Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Africa evokes varied and often strong responses. The first is frustration and despair with the gigantic problems and difficulties the continent faces. This is the response of "Afro-pessimism", which is closely tied to the so-called "donor fatigue" with Africa. Among some donor agencies, there has always been a second response -- that of focusing all attention on creating "success stories" or "betting on the winning horses", as they say. This response comes down to funding projects, big and small, in specific countries or parts of specific countries in the hope that "success" can be replicated elsewhere. We might call this the syndrome of "projectitis", whose hallmark is short-term local-level assistance with little hope of self-sustaining positive societal transformation. In less than a decade, many of the "success stories" have receded into "bad stories." Witness the cases of Cote d'Ivoire and Kenya, for example.

But there is a third, more inspiring response: a tenacious will to seek continental ways to overcome the problems and difficulties that hold Africa down and back. In the dark years of the Cold War, African leaders and social movements that tried to put the continent first and tenaciously acted to promote its interests were few in numbers and weak in strength. They also often fell victim to Cold War distractions. However, these pioneers did give some practical meaning to Pan-African dreams and managed to establish continental mechanisms (treaties, protocols and institutions) to address a wide range of issues and challenges (economic integration, human rights and refugee protection, conflict resolution and prevention, racism and apartheid, etc).

Although these mechanisms have not always worked effectively and efficiently, they have survived and are largely African-controlled. This is an important point. And increasingly, it has become clear that these official mechanisms and the many cross-continental civil society organizations (CSOs) that have emerged over the last decade hold the key to Africa's search for solutions to many intractable problems. The challenge is to strengthen them.

In at least two areas, continental mechanisms and CSOs can play a pivotal role in moving Africa forward. First, through the effective enforcement of continental treaties and protocols, both the diversity and commonalities of African identities can be fully acknowledged, legitimated and democratically managed as a basis for peace and conflict prevention. Second, continental mechanisms are imperative for fostering free movement of people, ideas, information and goods, which is a key requirement for addressing many of Africa's pressing difficulties.

The relevant questions then are: How can these continental mechanisms and CSOs become more effective? How can the great divide between official continental bodies and CSOs be bridged? How can they build global alliances for Africa? How can continental initiatives be genuinely African-led and sustained? How can donor agencies best help foster African-led initiatives? How can a veritable continental social movement be forged to transform the continent?

These are some of the questions that will be explored and addressed by a bold and pioneering grantmaking program initiated by the Ford Foundation. Tentatively titled the Special Africa Initiative, this will be a ten-year program aimed at (1) strengthening the capacities of continental-level mechanisms and civil societies organizations for peace and conflict resolution, democratic constructions of identities and citizenship, and regional integration, (2) fostering partnerships and networking across Africa in the three thematic areas of peace, citizenship and integration, and (3) developing a funding mechanism (such as an endowed fund) to secure this work into the future.

The program will be implemented in two phases, aimed at achieving specific outcomes. An initial phase of three years will focus on two sets of activities. The first would be consultations and meetings with a wide range of African institutions, activists, leaders, scholars and thinkers about the goals and strategies of the program. This will be combined with funding for projects that address the recommendations of the consultations and meetings. The second phase of seven years will cover continued grantmaking and consultations, as well the building of a permanent and independent Africa-based Foundation or Fund, which provides effective stewardship of resources generated by a lasting endowment.

Two fundamental assumptions and realities underlie this new program. The first is that Africa can solve its problems primarily through the institutions that Africans themselves have established. The challenge, then, is to strengthen and sustain those institutions, most of which are today fragile and dormant. Second, Africa's capacity to solve its problems and rise to the many challenges posed by global developments is closely related to its ability to match its ideas and plans with resources that it controls and manages. It is perhaps self-evident to say that any people who depend on external actors to finance their dreams would soon discover that they have no dreams at all. African plans and institutions can and should be financed largely from resources that Africans control and manage.

In conclusion, this is a pioneering grantmaking program aimed at supporting African-led initiatives to address a set of closely related continental challenges. It is unique in at least three ways. First, it is the first donor program that is designed to terminate in total African control of substantial resources. Second, it focuses on continental-level or Pan-African initiatives, whereas most programs tend to be country-focused. Third, it focuses on institutions, organizations and processes that Africans themselves have established rather than initiating new ones, as many external donor agencies are wont to do. The program will undoubtedly face many developmental challenges, with the most critical perhaps being how to effectively secure African ownership of it. The deliberate and thorough consultative process built into the program will greatly help to meet these unavoidable challenges. Ultimately success will be evidenced by the extent to which this truly becomes an African initiative, not just another an initiative for Africa.