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.
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:
- Dr. Address Malata, principal of the Kamuzu College of Nursing at the University of Malawi and president of the Association of Malawian Midwives
- Fred Swaniker, founder and CEO of the African Leadership Academy and founder of the African Leadership Network
- Kennedy Odede, founder and CEO of Shining Hope for Communities
- Deogratias Niyizonkiza, founder and CEO of Village Health Works
- Minister Agnes Binagwaho, Rwanda’s minister of health
- Hundreds of young South African university graduates who sign up for Teach South Africa every year
- Tsitsi Masiyiwa, Ashish Thakkar, and other trail-blazing African philanthropists who are redefining philanthropy
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.”