Where we stand now
The question of what sustainable, equitable investment in Africa looks like has always been a subject mostly for well-meaning do-gooders, and yet, we sit with the realities of the fraught results. Western philanthropy and how that aid is structured are riddled with impressive declarations and little show. Despite seemingly grand gestures, poverty, unemployment, gendered violence, and political instability persist. In reflecting about why that is, perhaps it is proof that the meditated-on ways of investing in Africa simply aren’t working.
To situate present day Africa into the conversation requires a healthy dose of realism, particularly if we are to remedy some of the harm done by the continued legacies of neocolonialism, which the continent experiences today. The complex truths of African countries have been shrouded in narratives that romanticize either the past or future, with phrases such as “Africa is rising” amounting to little action. The systemic challenges we still face have been further compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic. For many countries, gains in sectors like health and education have been reversed. Mental health challenges are on the rise, and the long-term impact on economies is still unknown. And yet, despite these challenges, shows of solidarity and community building, innovation, and a demand for locally generated solutions exist.
Moving into the future and hopefully, away from poverty porn
Philanthropic assistance to Africa has been framed primarily through the language and actions of charity and aid. This falsified narrative has resulted in systems and structures of power where the contextual needs and wants of Africans are dictated by others. Development work in Africa has been monopolized by charity NGOs and international financial institutions. Only by first appreciating the effects this has had on the sovereignty of thought, leadership, and sustainable development models, can we understand the urgency to remodel investment.
We are sustained collectively by our belief and hope that there can be more, and yet this is not often reflected in philanthropic endeavours in Africa. Despite the truth that the complex challenges spoken of above are not faced only by African countries, a popular narrative persists that others Africa and situates it only as the heart of struggle in need of do-gooders. We must be careful to disentangle ourselves from cognitive traps that have forced us to define people by their challenges and not their aspirations. The different dualities of what is true and what could be seem reserved for everyone else but Africans. These beliefs, influenced primarily by poverty porn and saviourism mindsets, create single-story ideas about what is contextually relevant and urgent for Africans. The ripple effect of this is that only investments which fit within this limited idea of what is important are seen as valuable, leaving behind a ton of African innovations and visionaries. To change this dominant culture, we must change the narrative.
Simply put, African children, too, deserve to see their aspirations and dreams mirrored back to them. For so long, the focus of development work has been on only what is broken in our societies and not enough on what’s working. This inclination has forced people to be identified primarily by their challenges, with little effort being made to remove the systemic obstacles that hinder their meaningful contribution and growth. If half of the impact work being done is about fixing broken systems, then the other half ought to be about creating and investing in those who have meaningful alternatives. The question we should be sitting with is how we begin to invest equally in showing what else is possible.
The forces that will determine this change will be internal. Social, economic, and political institutions that lead to meaningful sustainable approaches can only be cultivated by people within. For far too long, indigenous knowledge, ways of being, leadership, and approaches to work have been looked down on. The result is a dominant Western epistemology that has come at a great cost to Africans. African visionaries must be supported to be able to ideate and actualize their aspirations for their communities. This also necessitates the understanding that African development may not and should not be obliged to follow development models from elsewhere.
Persistent challenges like poverty, education, health gaps, and inequality based on identity are multifaceted; no magic bullet is possible. Progress ought to be understood as gradual and sometimes slow. The goal of any meaningful investment has to be geared towards long-term, equitable, and sustainable progress. The results must then be reflected in what we define as success and impact.
Investment in Africa must be viewed through a fully decolonial lens, if for no other reason than because all else has yielded little to no results. There are examples of where such thought patterns have been applied and are working, models that center principles of ethical and trust-based philanthropy. Cases in point include unrestricted, multi-year funding that goes towards core institutional support and programs, such as the African Visionary Fellowship, that recognize and seek to remedy the challenges faced by African visionaries and leaders. There are countless ways we can continue to redefine what these new models of development can look like. With a little courage and willingness to experiment beyond our comfort zones, magic can happen.