Two sides of philanthropy in Africa

The phrase ‘philanthropy in Africa’ has often tended to conjure up two quite diverse images. On the one hand, there are the well‑intentioned multi‑million dollar budgets of large (often international) foundations. On the other, the well‑established cultures and practice of small grassroots‑contributions and systems of social solidarity at the community level – the significance of which has never really been tapped by the formal development sector.

Across the continent, however, a new generation of local philanthropic institutions is emerging, some seeded with money from outside the continent, others entirely home‑grown – and all seeking to draw on local resources and tap into different forms of wealth, which include cash but also include other, less tangible, forms of social capital such as trust and credibility. These organizations seek to occupy the spaces between large, formal philanthropy and more local level mobilization of communities and their assets, and to build bridges between the two. At the same time they also promote a form of development which is community‑led and community‑owned.

Although the first self‑described ‘community foundations’ may only have been established in Africa in the late 1990s, the idea was not falling on fallow turf but rather offered a more formalized framework for naturally occurring traditions of giving and sharing. Those traditions are well encapsulated in the African philosophy of Ubuntu, defined by Liberian peace activist, Leymah Gbowee, as ‘I am what I am because of who we all are.’ The idea of Ubuntu means that you are known for your generosity. Instead of thinking of ourselves as individuals, separated from one another, we are connected and what anyone does affects the whole world. Generosity spreads outwards in a ripple that benefits the whole of humanity.

Africa is a continent rich with traditions of solidarity and reciprocity. In Kenya, for example, the practice of harambee as a form of local fundraising to cover the costs of funerals, weddings and school fees, was well‑established and drew heavily on a local culture of giving which had a social as well as a financial aspect.6 And in Southern Africa, ilima (coming together to help those without) was a mechanism for the sharing of communal labor for harvesting and house‑building.

A recent report by Jenny Hodgson and Barry Knight, “Mapping a Baseline of African Community Foundations” focuses on this group of institutions. They include community foundations, other types of community philanthropy institutions and local foundations – all operating throughout the African continent.

 

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