Decolonizing Aid is not Supposed to be Easy

Are funders really prepared to put in the work to shift the balance of power when it comes to their giving on the continent? I am not totally convinced.

Over the years, people have reached out to me asking for recommendations for an Africa-based organisation to which they can give their funds. The first question, I typically ask back is: which country are you looking to work in? The answer is typically vague because, to many people in the funder world, Africa is one homogenous entity, with no political, religious, or social differences. And this unicorn partner they are looking for can execute flawlessly in this borderless, mythical land.

The important thing is they made the call to me, ticked a box, and can say with genuine regret that they tried… maybe next time.

If you want real impact, giving shouldn’t start with what’s best for the giver, but it so frequently does. Yes, I agree it’s easier to have one blanket continental strategy, easier to give that huge grant to one trusted partner, and easier not to manage multiple smaller entities in far-flung locations. ‘Easier’ means the balance of power remains in your favour and that equity is not inevitable in your outcomes. Easier has become a word that I try very hard to avoid in the grantmaking we do.

Easy isn’t an option

We are one of a handful of African-based funders and because of that, we should be pioneering new approaches to the traditions of giving on the continent. We were very clear from the outset that easy wasn’t an option.

We analysed the data around our grants, and we spoke to the community we wanted to serve – creatives and media on the continent. What we found gave us food for thought. In some ways, it turned out that we were not so different from the funders who prioritised ‘easy’.

For example, our grantees were from the usual suspect countries, not where the need or demand was necessarily greatest. It was easier (and more fun) to grant to projects and organisations in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. Niger, Angola, and Chad felt distant and just harder.

Of the 54 countries in Africa, our giving had only reached just over a quarter… yet we called ourselves pan-African. It spurred us to think more deliberately about how to increase representation in our partner base.

How our grantmaking practice has evolved

It starts with language. As an English-speaking team, it was easier to ignore the 21 countries whose official language is French.  So, we’ve had to update our application form to offer French (and Portuguese) translations. We now accept audio and video applications because we know the ability to present your case for funding in writing alone can put some people – especially creatives at a disadvantage.

One of the most important things we heard was that beyond funding, there was more value in the networks and the community that we could provide. So we are deliberately and painstakingly building a community, connecting our partners to each other, networking them to opportunity, and upskilling them in ways that support their ability to sustain themselves.

We consistently heard that ‘you have to know someone to get funding’. We wanted to prove this wasn’t true for us, so we announce our grant cycles on very public platforms. It’s harder – dealing with 1,000 applications is a big workload for a small team. But it’s an important part of making our funds accessible and ensuring we don’t keep partnering with the same people in the same countries. As of today, over 50 per cent of our partners are receiving grant funding for the very first time. This is a role we are playing in developing a pipeline for other funders.

We know that big-ticket grants often eliminate local organisations, so we launched our Kekere Storytellers Fund which gives out between $500 and $2,000. It has been critical in providing diversity and led us to some great people in Somalia, Madagascar and Guinea.

Grantmaking to ‘unknown’ and ‘untested’ partners has meant that we have taken on more risk. Where more traditional funders look only at financial statements, tax certificates and project management experience, we’ve had to be more creative in our due diligence processes especially for the small grants. We’re using social media, not only to amplify our partner’s work, but also to show progress and keep them publicly accountable for the funds we have provided. More risk, more reward – isn’t that what philanthropy is about?

And we’re learning, but not in the way many funders use that phrase as an excuse for inaction. We are learning by doing, and this is just the beginning for us. As an African funder, we are trying to be the change we want to see. We don’t have the answers, but we are out there asking the questions, listening, and searching for better, more equitable ways to give – ways that avoid the well-trodden easy path. I assure you the effort can sometimes be exhausting, but we remain committed.

It’s true what they say… the effort does yield its own rewards.

Moky Makura is the Executive Director of Africa No Filter, a donor collaborative working to shift harmful and stereotypical narratives about and within Africa.

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