because there’s a lack of strong institutions in the country, you can pretty much do what you want, in fact, you are meant to abuse your opportunities. If you’re a politician, for example, and you get into the contract to supply schoolbooks, there’s a kickback. It’s not legal, but everybody does it.  

 JF: So why did you not do that, too? 

First, because both my parents gave their lives so that things would improve in Nigeria, the notion that I would betray their sacrifice for money was obscene. And it makes no sense. Playing with my father’s metaphor about the leaky basket, let’s assume that there is a container into which we pour water, which represents the collective wealth of a country. If one person makes a hole to create a pool for themselves, its impact will be small. But if everybody in the system is making holes, the container won’t retain any water. I understood that we must start plugging all those holes if the collective wealth of the society is to grow. From what I have read about pre-colonial African societies, prioritising the collective was the norm. Maybe that was because people relied on one another to do things – to build their homes men would come together to build while women gathered materials and provided food; to develop a skill, those that knew how would teach those seeking to learn; to care for the vulnerable, farmers would set aside some of their yield into a common pool that was called God’s granary and shared to those that needed it.  

In Africa, we have a clear sense of common good because we come from a tradition of doing things together with others, by using our connections to foster community.

African societies now have more of a money economy where everything is bought and sold, yet in some African countries, only 10 per cent of the population has formal employment and the need for money is creating a state of scarcity. Where does the money come from? For many, the answer is that everyone must look out for themselves, and even those who oversee the commonwealth abuse their office by being corrupt.  

JS: How would you describe the common good and how do you think democracy and the common good interact?  

In Africa, we have a clear sense of common good because we come from a tradition of doing things together with others, by using our connections to foster community. So, in pre-colonial society, when you’re born, you’re placed in an age and a gender group, so there’s a male group in order of ages and then there’s a female one. Each has its own leadership, and they take care of the group, and a council of decision-makers oversees all of them. It’s the job of that council, however it’s constituted, to manage the collective well-being of the group and all the different age groups understand that they also have a role to play in that system and they’re taught within their group how to do this, the skills that they need. As I said, if they want to build a house, they do it together; if there’s a bereavement in the family, the group comes together.  

Former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson talks at the Project Dandelion launch. Credit: WRTHY, 2023

As we started getting a western education, we became more individualistic, but we have begun to realise that being individualistic is not a strong position, so groups are beginning to reform. For example, groups that graduate together stay in touch through WhatsApp platforms and they raise a fund together. So if one of them is getting married, for example, they’ll designate two people from the group to attend on behalf of the rest, and from the fund, they allocate maybe five per cent towards helping the new couple build a marital home; and when another has a child or loses a parent, they contribute from the fund, and it helps.  

So, I think the common good is us staying connected, which is why I want to talk also about Project Dandelion, the project that I’m working on now. It’s a project of Connected Women Leaders, which was the brainchild of Pat Mitchell, the first woman to head a public broadcasting station in the US, and Ronda Carnegie, who was a member of the founding team of TED. They invited me to join them as a co-founder. At our inaugural meeting, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, challenged us to centre climate in our work because the climate crisis trumps everything else. So, over the last two years, we have been working to see what it means for women leaders to centre climate.  

If philanthropy is to be a catalyst for achieving the common good, it would need to help foster connection across diverse groups, so that we see ourselves as one human family.

We were given support from the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations to look at the climate ecosystem, to identify what is missing and what women leaders can contribute; and that’s how Project Dandelion got started. We launched a campaign in the six weeks from International Women’s Day to Earth Day on 15 April, looking at the causes women work on and how it is impacted by the climate crises. We are saying that all issues – whether it is education, whether it is food security, whether it is early child marriage – are climate issues, the crises will impact them all and women leaders need to engage.  

It’s going back to the vessel full of holes idea again. The more people we can connect with to block holes in their own reality, the closer we get to a stable, functional vessel. But there are a lot of holes. The gilets jaunes in France were angry because they had secured a little hole in the form of subsidised fuel and the government closed it. We can’t say to people, ‘sacrifice your whole livelihoods for the planet’. We must block the hole and transition to a clean energy economy while looking after each other. Project Dandelion aims to reach two billion people.  

JS: Why is it important to focus on women? 

Once a woman marries, she takes on a new identity, so women have been raised to be fluid about how we think about ourselves, and we’ve been socialised to be relationship oriented.  

The climate crisis is a communications crisis: where workers feel that they’re being sold out by politicians and big companies; and the Global South feels that, although it has over 88 per cent of the world’s people, much of the resources are being used by the Global North, but the poor are being told that their development aspirations may have to be put on hold. We must communicate the solutions that would allow the Global South to develop without harming the planet, solutions that are already proven but need to be scaled. Women are good at that, and we don’t need accolades. The accolade is that our great-grandchildren will live on a climate-safe planet.  

Hafsat with Project Dandelion co-founder Ronda Carnegie at the Skoll World Forum. Credit: Project Dandelion & Emily Moody, 2024

Leading up to the COP meeting, Mama Mary [Robinson] interviewed the COP president, Sultan Al Jaber, and asked him about fossil fuels. When he was hedging, she kept pushing on the need to commit to phase it out. As a grandmother looking out for her grandchildren, she was relentless. The video of that interview was a breakthrough. It has been viewed a billion times and contributed to the momentum that led to an agreement that fossil fuels would be phased down. This was the first time in the 30-year history of COP that the fossil fuel question would be addressed in the final agreement. So, to the question of why focus on women, at Project Dandelion we say, it is because when women lead, action follows.  

JF: In achieving the common good, where can philanthropy be a barrier and where can it be a catalyst?  

Aside from taxation, philanthropy enables those with resources to direct flows to those that they feel a connection to, which as philanthropy data shows us leaves out so many groups.  

If philanthropy is to be a catalyst for achieving the common good, it would need to help foster connection across diverse groups, so that we see ourselves as one human family. A lot of philanthropy is not fulfilling its role of awakening in us this awareness of our connectedness. One way to do that is by investing in women who can nurture our sense of connection.  

I have a godmother, Mama Lynne Twist, who is a philanthropist herself and has guided other philanthropists in raising hundreds of millions of dollars over decades for different causes from ending poverty to supporting Indigenous people. She always says that humanity is like a bird which has two wings. Unfortunately, it has been flying using the male wing for decades, if not centuries. No matter how energetically men may swing their wing, humanity will inevitably continue to go around in circles. Humanity needs women to be strong enough to lift our wing. I believe we are at the point where women can do that now so that, finally, humanity can fly forward together.  

Judith Symonds, Sciences Po

Julie Fry, Dot to Dot Consulting

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