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The Future of Philanthropy: Africa’s Future

by Dr Odomaro Mubangizi



So much has been written about Africa’s development by policy makers, scholars, donors, government and development agencies. Not to be outdone, the World Bank, IMF and UNDP, as the major international development agencies that have taken Africa’s poverty challenge seriously, have come put with blue-prints and development reports and outlooks for decades.

In all these attempts to address the challenges of underdevelopment and poverty, the solution offered rotate around known issues and themes such as: economic growth, infrastructure, industrialization, poverty eradication, capacity building, aid, education, agriculture, food security, etc. The list continues but poverty eradication and development have remained elusive.

Having observed Africa’s political economy and the various interventions tried so far, I suggest a paradigm shift and propose a new philosophy of philanthropy as a secret to Africa’s future. What is the future of philanthropy in Africa? And can philanthropy be a viable alternative to all previous attempts to bring about sustainable development in Africa and thus ensure Africa’s future? I will suggest that philanthropy or charity is integral to Africa’s philosophy of Ubuntu and solidarity. It is an essential element of social capital and the much talked about economy of affection that often times gets misused in African countries through nepotism.

Without being excessively academic, it is important to situate the discourse on philanthropy in some conceptual and theoretical framework. Clearly, philanthropy falls into the conceptual and theoretical framework of social justice and social development. It is a normative and ethical approach to human development that takes values seriously. In management a related concept is corporate social responsibility. At a deeper level of discourse, philanthropy is closely linked to the process of globalization, global governance and global civil society. Philanthropic organizations such as NGOs, civil society organizations, and foundations are part of the global governance architecture that has been gaining currency since the fall of communism in the late 1980s. Even at the level of international relations theory, a concept of “soft power” has been invoked to demonstrate how states can win over other states by doing good and not just by use of hard power or force.

These concepts indicate that the statist model of development has outlived its usefulness. While we cannot all together get rid of the state, it is important to acknowledge the role of other non-state actors, which follow a different ethic or logic. After all, throughout history faith-based organizations have been providing education, health care, and relief relying on donations from people of good-will. There are even situations where state-failure has left faith-groups and NGOs as the only sources of support for distressed populations.


What is Philanthropy or Charity?

Philanthropy is best described than defined. There are different kinds of exchange the common one being trade as dictated by market rules. Willing buyers exchange with willing sellers. People also exchange their services and skills for a pay. But philanthropy is a one-sided affair where a willing giver donates to someone in need. What is given to the needy person or group can range from cash to goods, from time to care, from shelter to clothes, from food to medicine, etc. The main characteristic of philanthropy is that the one giving is motivated by sheer sympathy and a feeling of compassion and does not except any pay in return for the donation whatever form it takes. Philanthropy is an expression of solidarity with those in need. It is voluntary giving and an expression of charity.

The motives for philanthropy vary from individual to individual. Some give out of a religious motive. Some religions such as Islam and Christianity demand that members give alms to the needy from time to time. Others give out of a humanitarian consideration. A humanistic ethic can also motive one to donate to the needy.


State of Philanthropy in Africa

A short illustration will suffice. The year is 1997 and one family of 8 in South Western Uganda, with two elderly parents experiences the death of a member of the family who leaves behind four orphans. Later in 2000 another family member dies leaving behind four orphans. Just after 2 years in 2002 the mother and another family member die leaving behind two orphans. The remaining five family members decide to set up a foundation in 2004 to help the orphans and other needy children. The foundation starts with small donations from members to help set up an office. The foundation gets some help with Sewing machines from an international organization Caritas Itliana. Poor women (12 of them) are trained with some tailoring skills and they are given a sewing machine each. Seeing the demand for education that empowers orphans and needy children, the foundation decides to set up a nursery and primary school in 2008 in the Capital Kampala—Uganda. Some international donors get approached to supplement the minimal tuition that orphans and needy children pay. The school is now about 450 pupils and is still growing.

This true story of philanthropy demonstrates the great potential of charity to make a difference. A concrete need is felt. Some individuals decide to contribute some funds to the cause. Other donors are approached to help. This story is an example of many similar philanthropic initiatives happening across Africa. The lesson learnt from this story is that philanthropy does not require one to have a lot of extra income to be able to help. Secondly, other people are willing to help once some initiative has been taken. Charity attracts charity.

But it should be pointed out that while the culture of giving is as old of humanity in Africa, it has not yet taken on the proportion of large scale foundations the kind we find in developed countries such as the USA, Sweden, Germany, Italy and the UK. We are yet to have grant-giving NGO and foundations in Africa. We are yet to have the equivalent of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or Ford Foundation. The one exception is Aga Khan Foundation that has set up several projects in Africa. But this too is not a home-grown foundation.

This is not to suggest that there is no philanthropy in Africa. Philanthropy in African takes various forms. The first category is that international or global model of organizations such as Caritas, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Jesuit Relief Services (JRS), Lutheran World Federation, World Food Program, and Open Society Institute. These are part of the global civil society.

The second category is that of the indigenous foundations by some African elite. This is the model that is in its infancy stage and is the focus on this future. Some of these foundations are not strictly for philanthropic reasons since the founders are not yet self-reliant. If the founders can gain some income from such foundations, they would gladly do so. Such foundations can also be used as a way to access foreign donations by championing a charitable cause.

The third category of philanthropy is the less formal way of giving for specific events or projects such as marriage ceremonies, elections campaigns, ordination ceremonies and house construction. This model of philanthropy is a bit tricky to categorize since the ones giving somehow expect to be given in return at some future time. It is almost like giving a loan.

Mention of donations for elections raises an issue of monetization of elections in Africa where politicians see elected positions as a money-making venture. During election time in some countries, politicians are under extreme pressure to give all kinds of goodies to the electorate such as soap, sugar, salt and cash. Such a kind of politically motivated philanthropy is problematic in Africa. But voters have come to consider this as an opportunity to share the national cake at the expense of democracy.


Anthropology of Philanthropy

There is something profoundly cultural about philanthropy. Africans seem to like giving and conversely they like to receive. Many proverbs are invoked to support a culture of giving. The Kiga of South Western Uganda (a Bantu ethnic community) have several proverbs that encourage philanthropy. A few of these will suffice to make the point:

  • 1. Ezitaheire tizakyira. Translated as: Hands that do not give do not receive.
  • 2. Akeibo kaza owanyamugarura. Translated as: A basket goes to the one who returns it.
  • 3. Efura nkekirago. Translated as: Generous as a sleeping mat.
  • 4. Okuheire niwe akuteire efwa. Translated as: one who gives you is the one who makes you expect to receive more.
  • 5. Ameizi genshabano tigamar enziro. Translated as: Begged water does not make you clean.

It is also clear from the last proverb that while giving is good, one should not rely on it all the time since one cannot satisfy one’s needs through charity. The first two proverbs stress the value of reciprocity, meaning that giving is not a one way traffic.


Future of Philanthropy in Africa

There is a lot of giving that goes on in Africa but this needs to be rationalized to avoid what has been termed cronyism and patronage. The negative type of giving where politicians use public funds to win political support is clearly a bad model of philanthropy. What is envisaged are well designed foundations and trustees that can raise funds from willing donors, with the intention of helping the needy. There are thousands of millionaires in Africa especially in the private sector who can become grant-makers. Lots of private companies such as MTN, Equity Bank, Econet, Standard Chartered Bank, etc, are all in a position to set up foundations for philanthropic causes.

What would be the main focus for such foundations? Education stands out. In addition to giving tuition and scholarships, foundations can also set up educational institutions up to university level. I can envision several universities based on the philosophy of philanthropy offering quality but affordable education across Africa. Just a handful of entrepreneurs like Aliko Dangote from Nigeria, Cyril Ramaphosa from South Africa, Charles Mbire of Uganda, can manage to set up a pan-African university for bright but needy youth from across Africa.

Philanthropy should not be envisioned only in terms of cash donations. There are many talented Africans who can put their intellectual skills at the service of others by way of volunteering as teachers. Such volunteering with skills is now more likely with the use of e-learning and social networks. I can envision many online universities in Africa where volunteers teach for free or for a minimal fee. The contribution of well established universities would be to accredit degrees offered on line. This is the quickest way to end Africa’s challenge of illiteracy amidst costly education.

The category of potential philanthropists I very much worry about are our heads of state and politicians that accumulate a lot of wealth which they invest in foreign banks. Such funds hidden in foreign banks can go a long way in promoting philanthropy and in reducing Africa’s dependency on foreign aid. For this to happen a change of attitude has to happen among our politicians. We see former presidents of the USA such as Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter setting up foundations to help Africa, while our former and current presidents keep hiding their ill-gotten wealth in Swiss Banks. If a new culture of philanthropy is embraced in Africa as I envision it, our politicians would be the champions of charitable giving.


Political Economy of Philanthropy

The future of philanthropy in Africa looks bright given the large amount of remittances from Africans in diaspora. In some countries such as Uganda, it is estimated that remittances from diaspora have surpassed traditional exports in terms of national revenue. Most of the remittances are donations to help people back home. If these remittances can be well coordinated and invested well in the sectors such as quality higher education, and agriculture, African can easily escape the poverty trap. But this will require that giving be planned well to avoid wastage.

Merely giving is not enough. There are some models across Africa where communities used to provide school fees for needy children who would later on return the loan they were given after getting employed. Such an approach can be used even at the national level. Students who study under government scholarship can be requested to give back and by so doing cultivate culture of philanthropy. A culture of just giving handouts can create a culture of dependency.

The other approach whereby politicians give handouts for political support needs to be criminalized and instead be replaced by open and planned giving by way of fundraising for common projects that have long-term impact on the community.



Africa has for long relied on philanthropy from foreign countries, it is high time it developed home-grown models of philanthropy and grant-makers. There are enough resources in Africa for giving to the needy but the culture of giving has to be cultivated. Some few African elite have started setting up foundations such as Mo Ibrahim Foundation, this trend will continue and will gain currency. At is also anticipated that some former heads of state will soon realize that it is more gratifying to use their wealth to help the needy in their respective countries than to keep their wealth in foreign banks.

With increasing globalization, and many Africans in diaspora sending their remittances home, it is envisioned that more planned giving will help build well coordinated philanthropy. Many Africans in diaspora will also learn how philanthropic organizations work in developed countries. Such skills will be used in Africa in the future. Once Africans learn that charity is good business, the philosophy of philanthropy will have taken root. The economic model of profit and competition is not the only philosophy for human development—philanthropy is another alternative that best suits the African ethic of ubuntu.


Dr Odomaro Mubangizi

Lecturer, Dean of Philosophy Department, Editor of Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin:Capuchin Franciscan Institute of Philosophy and Theology

Read more about Dr Mubangizi and his view on being a futurist.


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