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The flip side of philanthropy

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the remarkable charitable efforts of the world’s two richest men, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. In particular, I enthused about the new business-like and systematic approach to philanthropy being pioneered by the Gates Foundation.

I almost regret writing that article. My in-box has been inundated with mail ever since. Most Kenyans writing in response to that piece have a simple aim in mind: to ask me to connect them to Bill Gates so that they can solicit donations from him. Some even wondered whether I would like to consider a (more modest) contribution myself!

As far as I know, there is nothing wrong with these people, and the projects and initiatives they have set up all seem worthy and noble. Some are educating vulnerable girls, others are providing water to rural communities. The intention is good, and the ideas are decent. So it ill-behoves me to hurt the feelings of the people who wrote in. But hurt them I must, because this experience has left me nonplussed about the state of our nation.

What is it with us Kenyans? My friend P.L.O. Lumumba is fond of recounting the story of the white gentleman (these gentlemen are always white, he will tell you wryly) who lands on a remote island and meets the ‘backward’ natives. Soon the inhabitants see him standing at the beach muttering into a radio set: “Over, over.” Shortly after that, a ship laden with goodies emerges, which he proceeds to distribute amongst the natives.

After that the gentleman leaves, and the natives are left wishing for more of the good stuff that the ship brought for them. They take to walking up and down the beach chanting “over, over”, in the hope that the ship will return to their shores. No ship ever does. They have been given a mantra, and it is useless.

Are we those people, Kenyans? Are we destined to chant the invocations that we believe will bring fortune to our shores, in perpetuity? The mantras sound good: “good governance”; “poverty alleviation”; “targeting the most vulnerable”. You know them, and so do I. But the outcome is the same: we must stand at our borders with an earnest look on our faces, and salvation must always come from outside.

How did we become this way? We are not the only people in the world to have been colonised, yet many have undergone transformations from within, while we sit around waiting for the messiah from without. When did we lose our confidence so completely that we began to believe that we can only be saved by foreigners: foreign aid, foreign donations, foreign capital, foreign knowledge, foreign development models and foreign business practice? Is there nothing at all that we can learn from ourselves, and then teach to the world? How ineffably sad.

I repeat: this way of being is fuelled by the best of intentions. People see poverty and deprivation in their midst, and rise up to attack it. That is an excellent and entirely humane impulse. The people running our myriad NGOs, aid agencies and community projects are, by and large, a decent and compassionate bunch (there are, of course, notable exceptions to that rule). But everywhere I look, I see people setting up projects (schools, dams, mosquito nets, food – you name it) that they have no means of sustaining without external help.

So every couple of years there is a scramble for ‘funding’ from the same set of donors, who get engulfed by requests to support thousands of excellent-sounding projects. Funding is scarce, so the race is on to make your project sound more important, more worthy, more impactful than the one down the road. Make it emotive, exaggerate the impending crisis, deploy the numbers with skill, and Lo! Funds will appear from the do-gooders and the guilt-stricken.

If one side of the coin has the face of the philanthropist, then the other depicts the dependant. If there is a supplicant, there is a master somewhere; if there is a giver giving, there is also a beggar receiving. If there is a good intention to give generously, there is a bad one that hopes to receive abundantly. No prizes for guessing on which side of the fence we sit: we are the hapless, awaiting the saviour.

At every level, the affliction reveals itself. Our governments attend global begging shops looking for “development aid”. Our businessmen scour the globe seeking “investment capital”. Our NGOs work the international charity circuit, pleading for “operational funding”. And able-bodied beggars line our roads, seeking their next meal with which to live to beg for another day. If this is not the same problem in different guises, then I am missing something.

Have you noticed that we seem unable to hold a conference that isn’t funded by some foundation or other? That our parliamentarians cannot get together to debate an issue unless an international institute is funding the proceedings (and the allowances)? That we can only develop a successful business by mimicking the ideas of global winners?

So what’s it going to be, people? How many more generations do we plan to waste standing on the seashore, waiting for that ship to come back and feed us? Are we going to make any effort at all to develop our own thinking, our own resources and our own capacity? We have the human capital, we have the physical resources, we even have the money we need – if only we can turn our attention inward to look for it.

At risk of losing many friends, let me offer a thought to all the do-gooders out there: if your project is not capable of sustaining itself from within anytime soon, it probably isn’t worth doing. If you aren’t developing a self-sustaining model, you’re probably wasting your time – and that of your “beneficiaries”. For it is far better for poor people to rise up to fight their own poverty – by themselves and in their own way. The alternative – the current reality – is to have your mind so twisted by the deeds of the do-gooders that you will become a worthless shell of a person, unable to look to your own resources, stuck in the search for salvation from others.

Who leads your project – you, or the beneficiaries? Do you have an exit plan, or do you intend to dole out salvation until kingdom come? Unless you are building people’s own capacity to help themselves – by giving them knowledge, or livelihoods, or the spirit of enterprise – you are probably just turning them into automatons awaiting their next fuelling. Your good intentions will deliver good things for a while, until the money runs out. And then you will leave behind an emasculated community, awaiting your return or that of someone like you.

It’s not easy to give money away well, and it’s even less easy to do good in the world. It becomes easier if you meditate deeply on the question: do you develop people or do they develop themselves? History has given us only one answer so far.

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