On Initial Intentions

January 24th, 2023

This post is one of the TrustAfrica 10th Anniversary Blog Series.

Ten years ago on the 6th of June 2006 we opened our doors for business in Dakar to serve the continent of Africa. It is important to note that TrustAfrica was conceived, in a series of groundbreaking meetings from 2002 to 2005 that brought together hundreds of dynamic individuals and organizations that promote democracy, human rights, peace and security, and sustainable development. These processes entailed the incubation of what was then the Special Initiative for Africa (SIA) at Ford Foundation until it was officially weaned off as an autonomous foundation operating out of Dakar.

 From inception we were very clear about our mission; to strengthen civil society in order to achieve the twin goals of democracy and development. We coined this as addressing some of the continent’s most pressing challenges. Ours was also an attempt to promote initiatives led by Africans, informed by an objective appreciation of the continent’s social, economic and political context. We hoped that our work would contribute towards re-affirming confidence in the agency of Africans in seeking solutions to the continent’s most endemic problems. We placed our bet on civil society in its broader manifestation, and saw it as a space where deficits in our democracies and development could be addressed. In this introductory article to the TA@10 blog series, I will focus on some of our initial thinking and also what became of those early initiatives. There are five areas that have been particularly exciting for us as an organisation; achieving the mission of enhancing citizen based agency for democracy and development, ensuring that we are credible landscape interpreters, understanding our partners (civil society), the supply-chain (philanthropy) and also reflecting more on how we have worked and what we could have done differently. We were very clear from the beginning that there was no silver bullet to resolving Africa’s intractable challenges.  Instead, we would need to invest in catalytic initiatives that have a ripple effect whose impact will be felt well beyond our initial efforts.  In this post, I will discuss in more detail how we set out to be a part of the ecosystem working towards Africa’s transformation.

In the first strategy document we clarified our role as that of catalyst and collaborator. We stated that we would “… foster dialogue, and support projects that address Africa’s democratic and developmental challenges. … by strengthen[ing] the capacities of civil society organizations to be more effective and to secure the democratic space in which they operate”. The latter was based on the valid observations and conviction that a vibrant civil society was a necessary component of the democracy and development equation. At the time the continent had just made the turn to having more democratic and civilian governments in place than at any other time in the last century. It was indeed a moment of great hope for the continent but even then, we realized the need for a vibrant community of civil society based organisations effectively engaged in speaking truth to power and continuously exposing the excesses of governments. We sought to defend the new status quo and ensure that the people of Africa benefit from the transition to civilian and democratic governments.

However, we were also alert to the fact that the shift to democratic governments whilst necessary was not a sufficient condition for equitable development. For us equitable development meant shared growth instead of the perpetuation of an accumulation model which only benefits a few. Whilst retaining our focus on nurturing civil society organizations we also realized the need to work closely with the continent’s community of knowledge generators. Specifically, we wanted these researchers to help us identify the factors that are constraining Africa’s entrepreneurial energy. Over an eight-year period we supported researchers spread across the continent to analyze how government policies and the general operating environment was inhibiting the growth of enterprises from informal to formal, and from medium to large scale. We asked our research partners to explore viable policy options and present these to their governments. We have indeed seen remarkable results in this stream of work – policy suggestions made by our research partners in Botswana, Cameroun, Uganda and South Africa. These have led to several reforms which have contributed towards the creation of an enabling environment.

In line with our commitment towards building trust in African initiatives, we saw the need to support civil society based efforts of ensuring that governments implement the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture.  We have since then been a part of conversations and processes to ensure that Africa’s mining vision is converted into policy practice at country level. At the moment we are engaged in processes aimed at supporting the emergence of a continent-wide consensus against illicit financial flows[1]. In the arena of advancing political justice and democracy some of our most important efforts have been focused on contributing towards strengthening the African Court. We realize the importance of reducing impunity and atrocity crimes on the continent and also the contestations around the International Criminal Court. We realize that Africa needs her own credible processes of bringing perpetrators of politically motivated violence and we are devoting significant energy in ensuring that that we have a credible and effective court on the continent.

Finally, we have in the past 10 years focused on growing the field of African Philanthropy. Our energies have been devoted towards producing knowledge that affirms the historical and culturally embedded forms of giving popular across Africa. In the process we have produced a volume of essays on the subject and contributed book chapters, journal papers and conference papers. We have also led the process of the establishing the African Philanthropy Network (initially called the African Grantmakers network) and participated in many forums focused on advancing the practice of what we loosely referred to as African Philanthropy. For us, African Philanthropy is best captured when understood as a form agency, especially in a context where the dominant narratives were of an Africa that was hopeless. We felt the need to display African agency and our knowledge products and the different platforms contributed towards the repositioning of Africa as an engaged continent. We have also been careful not to position/portray it as a silver bullet for all of Africa’s ills and acknowledged the important role played by global philanthropy. Our approach has not been to seek to replace one with the other but to find ways in which both can co-exist and create synergies where necessary.

In our ten years of existence our footprint has expanded across the continent and below some of the most recognisable achievements:

  • Awarded 513 grants worth US$23,710,000.00 spread across the three program areas as follows: African Philanthropy 16 (3%), Democracy 226 (44%) and Equitable Development 271 (53%).
  • Convened African stakeholders in 41 convenings across the continent on issues of democratisation, transitional justice, constitutionalism, agriculture development, higher education, illicit financial flows, and philanthropy.
  • Produced five books in the areas of African Philanthropy, Agriculture, Governance of the Public Sphere, Investment climate and more recently on Zimbabwe. 

In addition to the above, we have also made significant contributions to various debates on African transformation through journal papers, conference presentations and magazine articles. Our convenings provided civil society based actors, policy makers, and academics with important platforms for engagement, reflection, learning, networking and exploring opportunities for collaboration. Organizationally, TrustAfrica has grown from 5 staff at the Dakar office in 2006 to 22 staff spread across the continent including Abuja, Monrovia, Harare, and Yaoundé.  I believe there are many more other stories to share and we will be inviting our partners to contribute to the blog series.

The series of blogs that will be posted here will hopefully contribute towards a richer understanding of the work that we have been and are doing. Our intention is to not only to speak about what we think we have done right, but to also discuss some of our failures. The stories told here should help us as a community of philanthropy actors in terms of learning and in the identification of opportunities for collaboration.

[1] We have identified these flows as a major impediment to Africa’s widely shared development and will be discussing them in more detail in the blogs that follow.

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