An indiscriminate search for the meaning of Philanthropy on any given street in Africa, will most likely solicit a range of answers from vague allusions to a blank stare. But if the question were rephrased as an inquiry into whether these participants were beneficiaries or benefactors of charitable causes within their social circles, an affirmative response would be more likely. The reason for this is quite obvious: Whereas the concept of philanthropy is traditionally understood as a formal transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor, in Africa, it is peculiarly understood as an obligation on everyone to be their brother’s keeper – the concept of Ubuntu. As such, philanthropy in Africa largely transcends the rigidities of formalized approaches to giving and instead takes on a grassroots approach which flows outward from family to society.
This is not to say that formal structures are wholly alien to African philanthropy. Indeed, a number of African philanthropists such as Aliko Dangote, Patrice Motsepe and Tony Elumelu have supported philanthropic causes by channelling funds through government agencies, foundations and other civil society organizations (CSOs), and they continue to do so through established frameworks within the continent. True to the spirit of Ubuntu, these African philanthropists largely give to causes within their respective countries.
The full extent of the impact of informal charity in Africa may never be ascertained, as an interplay of various factors make data collection in this regard a rather Herculean task. At an informal level, “giving” in many African cultures is a discrete affair and public displays of charity are frowned upon. In addition, many African countries do not give philanthropies tax incentives, and according to a synthesis report by the African Philanthropy Network, even where a country does offer tax incentives to CSOs, the organisation has to apply for tax exempt status and this process is shrouded in layers of bureaucracy. In other instances, the lack of adequate governmental support for CSOs (under which philanthropies fall) takes on the form of outright hostility, with such entities often being labelled as agents of Western powers hell-bent on subverting their national governments. Consequently, such challenges force these entities to keep their gifts and other financial dealings outside the formal confines.
There is however some empirical data collected by research entities like Bridgespan Group and the African Philanthropy Forum which paints a fine picture of the impact of philanthropy on the continent, and according to their findings, African philanthropists in 2020 gave seven times the annual average of gifts than they did in the last ten years combined, and this was largely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic which worsened inequalities. Such generosity on the part of African philanthropists in the face of crisis is not new, with previous efforts being made in the fight against Ebola in 2014, and cyclone Idai in 2019.
The foregoing research also found that a substantial part of the large gifts made by African philanthropists was channelled towards addressing the drivers of social inequality. This included tackling structural problems such as unemployment, hunger, poverty and issues around access to education and health. From this, it becomes readily apparent that African philanthropy is making its contribution towards social equality on the continent, despite the ongoing narrative.
A number of challenges have prevented African philanthropy from realising its full potential on the continent. Some of these are inherited biases, while others are self-inflicted injuries. To illustrate the element of inherited biases, Angela Odour Lungati, a community builder and technologist, asserts:
“There’s this lens … that you’re from Africa and people might have some misconceptions about your ability to manage money really well. That becomes a blocker.”
Some of these recurring biases are fuelled by previous experiences of philanthropists who made gifts to public entities or non-governmental organizations and thereafter allegations of embezzlement, nepotism, conflict of interest and incompetence emerged. Whereas these shortcomings are not exclusive to Africa, they are amplified in this case by the historical biases from both within and without.
African philanthropist ought to get a deeper understanding on the way they are perceived by the communities they serve, as well as the benefactors they have both on the continent and abroad, particularly the West. Solutions such as internal capacity building, brand management and partnerships with consultants that are alive to the context of these projects and causes, only start to make sense when there is a recognition that there is a fire in the thatch.
Away from ultra-rich individuals like Strive Masiyiwa or the legacy foundations they establish, can the random pedestrian on Kampala road fit the bill of an African philanthropist? Ubuntu says yes! In so far as they readily contribute to a rural cousin’s school fees, or send some money to pay for a sick relative’s medical bills, or contribute in any way towards assisting a neighbour that has fallen on hard times, then yes, they are philanthropists. It is the collective power of such average individuals, each in their own small way, that reduces social inequality across the board.