Over the past five years, various crises have undermined cooperation and cohesion in the West, as Brexit’s issues to the election of Donald Trump have weakened the authority of European and North American states. At the same time, funding levels for international development agencies have fluctuated, as international aid comes under attack from the right in key states like the United Kingdom, Australia, Denmark, and the United States.
These issues have fed into a growing interest in African philanthropy as a distinctive social, economic, and political force for transformational change on the continent. Whilst there has been some progress in improving livelihoods, protecting human rights, and increasing democratic participation across the continent, many Africans still suffer from poverty, insecurity, and political repression. As international actors and African states have proven unable to address many of these issues, commentators have begun to suggest that indigenous forms of charitable giving may be the key to solving the many challenges that the continent faces.
There is already a growing number of prominent African businesspeople who have attracted attention through their high-profile philanthropy, fuelling interest in this emerging form of development funding. Zimbabwean entrepreneur and reputed “richest man in Africa”, Strive Masiyiwa is well known for his philanthropic education programmes and global health work. Other prominent examples include Nigerian business magnate Tony Elumelu, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and Ethiopian model and businesswoman Liya Kebede. In 2017, the Financial Times of London ran a series of articles examining this new charitable class of wealthy Africans, suggesting that they might hold the key to Africa’s future.
However, academics researching African philanthropy argue that it represents more than the emergence of African counterparts to Bill Gates and George Soros. Some suggest that African forms of giving are rooted in cultural practices that are indigenous to the continent, providing an alternative blueprint for sustainable development and democratic society. According to research commissioned by Senegal-based foundation Trust Africa, African philanthropy has the opportunity to provide agency to African people, creating trusted institutions that allow for accountability and cooperation, which cannot be built by Western aid organizations and foundations.
A prominent scholar of African philanthropy, Bhekinkhosi Moyo, argues that these values already exist in African societies, drawn from cultures that value cohesion, reciprocity and a relational understanding of the self. One of the most cited examples is the Southern African philosophy of Ubuntu, which argues that the identity comes from relationships with others, requiring respect and care for the community, rather than an individualistic pursuit of wealth or power.
There is also much research that rejects the common perception in the West that philanthropy is something that is “done to” Africa by showing that small-scale charitable giving is a crucial part of a multitude of cultures on the continent. From familial networks of giving that stretch into the diaspora to local community relationships that support people with education and health costs, many African societies are sustained and nurtured by the charity of ordinary people rather than billionaire philanthropists. This way of living contrasts with the individualistic conception of charity, which predominates in Western societies, suggesting that African forms of philanthropy provide the potential to move beyond established forms of development and democracy promotion.
This form of philanthropy could offer a substantial challenge to the current global political economy in Africa, which is dominated by the relationship between African states and powerful outside interests, including international organizations, NGOs, Western development agencies and emerging global powers like China.
Emerging African philanthropy institutions, like Trust Africa, African Women Development Fund, and Southern African Trust, seek to build on a community level, culturally driven forms of philanthropy to drive new forms of development intervention designed, directed and delivered by organizations on the continent. They have the potential to offer a new, transnational, African network of support for projects that fight for development and democracy from a community level. This could be a significant challenge to the status quo, suggesting the potential for continental authorities with the resources and strategic planning necessary to impact specific cases significantly while co-ordinating across national boundaries.
These types of philanthropic institutions are still relatively rare across the continent and cannot call on more established Western foundations’ huge financial resources. However, there is a growing infrastructure to support African based philanthropy, including professional networks like the African Philanthropy Forum and African Philanthropy Network, which organize conferences and produce new research to support this emerging sector. There is also a growing field of academic research, including the recently launched Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment at Wits Business School in Johannesburg, South Africa.
African philanthropy is still overshadowed by its larger Western counterparts. Whether institutions on the continent can move beyond their current status to take a central role in African development initiatives remains to be seen. More importantly, it is still unclear if an African development landscape dominated by African philanthropists would offer something substantially different from the current arrangements. The type of community-level charitable giving that has been identified in research has also yet to be linked to more systematic, continent-wide efforts to promote transformational change. Will this type of philanthropy remain as a means to supplement failing government services and the work of international NGOs, or will it develop into an engine for real, sustainable change?
Advocates for African philanthropy still need to demonstrate that it has the ability to take a central role in providing real advances in democracy and development in Africa. Nevertheless, the numerous commentators, academics, professionals and volunteers working in this growing sector have signalled that they have the potential to contribute to a fundamental re-alignment in the decades-old structure of international development and to create space for a new, transnational African approach.
This article first appeared in CIPS Centre for International Policy Studies