Bhekinkosi Moyo
Bhekinkosi Moyo

Trends and issues in local philanthropy in East Africa

A review of:
Rose Lukalo-Owino, A Legacy of Giving: The Story of Mohamedally and Maniben Rattansi Educational Trust, Allavida, Nairobi: 2008.
— In Trust for Tomorrow: Kenya Community Development Foundation, Allavida, Nairobi: 2008.
— One Woman At a Time: The Kianda Foundation, Allavida, Nairobi: 2008.
Connie Ngodi-Houghton, Promoting Philanthropy in Kenya: The Case for Tax Law Reform, Allavida, Nairobi: 2008
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I have just finished reading a fascinating four-part series on Trends and Issues in Local Philanthropy in East Africa, published by Allavida. The series was supported financially and intellectually by the Ford Foundation’s office in East Africa and features a deep and substantive foreword by Tade Aina, the Ford Representative in Nairobi, on the trajectory of philanthropy in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.

One book in the series, by lawyer and researcher Connie Ngondi-Houghton, focuses on the need for tax law reform in the area of philanthropy. Because it builds on her past academically oriented work and has been reviewed elsewhere, I’ll concentrate here on the three more accessible texts by Rose Lukalo-Owino.

These narratives follow the evolution of the Kianda Foundation, the Rattansi Educational Trust and the Kenya Community Development Foundation. I call them narratives because they chronicle the lives and times of the founders of these three foundations. The texts do mention Uganda and Tanzania, but the series is strongly biased in favour of Kenya, perhaps because there are more philanthropic institutions there than elsewhere in the region — or because Kenya is an economic powerhouse that creates opportunities for the emergence of charitable and development-oriented institutions. However, I wonder if a similar treatment might be done for institutions like the Kabaka Foundation in Uganda and other religious foundations in Tanzania.

Presented in the form of stories, the texts are written in a straightforward and user-friendly style that helps demystify the meaning and usage of ‘philanthropy’. In my experience studying philanthropy in Africa, these are probably the easiest texts to read and could be taught in secondary schools. The lack of interest in the study of philanthropy in Africa is partly a function of the absence of curricula on the subject, both at lower and higher levels of education. This series could serve as a module for students at all levels. This is a challenge that we have been throwing at lecturers and custodians of knowledge across the continent. Can we in Africa introduce studies on philanthropy and build centers of excellence that will be dedicated strictly to the study of philanthropy and how it links with development visions of nation states?

As the two stories of the Kianda Foundation and the Mohamedally and Maniben Rattansi Educational Trust show, philanthropy as we understand it is a defining feature of every being. It probably begins at birth, progresses through life, and blossoms at death. Indeed, many in Africa are welcomed into this earth in philanthropic ways; they live their lives either supporting or being supported by others. And at their death, philanthropy is what bids them farewell — and in some cases their death is a philanthropic source for many causes. Many stories in the Kianda Foundation narrative, particularly one concerning a student named Gloria, reflect this. In other words, one is at any given time either a philanthropist, a recipient of philanthropic benevolence, or both.

I was at a meeting in May when the facilitator asked everyone in the room to give the number of years they had been involved with philanthropy. Many responded by giving the number of years they had been working professionally in the field. Someone in the group said she could not distinguish between the years she worked in another field and the years she worked in a foundation. For her, all the years were dedicated to development work. When my turn came, I argued that I have more than 34 years experience in philanthropy. I explained that birth, life, and death are philanthropic experiences for me. I gave my reasons, of course. And yet that afternoon, someone giving a presentation said that she found it very difficult to be me, having to wear the philanthropic hat all the time. She was disillusioned by the failure of philanthropy to address social justice issues. This goes to show the need to understand what philanthropy is and how it is defined and interpreted by different actors in a particular time to suit a particular context. I certainly welcome this treatise in East Africa.

I am very familiar with the institutions presented in these three books and have visited some of them in my research on philanthropy. It was therefore interesting to learn more about the people behind these institutions. I particularly liked Elkanah Odembo’s story: one of a young troublesome student who gets funding from the Rattansi Foundation and later becomes one of the crucial philanthropic leaders in the region and in Africa. The irony: he only discovers very late in life who his donors were.

Odembo and other leaders in the region who came together to establish the Kenya Community Development Foundation illustrate the power of local responses to local challenges. From an idea to a big institution, KCDF has become the foundation for development in Kenyan communities. Its story is one of transformative philanthropy, of seeking to address social justice issues. The story of the Rattansi Foundation is one of changing the status quo, particularly through the provision of education to all races and ethnic groups in Kenya. The story of the Rattansi Foundation weaves through the politics of post-independence Kenya and outlines the role that philanthropy played in these events. Many of those who became senior leaders in government and civil service were once recipients of scholarships from the foundation.

There are parallels between the Rattansi Educational Trust and the Kianda Foundation. Both focus on education and most graduates of the Kianda Foundation have gone on to become senior women leaders in government, private sector and civil society. Once again, the Kianda Foundation answers the question we always pose: philanthropy for what? The question of philanthropic harvest is a crucial one, for if there is no harvest, there is no point in ‘farming’.
But what for me is particularly important coming out of these three stories is the question of local versus outside interventions. There is a burning debate around whether or not local actors should get support from external forces. The other is whether external actors should work with or implement their own projects in Africa. Clearly there are many views. There are some who take the view that external actors must work with or implement their projects through local institutions, for a number of reasons. Others argue that there is no harm even if external actors implement their projects as long as they deliver the needed services. I have my own views. But the three stories in the series speak to the question of hybrid: the blending or coming together of many forces for a common cause.

Take the case of the Kianda Foundation, whose founders came from outside Kenya and Africa, but embedded their work on the Kenyan context and responded to local developmental and existential challenges. As they progressed, they worked with the locals. The same holds true for the Rattansi Educational Trust; migrants from India, the Rattansi family established a foundation as to give something back in return for ‘what Kenyans had given them’. But more importantly, KCDF was established by locals with the help of outsiders. Thus it matters not where the help comes from, but the conditions under which that help is given.

If there is criticism to be levelled against the series, it is perhaps that it focuses so much on the positives and successes. If one were not aware of the institutions in question, one would be forgiven for thinking that this is fiction. But these are true stories and therefore a balanced presentation is necessary. I would have expected the writer to delve into the challenges these institutions have faced. There is some discussion here and there, but it is not sufficient for a region that is still working on consolidating both its democratic gains and its philanthropic harvest.

Still, I liked reading the series and could not put the books down. I learned a few things about some of the people involved daily in philanthropy in the region. This is a welcome series and it will definitely contribute to the growth and vibrancy of philanthropic institutions and discourse. With new institutions being created in Tanzania and Kenya, the series is a useful resource.

Next week I will present the first in my series of articles on civil society regulation in Africa, part of a bigger project I have been working on since Ethiopia introduced a bill to regulate societies and charities.