Pan-Africanising women’s philanthropy: anatomy of an emerging social movement

The traditional noblesse oblige notion of philanthropy as giving by a wealthy, more privileged class to a poor, less privileged class has been turned on its head. Jackie Copeland-Carson reports on a movement that is democratising philanthropy

Jackie Copeland-Carson
18 October 2011

Today the traditional noblesse oblige notion of philanthropy as giving by a wealthy, more privileged class (conventionally white and male) to a poor, less privileged class (particularly people of colour) has been turned on its head. Several developments in scholarship, activism and technology have democratised philanthropy over the past thirty years making it more accessible for mass social movements.

The women’s movement has expanded the notion of philanthropy to also include the concerns and leadership of women.  A women’s philanthropy movement emerged in the 1980s to promote gender equality; resist the dominant image and role of men in the field; document the contributions of women philanthropists; and promote the interests of women and girls.  Promoted by foundations such as the Ms. Foundation for Women and now supported by multiple mainstream foundations and donors, an entire women’s funding movement has emerged with hundreds of women-focused foundations and associations throughout the world that share a commitment to women’s empowerment and social justice.

Studies of African-American social movements in the United States from the Underground Railroad through the Civil Rights Era document that homespun giving, including courageous volunteerism and financial contributions, provided the primary funding for these movements. Although for most of the twentieth century formal institutionalised philanthropy was dominated by American and European foundations, an indigenous African philanthropy sector is being born that mixes traditional African with western forms and is led by, and in a growing number of cases, funded by, Africans.  Examples include the African Women’s Development Fund (continental), TY Danjuma Foundation (Nigeria), the Foundation for Civil Society (Tanzania), the Kenyan Community Development Foundation (Kenya).  

Philanthropy’s now documented and undeniable diversity has called for a more inclusive, flexible model, especially in global, increasingly diasporan economies, where innovators mix and match voluntary sector practices.  Despite the recognition of diverse, indigenous forms of giving, and their role in movement building, old paradigms and social structures die hard.  A variety of ethnic and women’s philanthropy associations formed during this period since the 1980s to promote both the field’s diversity and social change for their constituencies.  There has been significant progress.  However, the majority of foundation philanthropy’s leadership in the US is still largely white and male.  Furthermore, in any act of social change there is always the possibility that the change agents can end up unwittingly promoting the very same inequities that they are trying to change.  For example, the mainstream black philanthropy movement in the US continues to be largely African-American-focused despite the fact that there has been an almost two hundred percent increase in black immigration from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and other countries over the past 30 years.  Also, as Becky Thompson has documented, the women’s movement, including philanthropy, continues to struggle to promote inclusion of diverse racial groups.

Pan-Africanism - the recognition, construction and promotion of the shared history, identity and, by extension,  social responsibilities among diverse peoples of African heritage—has been a basis for African and African diaspora social justice organizing and resistance since the eighteenth  century.  Pan-Africanism can be seen as one of the world’s earliest global identities, a harbinger of contemporary efforts to create transnational social movements.  Today ongoing migration of African peoples to the US has revived Pan-Africanism as a construct to both document and organize social change for diverse peoples of African descent worldwide. Black philanthropy scholars and advocates are adapting Pan-Africanism as a tool to promote diversity and inclusion.  A few scholars are now documenting contemporary philanthropy traditions of African immigrants, expanding on the African-American-focused literature in black philanthropy studies.  Activist leaders and their organizations, including the African Women’s Development Fund, African Grantmakers Network, the East African Grantmakers Association and Trust Africa among others have all formed within just the past decade with an explicitly Pan-African agenda designed to build common regional or continental social change agendas to build civil society and giving throughout the continent. 

While Pan-Africanism has been a persistent and powerful ideology for global black resistance, the history of Pan-Africanism has focused on the contributions of its male leaders, including WEB DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah and CLR James, while largely ignoring the contributions of women, including among many others, Ida Alexander Gibbs andMary Ashwood Garvey. Today, scholars are re-constructing Pan-Africanism to include women’s contributions, and black women’s organizations and coalitions are emerging to ensure diverse African-descent women’s interests, contributions and leadership are also included in the mainstream women’s philanthropy movement.  

The Pan-African Women’s Philanthropy Network (PAWPNet) was created in 2003 Minnesota USA as a diverse coalition of black women to promote philanthropy as a tool of transformative social change throughout Africa and its diaspora.  PAWPNet is now an almost four hundred member network with representation from over twenty countries, a successful bi-annual global summit and a vibrant online community, and is expanding in the US and abroad.

In 2006 The African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF)  in collaboration with Pan-African women and others in the US, co-founded a US sister organization called the African Women’s Development Fund USA, bridging both Africa and its diaspora in an emergent Pan-African women’s philanthropy movement.  AWDF USA funds African women’s development organizations on the continent and mobilizes awareness and support for African development in the US. Also, in 2010, the Black Women’s Donor Action Group (BWDAG) was created by a coalition of black women leaders working at women’s funds and foundations seeks to expand philanthropy particularly by affluent and wealthy black women donors.  Associated with the Women’s Funding Network, BWDAG includes both domestic and global funders such as the Global Fund for Women that support African and African diaspora women’s groups, as well as others, throughout the world.

The emerging Pan-African women’s philanthropy movement is a contemporary stream of both black and Pan-African women’s global activism.  To truly empower Pan-African women and their communities worldwide, this very young movement needs to address several challenges common to all emergent social movements.

At this early stage, it needs to create an infrastructure to sustain its key organisations. As it seeks funding and public recognition, it must be careful to maintain its principles of social change and justice.The movement must continue to attempt to overcome the divisions between the “old” and “new” African diasporas, as well as Africa’s and its diaspora’s endemic religious and ethnic conflicts. Building international social change agendas rooted in a shared history of self-help and giving has the potential to transcend the natural divisions of class, ethnicity, religion and ethnicity that undermine Pan-African movements more generally.

The joint conferring of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize on President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia symbolizes this exciting moment in the long history of Pan-Africanism, black philanthropy and women’s rights. The convergence of these three movements by Pan-African women leaders and their organizations has great potential. It rewrites the dominant narrative of the victimised African woman, documenting and financing their critical role in social transformation and history more broadly. The Pan-African women’s philanthropy movement potentially provides a tool to help communities recover from the debilitating worldwide recession, while establishing new transnational models of civil society and progressive social change.  


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