Re-imagining Agency in Africa

The winds of change have blown through Africa during the past three decades as countries transitioned from one-party states and military dictatorships to multi-party political systems.

The changes were mostly driven by ordinary citizens aspiring for a more just political order. Beginning in the early 1990s, pro-democracy movements – sustained mostly by labour unions – emerged across the continent demanding constitutional reforms to allow for multi-party democracy. Missing, however, was a thriving civil society working to mediate the rapid changes taking place.

Indeed, Africa did not have an adequate infrastructure to cope with the complex challenges presented by democratisation and economic liberalisation. Suddenly we had obligations and responsibilities around civic education to ensure that democracy can become a lived reality.

Supporting elections, promoting human rights and monitoring state activities were all new demands for civil society. We had to think of new ways of re-organising the delivery of public goods such as education, health and sanitation, and also dealing with new problems such rapid urbanisation.

The emergence of a thriving NGO sector gave us a new way of doing things and the hope that citizen based formations could respond to the new challenges. NGOs have been active Africa since the 1950s but had mostly played a peripheral welfare role. In the new dispensation, they had to take a more prominent role in both service delivery and advocacy.

When TrustAfrica was established in 2006 we were fortunate enough to find a vibrant civil society spread – albeit unevenly – across Africa. We committed ourselves to working alongside a broad movement comprising NGOs, membership associations and unions, policy oriented think tanks and other grant-making institutions. We saw civil society as the arena in which the rights of citizens would be defended, the power of political elites be subjected to some modicum of discipline, and the function of markets be given public scrutiny. This would be the place where history was made.

From the inception we were very clear about our mission: as an institution steeped in the centuries-old traditions of African philanthropy we would model interventions through partnership and nurturing ties of solidarity aimed at strengthening civil society to achieve the twin goals of democracy and development.

We knew there was no silver bullet that would resolve Africa’s challenges. Instead, we would need to invest in catalytic initiatives whose impact would be felt well beyond our initial efforts.

Africa’s NGOs have operated despite threats to financial sustainability and shrinking public spaces. Our partners have had to constantly navigate between dealing with resource limitations and threats to their personal freedoms, and – in some cases – the closure of their organisations due to changes in the operating environment. For example, in many countries governments are considering a cap on how much of an institution’s budget can be funded from outside. At times donor interests shift, further deepening the challenge to organisations depending on a single funder.

Civil society cannot address all of the continent’s problems. First, there is an inadequate and uneven supply of CSOs across the continent; local non-state policy research capacity has not yet had any significant impact on policy-making; civil society responses to government’s weak policies can at times be also inadequate, very formulaic and, quite frankly, not create viable alternatives; despite the evident systemic and structural causes of most of the problems that Africa faces, most of civil society was working in rigid silos; and, the connection between partner organisations and the communities that they serve is limited.

In the process we also realized the need to nurture and promote a new trend on the continent: African philanthropy-which at best is a form of centuries old agency but also with new tendencies especially the establishment of foundation. At the time the dominant narratives were of an Africa that was conflict-ridden, hopeless and literally a basket case depended on others for it sustenance. We saw a huge need to affirm African giving as both largely horizontal and spontaneous with what can be called peer-to-peer giving as well as vertical with attempts to replicate global practices of the high net worth individuals who establish formal vehicles to give away some of their wealth to causes they identify with.

Our approach has not been to seek to replace one with the other but to find ways in which both global and African philanthropy can co-exist and create synergies where necessary.

We have faced a number of challenges in our efforts to nurture and stimulate African philanthropy. Ultimately, though, agency lies with the citizens, and institutions like ours can only contribute to strengthening what already exists.

We have been fortunate to be part of the global shift in terms of thinking-there is a growing recognition of the role that philanthropy can play in Africa’s quest for equitable and democratic transformation. We are shifting from the old view of philanthropy as external aid to recognition that Africa’s story centres on the possibilities of the contribution of home-grown philanthropy. The growing importance of African philanthropy is grounded in the emerging breed of entrepreneurs, a significant number of whom are committed to the continent’s development.

The Africa 2016 Wealth Report notes that the number of dollar millionaires rose from around 130,000 in 2013, to 165,000 in 2016. These millionaires established more foundations across the continent during this period than ever before, and have made significant philanthropy investments in the areas of health, education, entrepreneurial development and infrastructure improvements, says the report.

That said, civil society remains the arena of change where history will eventually be made. Notwithstanding the current current limitations within the philanthropy sector, the potential for impact remains. We must focus on building the capacity of civil society organisations as frontline actors of change for social, economic and political justice.

At TrustAfrica we seek to break the current false division between funders and our communities. Instead, we seek to develop a community of collaborative change makers.

Individual Africans can help transform Africa. We would urge you to join us.

Dr Tendai Murisa is the executive director of TrustAfrica based in Dakar, Senekal and a member of the African Philanthropy Network (APN) board. This column is based on his chapter in “Claiming agency: reflecting on TrustAfrica’s first decade” which is edited by Halima Mahomed and Elizabeth Coleman and published by Weaver Press, Zimbabwe.