A Centre for Global Generosity: Perspectives from African Gifting on Multi-Disciplinarity

Alan Fowler, Chair in African Philanthropy at Wits Business School

I would like to thank the founders of Centre for Global Philanthropy (CGG) for providing an opportunity to enter what I believe are important formative conversations.  The way of doing so compares the notion of generosity with that of philanthropy in Africa’s diverse contexts.  This approach draws on an ongoing experience in establishing a Chair in African Philanthropy at the Wits Business School as a pan-African endeavour.  It brings an African-centred perspective from a continent with a quarter of the world’s countries that is systematically under-represented in field-relevant research with global intentions.  The continent is informed by, but seldom informs prevailing theory or policy, generosity included.  Consequently, a first priority is to establish a meaningful grounded narrative from which to engage in wider initiatives, such as the CGG.

Generosity.  What’s in a name?  From an African perspective, naming by others brings problems.  Why, because much of the concepts and vocabularies endogenous to a continent and its peoples have suffered an epistemicide – forced subordination of other ways of knowing – with underlying philosophies treated as primitive or backward.  Debate about the salience of the term voluntarism across the world is but one example of reactions to linguistic imposition.  A sentiment seems to be that African society will eventually catch up with others’ progress and, in the meantime, has little to teach anywhere else.  To steer clear of association with neo-colonial attitudes, CGG will be challenged to avoid normative generalisations in an overall framing of the field, in the selection of terminology, in the analytic categories chosen and in nomenclatures applied.  Important will be to avoid eliding global as universal in terms of an epistemic grounding that often masks a western post-Enlightenment pre-disposition towards what is knowledge and whose knowledge counts.

The new Chair is tasked, amongst others, with establishing and re-inscribing an African narrative of philanthropy in contemporary society.  Let me share examples of critical issues emerging from an ontological approach to doing so as a geo-academic field emerging from within, so to speak.[1]   First, the notion of ‘philanthropy’ does not resonate on the way African’s see or speak about their giving or gifting.  Akin to generosity, the term implies a free-willed behaviour going beyond what is anticipated as a ‘normal’ pro-social transaction, such as helping a stranger find his or her way.  Today, philanthropy is commonly associated with something the rich do for/to the poor, but this is not necessarily how Africans understand what pro-social behaviour is all about.  The quote below is from a High Net Worth Kenyan woman.

I highly suspect that if we tallied our individual giving as well as our collective giving at a national level, we would be similarly taken aback. We are a nation of givers, in our own peculiar Kenyan way. We just may need some work to get to a place where we think of ourselves as philanthropists.  In many ways, our version of philanthropy is an innate piece in the fabric of our Kenyan identity. We only need to recognize, measure, and collectively appreciate the powerful legacy of our philanthropic action.  (Excerpt from Mwihaki Kimura’s Speech at the African Philanthropy Forum Breakfast Meeting in Nairobi, July 19, 2016).

This text is one of many examples expressing a need to recognise and self-name ways in which pro-social behaviour beyond the call of the everyday is woven into the continent’s way of life.  Philanthropy does not translate into vernaculars, helping, giving and gifting do.  Inter-disciplinary collaboration will be needed with anthropologists and linguists to help determine an appropriate vocabulary for an African narrative.

The term generosity is probably better placed then philanthropy to search for meaningful lexicon of equivalents and learning from their etymology.  In addition, unlike philanthropy, generosity should be more able to avoid a too ready association with money that can be counted, or hours of voluntary action that can be allocated a shadow value and then enumerated.  As a pro-social transaction generosity is much richer than that, calling for a mix of measures, methods and disciplines to help illuminate the field, where the measures of the measured need to gain hold over the measures of the measurers.[2]  Adopting such a political position in terms of whose reality counts most is critical because a generous act cannot be classified as such until its ‘asymmetry’ – say the gift of a loaf of bread and its effects, degree of reduced hunger for the recipient and enhanced prestige for the giver – are known in the former’s terms.  Much that is portrayed as gifting, generosity or philanthropy may not be so in practice.  Studying generosity as a (micro-)economic decision behaviour is potentially fraught by normative interpretations of the relative value of costs versus outcomes for whom, often requiring case by case assessments of transactions in context.  A specific ‘asymmetry’ challenge is to factor in a non-Descartian African moral philosophy of Ubuntu, that is of a collective humanity, where gifting to another is inherently gifting to oneself.

Global study of civil society shows how universally conceived research often brings an inability see what is ‘below the radar’ in deeply embedded, rule-bound forms of ‘horizontal’ generosity, or gifting, that are not publically formalised, not registered with any authority, but are a life blood of a continent where almost fifty percent of the population live on less than US$1.9 per day.  Under such conditions, annual Diaspora financing – some US$ 50 billion plus – soaks into the ground of relational capital where sociologists are to be found.  This phenomenon maintains the status and identity of those that are afar, adding to the potential for gifting in daily life at a scale that dwarfs the generosity of foreign and local private giving as well as (corporate) social investment when put together.  Gifting practices in Africa portray endogenous reaction to layers of colonial legacies, years of post-colonial predatory state behaviour and a subsidiary position in the world economy that have reinforced kinship socio-economic structures with gifting as an embedded bonding mechanism.  Consequently, institutional analysts who treat and assess generosity in terms of giving to an organisation dedicated to a public good will miss a systemic feature of African pro-social behaviour.  The relative ‘invisibility’ of African gifting or generosity in its full extent brings the danger of portraying the more easily researchable part as the whole.  A prudent approach is to assume that there is much more going on pro-socially that is unseen than is seen.  Until the full pro-social landscape is brought to the fore, a healthy scepticism about the proportional significance of research results in this field in Africa is called for.

A further issue I am grappling with is the relationship between generosity, or gifting, and relational power.  The continent’s governance systems often rely on patronage.  Generous as it may appear, private gifting of public resources acts as a binding political mechanism with fuzzy borders to corruption.  Creating and using non-profit organisations as (re-)distributional intermediaries of the powerful is common place.  Thus, research that cannot provide interpretations of generosity with respect to the way power is located and politics exercised will have a policy blind spot.

The foregoing is not a plaidoyer for African exceptionalism, but for its opposite.  That is crafting an academic approach to what is global based on analytic pluralism with sensibility to the wide range of behaviours that can be classed as generous within their moment, location, purpose and effects.  A Centre that can achieve this will be a valuable example to learn from as the world evolves from a dominant Euro-American normativeness to a more polycentric global order and respect for multiple knowledges.


[2]  I am grateful to Sue Soal and James Taylor for this formulation of where power over performance metrics should lie.