African Women and Philanthropy: The Importance of Funding Our Own Movements

by Sarah Mukasa

Philanthropy in Africa has become an area of increasing interest in the past 10 or more years. A key focus for interrogation is the manifestation of philanthropy in the African context – its areas of strength and weakness. Another is how to build on the traditions of philanthropy in Africa to attain stronger institutional processes that scale up localized forms of giving and ground these in principles of social justice, equality, peace and sustainable development. Africans are challenging the notion that Africa is purely a ‘donor recipient’ continent and instead are pointing to the rich traditions of giving and philanthropic practice in Africa – which in many instances have been the mainstay of entire communities.

Whilst it is known that philanthropy is an age-old practice in Africa, there is little recognition of the contributions it has made in developing and sustaining communities.  In Africa today, much of the giving takes place in familial and informal community networks responding often to immediate/ welfare concerns. Burial societies, individual support to the payment of school fees and, building of community facilities are examples of philanthropy that can be found in many variations on the continent. Religious organizing has also formed a critical avenue for much of the more formal and institutionalised mechanisms for philanthropy, with programmes driven by local actors providing a range of services including education, health services and feeding programmes.

More recently, a number of African philanthropic actors and organisations seeking to address social, economic and political inequalities and disparities have emerged. In addition there has been an increase in the number of high net worth individuals in Africa establishing their own, more formalised philanthropic initiatives and organizations. At the same time, the private and corporate sectors in Africa are increasingly developing corporate responsibility programmes. These developments have raised the visibility of philanthropy in Africa, highlighting its critical role in our societies and communities. Initiatives such as the African Grantmakers Network- a network developed by African grant makers to promote and strengthen philanthropy in Africa– are testament to the shifts in thinking and organisation on the continent. Increasingly Africans on the continent and elsewhere are seeking to make a difference as collaborative and organised donors to the kinds of change they wish to see.

This is both evident and urgent within the feminist movement. The role of women within the growing field of philanthropy in Africa- their contributions, successes and challenges – remain largely undocumented and unrecognised. Yet the establishment of organizations such as the African Women’s Development Fund and Urgent Action Fund –Africa amongst others, has concretised the central nature of African women’s participation and influence in philanthropy, especially social justice philanthropy.

Within the feminist movement, there is a growing body of thought on the need for us as women to fund our own movements. This partly reflects an increasing unease with external donor practice in support of short-term, project based approaches- which do initiate some change, but which are in the long-term difficult to sustain, since often they can only address symptoms, and not root causes. Mounting pressure  to demonstrate immediate results or face the risk of losing funding has driven many to develop projects that are all SMART but have little in the way of substance and relevance.

Many in the feminist movement point to the need for a different type of organizing. Organising that builds strong social movements of women and institutions who are able to define their own agenda and develop appropriate responses that encompass the breadth and depth of women’s realities on the continent, and that holds the state and other duty bearers accountable for their commitments to women’s rights. This approach suggests a shift from regarding our constituencies as beneficiaries to working with them as active and autonomous citizens. This requires also long-term investments, risk taking, being bold and having an understanding that occasionally being unclear is as good as it gets!

In as much as there is a hunger for a different approach to funding, there is also recognition within the feminist movement that it is women in Africa and elsewhere who will have to pioneer it. Globally, women’s funds have emerged as critical players and investors in feminist movements worldwide. Increasingly feminist organising is interrogating the disjuncture between their movements and their sources of funding and are responding with internally driven processes for generating income.  Many organisations are evolving wide-ranging strategies including schemes such as workplace giving, development of social enterprises, endowment building, and individual or collective regular donations to feminist organisations, campaigns or initiatives.

In Africa women have begun to recognize themselves and one another as an untapped resource base to support the movement on the continent.  They are seeking ways in which to engage the high net worth and middle class African women who have thus far been rendered largely invisible in the global discourse on finance and resourcing for gender equality.

This is not to let traditional donors off the hook. As 50% of the global population and as contributors to the wealth created on a global scale, women have a right to an equitable share of development resources. This needs to be acknowledged and promoted as a priority on women’s rights, development and philanthropic agendas.  However, there should also be recognition that women are exercising a new kind of agency – one that gives rise to a new source of power within, to truly own their movements, agendas and issues. This is an exciting time for the feminist movement in Africa. Our wealth has been and continues to be our passion, commitment, solidarity, and contestation. This provides new opportunities for learning and growth, creativity, knowledge and increasingly, our money and economic security.

We are challenging the dominant development narrative that depicts us as passive recipients of external aid to one in which we are the active agents of the change we envision. We are putting our money where our hearts are.


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