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.