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The Power of philanthropy to build resilient citizens, institutions and democracies

by William Gumede

The act of giving through providing financial assistance and different types of support to people and communities in need can often transform the lives of people for the better. This policy brief looks at the different forms of philanthropy, its benefits, and risks.


Key points:

Big philanthropy can undermine democracy

Philanthropy has its critics: they are often accused of having more influence over country policies than ordinary citizens, of bending policy to their will because of their deep pockets and even of using philanthropy to escape taxes (Barkan 2013; Lamarche 2014; Callahan 2017; McWilliams 2017).

Citizen philanthropy through civic engagement

South Africa needs to reinvigorate a culture of citizen philanthropy – which was there in the 1970s and 1980s during the apartheid era. Then, in many poor communities, conscientious local community members selflessly helped others, sharing the little they have with others more destitute, and providing a shoulder to lean on to those in despair.

Transforming philanthropy to boost democracy

Big corporate and wealthy individual philanthropists who give, must do so in more effective ways. In South Africa currently, many of them have not often focused on social justice issues, causes, and organisations. They often also shy away from supporting programmes strengthening democracy, for fear of being seen to anger government. Often they also do not focus on reducing inequalities – of opportunity, race, gender, class and opportunity.

Yet, boosting social justice initiatives, democracy institutions and reducing inequality, are at the heart of strengthening citizen and society resilience.

Encouraging big and citizen philanthropy in Africa

Africa now has more than 16 000 US dollar millionaires (New World Wealth 2015). In many African countries, outside South Africa, rich individuals also rarely give to their country-men and women, bar the exemptions, such as Mo Ibrahim. There are of course many super-wealthy Africans who do give. However, their giving is often less than many of their peers in industrial countries and emerging markets. Moreover, many African rich appear to fund causes in industrial countries, rather than in their own countries. Africa needs a new generation of big, middle class and young philanthropists, to strengthen the resilience of citizens, communities, and societies – and to strengthen democracy itself.

Read more in Democracy Works