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COVID-19: An opportunity for strategic African philanthropy

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COVID-19: An opportunity for strategic African philanthropy

Lisa-Anne Julien

11 May 2020

5min min read
  • Epidemics--Economic aspects
  • Poverty
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f we understand philanthropy as the act of giving for the benefit of others – a practical expression of the Bantu term Ubuntu (humanity) – then the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best across the African continent. Whether it’s African billionaire Aliko Dangote donating half a million dollars to Nigeria’s coronavirus efforts or some of us purchasing canned goods to fill food parcels in our communities, there’s a sense that recovery from COVID-19 is everyone’s business. And although the number of COVID-19 cases is relative low as compared to the global average, Africa’ s high levels of poverty, overcrowded urban spaces and fragile health systems means the region is extremely vulnerable to the spread of the virus.

Philanthropy as a response to sudden or prolonged crises in Africa is not new. Thankfully, we have moved away from the famine-focused Live Aid events with its perception of Africa as “hat-in-hand”, to a more “hand-in-hand” approach, where there is meaningful collaboration between the global North and global South. In recent years, African philanthropy has been instrumental in responding to crises, from flooding to Ebola. The rise of institutional structures such as the African Philanthropy Forum also sows the potential for sustainable giving. However, in these COVID-ridden times, is philanthropy’s potential to contribute to addressing Africa’s core problems recognised? Or does the urgency of the crisis mean we constantly default to shorter-term solutions?

Bread and butter

With the pandemic putting an abrupt stop to economic activity, a common refrain in the media is that many will die of hunger before COVID-19. Hence, with bread and butter not simply a metaphorical reference to core development issues in Africa, it is understandable that there has been an outpouring of humanitarian giving to address basic needs. The South African, celebrity-endorsed campaign Cans with Purpose, has seen half a million Rands raised during the lockdown, with monies donated online and/or canned food donated at certain retailers and banks. Similarly, part of the R2.6b pledged to South Africa’s Solidarity Fund, is allocated to socially and economically supporting communities, including the provision of food parcels and other essentials. In Uganda, The Sarrai Group donated 10,000 litres of sanitizers, 20,000kgs of sugar, 10,000kgs of laundry bar soap and 10,000kgs of baking flour worth approximately US$80k to the COVID-19 National Task Force at the Office of the Prime Minister.

There have also been large donations of hygiene products and personal protective equipment (PPE) to reduce the spread of the virus. Through his foundation, professional basketball player Bismack Biyombo donated 10,000 face masks and 780 protective hazmat suits to assist his native Democratic Republic of the Congo in its COVID-19 response. The country’s health system had been devastated in recent years by Ebola and Malaria outbreaks. Kenyan businessman and philanthropist Manu Chandaria donated water tanks and hand sanitizers to the Kenya’s National Police Service while across the continent, billionaire Jack Ma and the Alibaba Foundation have repeatedly donated testing kits, masks, and protective gear to boost the national response of individual countries.

It is arguably easier to rally support for meeting emergency needs. Images on social media of low-income families receiving food parcels is more likely to illicit heart-warming support and increased donations than opaque calls to support research or health systems strengthening. Yet, the pandemic represents an opportunity for philanthropy to address some of Africa’s endemic challenges as COVID-19 is a painful reminder that we are often one disaster away from entire systemic collapse.

Broken systems

It’s no secret that lack of access to clean water, shortage of nurses and limited critical care facilities plagued many African countries before the pandemic. Therefore, it makes strategic sense to invest in addressing Africa’s unique structural and migratory problems. When businessman and philanthropist Strive Masiyiwa donated 45 ICU ventilators to Zimbabwe’s public hospitals, it was in the context of a severely dilapidated healthcare system associated with a crippling economy. According to Harvard University lecturer Shai M. Dromi, “Africa’s precarious medical care infrastructure and limited state capacities leave few resources available for addressing a spike in medical emergencies, let alone for taking preventative measures [….] the abundance of refugees and internally displaced persons in the Chad Basin area make the region fertile ground for epidemics.”

COVID-19 analysis by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation found that institutional weaknesses such as poor data and statistical capacity, specifically in relation to health and civil registration, is a significant obstacle to obtaining quality health data, the basis of any relevant policy developments in health. The study called for “an urgent need to act on the lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak in 2015 and address the specific weaknesses of Africa’s health structures: improve health systems, and citizens’ access to them, and more generally strengthen data and statistical capacity.” In a similar vein, in its memo Opportunities for Philanthropic Response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis, the international NGO Bridgespan, reminds us that the systems in developing countries that respond to crisis are the very same systems that have been historically under-developed and poorly resourced.

It is encouraging then to see instances where philanthropy is cognizant of this and taking the longer-term view. Nigeria has a long history of philanthropic actors working with government to respond to natural disasters such as floods. Most recently, the United Bank of Africa, whose chairman is Nigerian philanthropist Tony Elumelu, donated the equivalent of US$14 million to the COVID-19 response across 20 African countries. These funds will cover the provision of relief supplies, health infrastructure, including a medical centre with ICU facilities in Nigeria, and financial support to governments. Nigeria also intends to use some of these funds to conduct more research on COVID-19, with US$500k going to the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control.

The Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation which allocated $250 million to support the development of COVID-related diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines in Africa and South Asia, also applies a short-term/long-term continuum intended to feed into each other. According to Oumar Seydi, the Foundation’s Africa Director, the Foundation is working to help stabilize the market in order to procure medical equipment such as oxygen systems required for COVID-19 patients. These same supplies will be used in health facilities for newborns and patients who need them. This is essentially what the UN refers to as the nexus of humanitarian and development or humanitarian, development and peacebuilding, addressing immediate needs while still investing in longer-term strategies to address structural challenges.

Although COVID-19 is here for the foreseeable future, philanthropy is set to outlast it and must be courageous and strategic to tackle endemic issues. And although the optics may not be as attractive as responding to emergencies that pull at the heart and purse strings, our history with disasters in Africa is lesson enough – philanthropy must help us be much better prepared for the next one.

(Jack Ma, the richest man in China, donates medical supplies to Africa for a 3rd time to combat the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Africa at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 27 April 2020 - Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.