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There is a dearth of literature on philanthropy in Africa, and this pioneering work on East Africa by Connie Ngondi-Houghton should be warmly welcomed. Ngondi-Houghton starts by looking at what is meant by the term philanthropy, arguing that it has to be understood in the context of the region and its history. She believes that there is an indigenous tradition of giving, ‘an economy of affection’, which has survived the turmoil of colonization, post-colonial compromises, and the devastating results of imposed neoliberal economic policies.
The book then deals at some length with formal philanthropy in the region as it is today. She considers some of the new initiatives such as the Africa Philanthropy Initiative, the East Africa Grantmakers Association, Allavida, the Centre for the Promotion of Philanthropy and Social Responsibility (Ufadhili) and Resource Alliance, many of them driven by non-indigenous institutions. The last two chapters focus on the challenges ahead for philanthropy in East Africa, chiefly the need to link institutionalized forms of philanthropy with the long-standing traditional forms. The final chapter provides a set of recommendations on future research that is needed.
The author’s central argument is that conventional (or Western) definitions of philanthropy have ignored the rich ‘traditional African spirit of community, reciprocity and mutual aid based on the philosophy of ubuntuism’. This spirit is, she argues, ‘the spring of philanthropy among the majority in East Africa’. Many of us working in the region recognize these many forms of generosity that inspire and refresh one’s belief in humanity. I had hoped that the book would at last provide me with documentary evidence to silence the sceptics and those who hold a narrow definition of philanthropy. Unfortunately, there is little data about the scale and impact of such practices. This is a shame as I think that its absence seriously weakens her thesis.
Ngondi-Houghton argues that philanthropy should be seen as something embracing a spectrum of social and individual activities. The opening chapter begins by asserting that philanthropy is a term encompassing activities ‘motivated by the love for humanity and human advancement, and targeted towards the ends of human survival, dignity and fulfilment of all people’. It begins, she says, with the act of giving. She goes on to draw a distinction between charity and philanthropy that I found particularly helpful. Charity, she says, ‘can ameliorate’, but philanthropy ‘seeks to root out causes of poverty, suffering and inequality … it inspires and promotes individual growth as it nourishes human welfare.’
This distinction, however, is lost sight of in the remainder of the book. Indeed, what she mainly writes about is charitable giving. As the book develops, she falls increasingly shy of defining what she means by philanthropy, offering instead examples of the activities it embraces, from microfinance to scout camps, from trade union solidarity to NGOs making money from providing services where the state has retrenched in response to externally driven economic policies.
‘Philanthropy should be what the people of East Africa say it is for them,’ she asserts. While this may be different to how the West would define philanthropy, neither the Western nor the African definition is superior. ‘When viewed this way,’ she says, ‘the issue of spectrum of models, and whether a model at one end of the spectrum better deserves the name philanthropy than one at the other end, ceases to be significant.’ But the issue is not, surely, an argument about the absolute or universal definition of the term philanthropy, but rather about whether the term is used consistently and in such a way that its meaning can be communicated with certainty to the reader.
That said, I found the book stimulated me to reflect on many issues about giving and philanthropy in the region. It could have been much longer, giving the author more space to develop and explain some of her ideas. As it stands, it is full of thought-provoking observations that give you only a taster of insights that, frustratingly, are not developed further. I would also have like to have seen much more information than was provided about philanthropy in Uganda and Tanzania – the book focuses overly on Kenya. Nevertheless, it represents a major milestone for the region, a sentinel starting point for the development of a much-needed literature on the subject.
* Firoze Manji is Executive Director of Fahamu and editor of Pambazuka News. He can be contacted at firoze (at) fahamu.org
This article first appeared in Alliance Volume 11 Number 1 March 2006
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