Africa’s new giving hands

Among rich and poor alike, the continent reveals a bootstraps approach to success through generosity.

Tony Elumelu, chairman of the Transnational Corporation of Nigeria, speaks in Abuja, in 2013.

Earlier this year, Africa received an image makeover with the release of the blockbuster superhero movie “Black Panther.” Far from being depicted as backward or poverty stricken, the fictional African country of Wakanda was shown as a technological marvel and a model for equality of the sexes.

But a more subtle point was that Africans themselves can be the biggest factor in shaping a bright future for the continent. Foreign aid and trade can do only so much. The best solutions are close to home. And one recent development shows how real Africans are becoming more like Wakandans. The continent now has its own versions of “Bill Gates” – billionaires committed to seeing the continent thrive through philanthropy.

Forbes magazine reckons there are now a dozen native African billionaires. One of them, Tony Elumelu of Nigeria, is dedicating $100 million through his TEF Entrepreneurship Program to finding and supporting young Africans with exciting business ideas. The 2018 group of more than 1,000 budding entrepreneurs was chosen from more than 150,000 applicants.

The commitment to helping one another has deep roots in Africa’s diverse cultures. The concept of “ubuntu” in the Zulu language translates roughly to “a person is a person through other people,” an acknowledgment that a universal bond of sharing connects humanity. “Ubuntu is the essence of being human,” South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said. “It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours.... It speaks about communities.”

According to a recent survey, Africans today are becoming more willing to help each other, bucking an unfortunate international trend in the opposite direction. The 2017 World Giving Index published by the Charities Aid Foundation measured three behaviors: helping a stranger, donating money to a charity, or volunteering time to an organization. Africa was the only continent to see an increase in all three of these giving behaviors.

Among the countries with the highest percentage of people who said they had helped a stranger, for example, Sierra Leone ranked No. 1, Kenya No. 4, and Liberia No. 5. The United States ranked No. 7. Among countries with the highest percentage of people who volunteered time to help others Kenya ranked No. 2, Liberia No. 4, and Sierra Leone No. 8. The US ranked No. 7.

Turning from passive acceptance of foreign aid to the dynamism of self-development is the future of the continent, says Ibrahim Assane Mayaki, chief executive officer of the South Africa-based New Partnership for Africa’s Development Planning and Coordinating Agency. “Africa today looks like what Asia and China did in the 1950s. If you look at most of the experts who were analyzing India and China in the 1950s, they were not very optimistic regarding the future.

“China and India didn’t develop with aid. They developed with their ideas and with their leadership. It allowed them to leapfrog and make huge progresses,” said Dr. Mayaki, a former prime minister of Niger, at a meeting of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya, last month. (Mr. Ibrahim, who was born in Sudan, is another of Africa’s billionaires.) 

“Africa today is psychologically in that same position,” Mayaki continued. “We are more confident than before. We don’t think solutions will come from outside. We believe more in ourselves. And we believe regional solutions are important. This is the most important asset that we have.”

That could almost be a line from “Black Panther.”

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