is philanthropy good for africa?

The big question recently revisited, yet again, by the involvement of Oprah and Western celebrities conducting what some call “super-philanthropy”: is philanthropy good for Africa’s long-term development? My answer is yes, but a certain use of philanthropy. When the West tries to help the Rest (Africa) with a big fix or big plan there is most often failure and cynical backlash. Big plans do not work, as the economist William Easterly has helped me realize through his new book, The White Man’s Burden. He writes that the Planners need to give more power to the Searchers. Searchers being the people who look for the small-scale, community-based, effective projects that actually reach people in need. Searchers are the people on the ground implementing programs that actually get the $4 bed nets to families that need them and the easily accessable medicines for preventive diseases. I would categorize Oprah as a Planner, a celebrity Planner at that. She has heritage and roots in Africa and so she thinks she has a good reason to use her massive amounts of capital to shove solutions in the face of Africans.

On the BBC this question is asked and a dialogue has been opened to get the views of readers. One commenter thanks Oprah, but then says, “But you know what? Your deed is like throwing a gallon of water on the Sahara desert.” A beautiful metaphor for the Planners approach. What philanthropy needs is the opposite approach – pumping a gallon of water to the people in need of water in the Sahara desert. More effective investment philanthropy is needed if philanthropy in Africa is to get a better wrap. Many commenters expressed the thought that they would rather see no giving as opposed to seeing funds given to goverments. This takes us back to Searchers idea, give the funds to the people and organizations implementing effective programs that reach people.

This brings me back again to the work of the Acumen Fund supporting social entreprenuerial projects that are based in communities. Read one of the Acumen Fellows’ blog. Partners in Health implementing programs building health infrastructure in countries where the infrastructure is inadequate and in need of philanthropic support to reach people in need. As for the question, I believe that philanthropy is good for Africa’s long term development as long as it is directly aiding the people who truly need it. I cannot speak for a continent, but I would say Africa does not need celebrity Planners with big ideas to try misguided efforts. What Africa needs is a commitment by Planners to support searchers who are African and who are making sustainable advances for their communities. Likewise we need potential Western aid-givers, organizations, and foundations to work with African communities to invest in effective projects.

I highly recommend reading The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly to receive a great critique of Western aid agencies and efforts to aid. The book also gives a great presentation of what needs to be supported and implemented. It tells compelling stories of those who need the help and can benefit from the West’s effective philanthropy and engagement.

interesting things to note in the new year for africa

The $100 laptop computer project was launched this year. The goal is to put computers in the hands of people in the ‘developing’ world. The inventor, Nicholas Negroponte, says, “I’m 62 years old. I’ve seen massive changes in people’s lives through technology over the years.” In the next two weeks three more African countries are expected to sign on to the plan. The laptop has built in wireless capabilities. Maybe Mr. Negroponte can partner with American Millionaire, Greg Wyler, who is working to make Africa wireless starting with Rwanda. (post) Many note, as I do as well, that when you are starving and hungry, striken by disease, and have no clean water – what good is the internet or a laptop. I am not one to say that the internet does not hold great educational possibilities, but how many people will die before even accessing the webpage on wikipedia about their own country?

Keeping a promise to Nelson Mandela, Oprah has opened her ‘Leadership’ Academy for girls in South Africa. Girls are selected based on their potential from families with a monthly income less than $700. With a huge showing from Western celebrities I wonder if this initiative will be copied. The access to education in South Africa is the best of any African country being nearly universal, why is there a need for what some call an ‘elitist’ academy that cost over $40 million to build? A very good question as still thousands of African children do not even have books, pens, paper, classrooms, teachers, healthcare or security to become educated. “We have to change the way they think,” she said. Time out – we need to change the way we think? With a beauty salon shoving American materialist values at these 152 South African girls how can she believe that their minds are the ones needing change. We may need to help their minds develop with access to good education, but we do not need to change them. Yet another example of the Western mindset. Oprah is to open a school for 1000 boys later this month. I hope Oprah will begin to focus on reaching the unreached people in her next African venture.

Effective as of the new year, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, a Ghanian native, is no longer the head man for the UN. Annan served two terms as Secretary General and many say he quietly and effectively brought Africa to the forefront. As an African he worked to raise issues in Africa without being too baised to one side (not giving too much to African leaders and not sucking up to the West). His tenure saw the creation of the Human Rights Council to take over human rights monitoring, the US’s diplomatically unilateral approach to the Iraq War, and the current test of Darfur, Sudan for the UN’s new powers to act, along with many reforms and calls for reform of the UN system. His tenure was not without scandal or missed opportunities, but I am sure no one during his term would have faced any different challenges. With Annan now gone I wonder if the UN will remain as focused on the Darfur genocide and other African and ‘developing’ world issues, such as the Millennium Development Goals. However, with hope, the new UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has set the conflict in Darfur as a priority of his term. Kofi Annan will be greatly missed, and not missed by some, but I still feel he has much greatness to offer Africa.

Lastly, Somalia – the only true failed state? (Failed states are based on Western ideas and ideals, but Somalia seems trapped in conflict) What will come of the country as US military trained Ethiopian government forces supporting the ‘Somalian Government’ take control from the Islamic leaders? How will the peace be kept and how many refugees will flood surrounding countries? How will aid agencies and the UN respond? Be sure to read your news and from multiple sources to get the full view, which sadly is not possibly unless you are actually in Somalia, but at least be knowledgable. Here is the latest BBC article.