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Economic Development

The Promise of Social Investment in Africa

Why philanthropists need to continue to invest in and alongside African organizations and leaders.

In the process of drawing parallels between current Africa-focused philanthropy and the colonial era, author Paul Theroux’s recent article, “Africa’s Aid Mess,” ignores much of the success of high-potential organizations and initiatives driven by Africans and philanthropists in Africa and across the globe. Theroux paints a depressing picture of Africa as “poorer, sicker, less educated, and more badly governed” than when he taught in Malawi (then a British “protectorate”) 50 years ago. In contrast to this negative image of a homogenously downtrodden continent, our experience is that Africa is on an upward trajectory of economic development, growth, opportunity, dynamism, and change. A diverse spectrum of mostly African entrepreneurs, philanthropists, artists, students, leaders, civil servants, doctors, nurses, and teachers are building its success. Instead of philanthropists shying away from investing in Africa, we encourage them to invest in these changemakers and the initiatives they are leading.

Africa’s Victories

While Africa still needs philanthropy—just like other continents—it is also a place that can provide successful returns on philanthropic investments. Despite Theroux’s testimony otherwise, successful investment in African agendas and partnerships with African leaders (in both the public and private sectors) have made much of Africa richer, healthier, better educated, and better governed than it has been in the past.

A Case Study in Ethiopia

Ahead of schedule and against the odds, Ethiopia achieved its Millennium Development Goal 4 (MDG4): It reduced under-age-5 mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2012. Under the leadership of former Minister of Health, and current Minister of Foreign Affairs Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and his successor Minister Kesete Admasu, bi-lateral and multi-lateral aid, government funding, and hundreds of NGOs (many funded by philanthropists Mr. Theroux chastises) coordinated to rapidly build a functioning Ethiopian health system—one that currently relies on 35,000 government-salaried Health Extension Workers and tens of thousands of female volunteers to extend health services to vast and rural Ethiopia. This story counters various arguments made by Theroux, including the view that Africans are not as inspired as their counterparts in the United States to volunteer, that aid is ineffective, and that African public servants lack leadership skills—all sweeping generalizations that paint an inaccurate and unfair picture that closer examination refutes.

Ethiopia’s MDG4 Success: A Trend Not an Exception

Investments in the efforts of African leaders, NGOs, and civil society organization have radically changed the prospects for many women and children throughout Africa. Death from measles is down by 85 percent since 1990. The estimated toll of 6 million under-5 deaths in 1990 is down by 40 percent, and the rate of reduction has doubled in the last few years. More than three-quarters of children now have access to primary education. Since 2009, overall new HIV infections have decreased by 34 percent, and 670,000 infections in babies born to HIV positive mothers have been averted. These success stories are evidence that smart philanthropic investment in African leaders and institutions changes lives.

Investing In and Alongside African Organizations and Leadership

Statements Theroux makes, such as “Africa boasts at least 55 verified and somewhat detached billionaires” and “the spirit of volunteerism that vitalizes foreign teachers in Africa has not created a similar enthusiasm among enough Africans themselves,” silences the philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, mutual aid, and volunteerism that permeate much of Africa just like any other continent.

In our everyday work at the ELMA Philanthropies, we regularly see examples that challenge this depiction of Africans as uncaring and not philanthropic. Currently, we are funding three philanthropic challenge grants as “leverage” to support fundraising from a range of African donors, including university alumni, businesses, and high-net-worth individuals from across the continent. All three challenges are seeing early success. Within one quarter of the challenge grant period, Africa University has already received approximately $140,000 in commitments, largely from alumni, individual donors, students, faculty, and staff—and all African. LEAP Science and Maths School has received three commitments totaling approximately $150,000 from South African trusts within the first 6 months of the challenge grant. The African Leadership Academy (ALA)—highlighted in Theroux’s “Five of the Best” list—recently received a donation of approximately $500,000) from a prominent African businessman; this triggered partial forgiveness of a no-interest loan to support ALA’s long-term sustainability as a truly African institution.

Theroux’s article is silent on not only African philanthropists, but also thousands of Africans across sectors and professions who, like Ethiopia’s Health Extension Workers, choose career paths that involve giving back. Africa’s so-called “real helpers” (Theroux’s term) are the business executives, social entrepreneurs, doctors, artists, community health workers, teachers, professors, and every day people that regularly give their time and resources to improve the continent. Just a few examples:

We agree with Theroux: “Africa has the schools, the money, and the resources to fix its own problems.” This is why ELMA seeks to partner with, and invest in and alongside African resources to ensure impact and sustainability. Africa is a continent filled with need, but it’s also filled with champions in every sector of society. If we support Africa’s current positive growth trajectory, in another 50 years we will see that African communities and individuals are healthy, educated, and leading the world. The challenge of investing in Africa, philanthropically and otherwise, is an opportunity. And it’s worth keeping in mind the wise counsel of one of history’s greatest statesmen, the recently deceased Nelson Mandela: “Vision without action is only dreaming. Action without vision is only passing time. Vision with action can change the world.”

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COMMENTS

  • Alison Kelley's avatar

    BY Alison Kelley

    ON December 11, 2013 03:34 PM

    Thank you for highlighting Africa’s victories and opportunities, in contrast to Theroux’s pessimism. 

    Theroux argues that “the real helpers are not the schemers and grandstanders of the eponymous family foundations or charities; they are nameless ill-paid volunteers who spend years in the bush, learning the language and helping in small-scale manageable projects, digging wells, training mid-wives, teaching villagers that unprotected sex spreads HIV…”  Your post rightly highlights Africa’s “real helpers” as not only “ill-paid volunteers,” but also professionals, philanthropists and every-day people working together to improve communities across the continent.  Some of these “real helpers” are paid professionals.  Because the idea that making a difference and earning a living are separate activities is a luxury not available to all. 

    Also in contrast to Theroux, many of the efforts you highlight are not “small-scale.”  And why should they be?  If a team identifies successful means to dig wells, or train mid-wives, or teach villagers that unprotected sex spreads HIV (to use Theroux’s examples), why not share and invest in “what works”?  Of course solutions will need to be adapted for local context in new communities.  But let’s not reinvent the wheel.

  • BY Knox Burgess

    ON December 16, 2013 01:58 AM

    Good to know that you are doing amazing work for Africa. Really Africa needs philanthropy. AMSCO is also doing corporate social investment activities in Africa. They are use to visit many schools and homes for such activity and help peoples of Africa.

  • Thanks for the post. One other highlight, Angola was awarded by FAO for cutting hunger by more than a half before the Millennium Development Goal deadline.

  • Great blogGood to know that you are doing amazing work for Africa

  • Samuel Oppong 's avatar

    BY Samuel Oppong

    ON January 23, 2014 02:24 AM

    this is a great article but i think donors don’t have to reinvest the wheel by reading this piece. Although, i agree with some of things in the article but yet still through donors, a lot of Africans lives are improving in area of health, education and peace building which is very key for development. Organisations like CARE International, Unicef, World vision, Right To Play are making a lot of impact in these areas. I may like to know whether Theroux’s has stayed in ‘typical” rural communities in African before eg northern ghana.
    Big commendation to donors and philanthropists for putting smile in the face of vulnerable people in Africa, esp. Ghana.

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