‘Where are Africa’s Mackenzies?’ We need wealthy Africans to fund feminist and social justice movements

African feminist movements are some of the most dynamic drivers of social change on the continent, transforming lives at the community level, and leading policy change at national and regional levels.

In Nigeria for instance, we saw the tenor of the EndSars protest shift once feminist leaders stepped in to support the resistance; one result was the abolishing of the police unit that had been widely criticised for the terror they unleashed on Nigerian citizens.

Across Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Guinea, Nous Sommes La Solution (We are the Solution), a network of more than 500 rural women’s associations have created a movement to preserve traditional African knowledge and practices regarding farming and agroecology to provide sustainable solutions to hunger and landlessness.

 The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol) exists thanks to work done by networks of African women’s rights organisations.  In my opinion and that of many health and social activists, this is one of the strongest protocols on sexual and reproductive health and rights in the world. 

The work of feminist movements leads to tangible, progressive social change yet this work is underfunded. As research by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development has shown, less than 1% of Official Development Aid and foundation grants reach women’s rights organisations. Black feminist movements receive even less — 0.1% and 0.35% of annual grant dollars from foundations

If progressive social change on the African continent is to be accelerated, then it needs to be properly resourced. This means all players in the funding ecosystem need to come to the table, including wealthy Africans.

 African philanthropy has existed for generations. Who doesn’t know a relative, a colleague or friend who is paying school fees for unrelated children; contributing to funeral costs; or sending money from the diaspora to help cover medical bills? We know Africans give; give generously. Just think about that generation of grandmothers who lost their children to HIV/Aids and responded by taking on the care of their grandchildren, and of so many other children in their own and neighbouring towns and villages.

 These were people who gave when they were struggling to put food on their tables … giving from the core, not from economic surplus.

 Today though, I’m thinking about a different group of African philanthropists … our African multimillionaires and billionaires. Many wealthy Africans including  Mo Ibrahim and Tony Elemelu direct their large gifts through foundations they have established. Others such as Tsitsi Masiyiwa have contributed to pooled funds like The Gender Fund

In South Africa, the Social Justice Initiative looked to pool funds from wealthy individuals and groups to better sponsor social justice work. Yet there are so many more wealthy people that could step up to fund social justice causes if they chose to do so. According to Forbes, “Africa’s billionaires are richer than they have been in years. As a group, the continent’s 18 billionaires are worth an estimated $84.9-billion.” At the same time the African Philanthropy Forum recently reported that African NGOs remain underfunded, while African philanthropists directed just 9% of their large gifts to these groups.

In 2020, American billionaire Mackenzie Scott began giving significant sums of money to social justice organisations. She did so in a way that feminist movements have long advocated for — in substantial amounts, without the clauses and conditions that tend to hamper innovation and the ability to pivot to the greatest needs. The speed, the size and the style of her giving has shaken the complacency that has dragged and limited some of the impact of global philanthropy. 

Part of what Scott demonstrates is that you can give strategically — to feminist and social justice movements for instance — and also fund projects that are personal and dear to your heart. African philanthropists could choose to continue to give large gifts to their foundations — and give directly to a range of players in African feminist and social justice spaces. 

It is possible to give to support business innovation for instance, while also supporting the organising work of young feminist activists or work to introduce more equitable legislation in social and political spheres.

Experience has shown us that philanthropy is at its best when it is innovative, risk taking, transformative. Wealthy Africans are uniquely placed to disrupt complacent philanthropic giving at scale. We need African philanthropists to play a leading role in funding transformative change in Africa. 

It is in our collective interest to co-create a continent where everyone has the basics of life: nutritious food, clean air, a roof over one’s head, safe, decent work, physical, social, economic security and justice and the right to gather with those that we love. 

To truly drive social justice we need people who have a love for humanity to fund this work. This radical transformation will not be created by an over reliance on foreign foundations and Overseas Development Aid. The revolution needs everybody to play their part, including people with wealth.

 This month, Shake the Table and The Bridgespan Group published Lighting the Way: A Report for Philanthropy on the Power and Promise of Feminist Movements. In their report they “urge philanthropists to invest an additional $6-billion by 2026 [$1.5-billion annually] in feminist movements” . 

We encourage African philanthropists to see this figure as the floor and not the ceiling. For too long African feminists and social justice movements have had to play small. We have been perennially underfunded. We have received funding on conditional terms, money that is limited to particular projects and is often short term. That has kept us playing small. 

If we are to grow to be more effective, if we are to continue to produce women’s peace movements that drive a country towards solutions as we saw in Liberia or produce global movements for women’s rights and the environment as we saw with Wangari Mathai and the Greenbelt Movement, then we need to be meaningfully supported. It’s time for wealthy Africans to transform their giving, shake the table and boldly fund movements.

Theo Sowa is co-chairperson of the Equality Fund; member of the African Advisory Board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation; Patron of Evidence for Development; and board member of the UBS Optimus Foundation; the Graça Machel Trust; and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Theo Sowa
Born in Ghana, Theo Sowa has lived and worked in many countries in Africa, Europe and North America. She is co-chairperson of the Equality Fund; member of the African Advisory Board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation; Patron of Evidence for Development; and board member of the UBS Optimus Foundation; the Graça Machel Trust; and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

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