Transcript of Ignite Talk by Halima Mohamed
October 9, 2022

Briggs Bomba

We are going to transition and move to an Ignite Talk that is going to be delivered by a dear comrade, Halima Mahomed. Halima is currently serving as a senior fellow on African philanthropy at Trust Africa and is a key part of the philanthropy ecosystem or infrastructure. There is a language that she always deploys in her work relating to philanthropy having a mission towards a more just society. Let us give her a big hand as she comes on stage. We have told Halima that she has 5-10 minutes uninterrupted to pose some of the difficult questions we should be pondering on in the philanthropy sector.


Halima Mohamed

Thank you, Briggs, and good afternoon, everyone. I want to thank Masego this morning for raising the COVID-19 fog. I have my notes so bear with me if I read because it is a real thing. But I also want to thank Masego and Ruth for really foregrounding the idea of whose narrative matters and whose knowledge matters, I think those are the most important conversations we need to be having in the sector.


The theme of the conference is ‘Systems Change and the New Normal’ and I have been asked to talk about the role of philanthropy in relation to this. But first, we must ask which system? Philanthropy in Africa is multifaceted, and we need to be mindful of using philanthropy as shorthand for institutionalised philanthropy. The latter is but one small part of a much larger giving sphere that is dominated by everyday giving, which is rarely professionalised or legally formalised, but really is embedded in everyday life. Actually, I do not want to change that system. I think by trying to professionalise it, we risk destroying it. However, we do need to better understand it, and recognise the multiple roles it plays in advancing social change, and then how we connect to those roles.


But looking at the institutional philanthropy space, which is where most of us come from, the last few years have seen significant critiques and much talk about how the sector is changing. But is it? I think the answer is a complex one, and I’ll try to talk about a few types of changes I am seeing in the system, and what a re-centred lens needs to look like. So we have all heard much about the loosening of restrictions during the onset of COVID, easier qualification criteria, applications, and important reporting requirements, a loosening of grant conditions and terms, additional flexibility and funds, and more operational general support. Some of these changes where crisis responses were enforced only for that moment, while others have become a new normal.


All of these changes are important and useful, make no mistake. Civil society has been demanding these and many others for a long time, and rightly so. But do these changes address the heart of the agenda-setting critiques that have been leveled at the system? Or are they tweaks, important tweaks that tweaks, nonetheless? Tweaks to practice that leave the fundamental fault lines in our system untouched. Why so because these tweaks are after the fact. After we have decided what narrative of change is needed in society and after we’ve developed theories of change and how that will be achieved. It’s after the strategy development process we take internally, and after our own formulations of what constitutes impact. It’s after the decisions on what kind of civic spaces are the bearers of the change, and deserving of, or professionalised enough to obtain support. So, these tweaks are after the biggest decisions have already been made. While this is still the dominating mode of institutionalised philanthropic practice, it is by no means clear-cut.


Many philanthropic institutions work on some form of hierarchy, and who influences the decisions at different levels of that hierarchy varies depending on many different factors, size levels of authority, geography, colonial worldviews, type of philanthropy, nature of external input, founder, board orientations, the list could go on. Some institutions are extremely top-down – founder money translates into founder board decision-making, sometimes overtly others indirectly. Then some institutions have brought in expertise from the civic space into programming roles and this plays some significant influence on the strategies and theories of change and push barriers and who is brought into the funding room.


I have many dearly loved colleagues who are working to shift these institutions but with much resistance. Some institutions have created advisory boards, consultative committees, and other participatory practices to help inform how they understand issues. All of these are progressive changes and absolutely necessary ones. But they still happen within a system that remains unchanged and unchanged in how it sees its role. A system that too often still mediates to different degrees, the voices of those bringing in perspectives from the ground. Then we have seen fundamental transformations of philanthropic institutions that are drastically changing how the system works, which at their core reflect what it means to be in solidarity with those who love justice. We see this in some feminist funds, some community philanthropies, we see it in some movement funds, some activist-led participatory funds, and some new configurations of solidarity funding. The lesson here is that it can be done, and it is being done. But in the larger scheme of things, these groundbreaking institutions are still few and far between and we need to do much more to learn from them, understand how they work, and understand the ideological and values basis upon which their work is positioned. Make no mistake, true transformation demands an ideological change, not just a practice-based one. Although we do not ideologically reposition whose agency is central to informing our work, our positionality, our provision, and our power, can despite many good intentions, do too much harm, even while we are trying to do good.


Power has become one of the most talked about topics in philanthropy as it should be. But I want to put forward that philanthropic power is not the start of the conversation, philanthropic positionality is. How we use our power is directly linked to how we position our work role in advancing this work of a just society. So, we must ask, what does it look like to position ourselves not above, but in solidarity work, so that our role is to center the agency of those living injustice as the core of the work?


What is agency as a lens demand? It means that constituency-led agendas must dominate our understanding of the issues. It demands that we fundamentally reconfigure our role in ways that decentre our institutions, our impact, and our legacies. It demands that we are no longer inviting others to sit at our table or even setting up new tables in the same house but enabling space for entirely new structures to shape the narratives and agendas for a just society, even if those structures exclude us. Does that make us redundant? Maybe, and maybe not. It is not really about funding and getting out of the way, but funding and figuring out how we still continue to support and position our power in ways that are in solidarity. It demands that our philanthropy is inherently political, that we use our power to build collective organising power, and that requires us to move beyond the professionalised civic space as the core of the work. It requires that we question how our bias to professionalisation crowds out the many civic spaces that are doing transformative things on the ground.


The ways in which the politics of exclusion in philanthropy inhibit agency is something we must contend with. It demands a commitment to a long-term change agenda that does not end when the grant or project ends, or when we change our programme areas, as philanthropy is very likely to do so every few years. It demands a reflection on impact that is much more nuanced and dynamic, which is informed by constituency views of what is valued as impact and how that is assessed. It demands that we let go of the siloed programming and look at resourcing social change in ways that recognises how multiple systems of oppression link to build on and compound each other, how multiple identities and characteristics can simultaneously elevate privilege and reinforce injustice, and how gains and progress on one issue can foreground gains and progress on another or foreground limitations on those. Then we need to foreground the lived experience of people in this decision-making.


These are by no means easy shifts to make. But for systemic change to happen out there, it must first happen here. Our philanthropic system is inherently inequitable, but how we choose to position our privilege need not be so, thank you for listening.