Transcript of keynote address by Gerry Salole
August 3, 2023

Let me start with this, I was thinking about what to say last night, and I remembered my grandmother who was a formidable storyteller. She could entertain children and adults in the same company by telling the same story but speaking to different levels of the audience at the same time. She had sexual innuendo, she had adventure, everything in the same story. The way she delivered stories made people want to come and spend the night in our house to hear her tell stories. She was an amazing storyteller, and one thing I was thinking about last night was she was very good at doing one thing, she translated the world into two categories, us and them, in all her stories. Funnily enough, the story end of the story had a very ritualised ending. The story was never the same twice, it was different every time. Even the same story was told differently but the ending was ritualised. I don’t want to offend anybody, but the ending was the following, ‘and they lived happily ever after’. We remained with shit in our teeth.


Okay, so just to give you an idea of the subversiveness of this woman’s storytelling, because she gave you a sense of community, but she also gave you a sense of what the opposition was about. She did divide the world into us and them, and of course, all communities do that, we do that all the time. So, as I was thinking yesterday when you gave me the topic of people and power, I immediately thought of us, and them. We do not have the power; they have the power. We are the people; they are not the people. Of course, it is not like that. I am sorry, somebody is speaking to me, I thought it was my grandmother for a minute you know, breaking traditional rules.


Let me start by saying what a great privilege and honor it is to be addressing this group. I had written this speech, but I have dispensed with it partly because of some of the things that happened yesterday, and I will explain, but also because I am really speaking to a group of brothers and sisters. Literally, I am talking to what I consider my peers, not people I can teach, educate, or inspire because many of you are my mentors; Natalia, Akwasi, Bheki, Jacob, Ebrima, etc. These are people who I take advice and get instruction from. I cannot sit here and pretend that I can say something to you that is different, better, or new. More importantly, yesterday I heard a lot of the things that I, in fact, was going to say, so what else is new under the sun? In Amharic we have a saying that translates to – under the sky, there are no new things, so I do not have anything to offer you that is new. However, I do want to say what a privilege and an honor, and that you are obliged to listen to me so, this is the deal.


I have recently come to some kind of what old men like me do, they think, and they remember, thank you, Briggs. They remember, and I have been trying to piece together things that bother me, I am not sure I have the answers, but I am going to suggest some things to you. I would like your feedback, because either I am going crazy, and that is possible. Or, I am beginning to see some things, some patterns that I want to share with you today. This topic of people and power lends itself very much to this. So, with no further ado, with all protocols observed, and all that, let me just make a pact with you. This is not a speech to an audience. I am sorry that I am here, and you are there, us and them. I want us to be part of the discourse, and I want feedback, I want criticism, and I want you to tell me if I have got it wrong. It is perfectly possible that I do not understand anything, and I am just seeing things and patterns where they don’t exist. But let me just throw a couple of things out at you.

I have been in love with the idea of burial associations, and rotating credit associations, all my life. In my fieldwork in anthropology, my initial work on ethnicity was all about looking at what people do to organise for themselves. One particular example in Ethiopia in 1961, a group of people living in an area called Wellamo, realised that if they could build 60 kilometers of asphalt road, they could get produced to market to Addis Ababa, and they could sell it at a better price. These are ordinary peasant farmers, who pooled resources, gathered money, collected money, put together resources, and built in the space of something like nine months, an asphalt road to join the main asphalt road to Addis. They call themselves the Wellamo Road Construction Association, and they brought in a lot of money. Not only did they bring in lots of money, but after they finished building the road, they had more money to do other things, and they began to do them. What do you think happened? The government took notice of them, and they began to get very nervous about ‘people power’. Very quickly, a narrative emerged that these were ethnic secessionists and this that and the other but in fact, this was a group of ordinary people with agency who decided to do something for themselves.


Rotating credit and burial associations are the foundation, I think, of African society across the board from Cape to Cairo, from Dakar to Djibouti, you will find that women mostly are keeping and preserving these incredibly powerful, organisational mechanisms to keep people going. We have reduced them to something that I think is astonishing in the way we describe them, because we call them survivalist activities, or we call them the coping mechanisms of the marginalised. But we have not recognised the power that ordinary people have in pooling resources, and in making things happen. And so, when people talk to me about African philanthropy, I am always translating it to something that already exists.


This brings me to the issue of agency. I have a problem, I’m sorry if I am provoking, but then again, I would like your feedback.I have a problem with the way we use the word agency because we imply in the way we use it that it is something that we can give to somebody. Agency is not conferred. If I can paraphrase Shakespeare, he has a wonderful, feminine hero, who goes to defend Shylock and she says something like, ‘mercy is a quality that is not strained’. Well, actually, agency is a concept, a power, an asset that is not delivered to somebody. It is not given to anybody. Agency exists as part of the fabric of the DNA of people on this continent and on other continents. It is something you have, and it is something you need to be empowered, perhaps is a funny word, because it uses the word power, but you need to be not hindered from using your agency, but your agency is yours, and no one can give it to you, or indeed, really take it away from you. But maybe you think differently, and I would like to hear but I don’t think agency is something that can be conferred.


But power is a very another thing. People do have power, there is people power as I have described. It is no longer fashionable for donors to be able to say, it’s my money, I’m giving it to you, so you do what I tell you to do. But we have a whole world of rules, mechanisms, and agreements we have gotten into this context where we are now negotiating partnerships with beneficiaries and so on. Negotiated partnerships, for me, are problematic because they take away agency, they take away spontaneity.


Recently, I thought we have witnessed during COVID, and possibly in the Ukraine war, two examples where the black swan was not seen, and people were not ready for the unexpected, it happened. The contractual arrangements that agreed that had been agreed, did not allow or did not permit people to react spontaneously to what was happening. I think the philanthropic community if we can use that word, did perform amazing things during this period. It also met the limitations of what it can do under the current schema of contractual relationships and obsession with reporting with TDIs with all the rest of that. There is a real problem, I think, in spontaneity. So, when we say, and this is where I really need your support, we need to create movements that say this. I have seen very successful movements in our industry, on special things. I know people who will not sit on a panel if a woman is not on that panel. I know people who will not take part in something that is not something that they think is ethical. We have managed that in our industry, I think we should also begin to call out, what I call jargon cladding. There is too much jargon cladding in our business, we give something a name and because we use that language, it is as if we have solved the problem, right?


This, I think, is something we really need to do, we need to call each other out when we use language inappropriately. When we use jargon cladding, to pretend we are decolonised, or whatever it is when we are not. I am asking you not to allow ourselves this is our community, not to make the mistake of using jargon to cover up and actually not being able to live up to the promise. I think that is a real risk.


I wanted to talk a little bit about another kind of jargon, which is the jargon of localisation, if I may. I mean, Briggs said it so much better than I could. Localisation has been with us for a long time. When I first worked in this industry, you heard how I got into it accidentally. Everybody understood that having people who spoke the language and lived in the community, were the ones who had the answers. It is not like anybody ever said, no, that is not true. They all agreed. When you show them that people agree, the problem is we do not have the mechanisms to allow people to join genuinely, authentically, and not as tokens, in other words, be able to present a perspective that is their own. I think this is the biggest challenge because it is just simply too easy when you are speaking this kind of sophisticated language that we do, to forget that people have the answers. They may not use the same language, but they do have the answers, they do have the concepts. I find it extremely difficult to accept, and this is a bias, that we are in a new phase where localisation means something new.


When the colonialists colonised this continent if you read Rodney, and how Europe underdeveloped Africa, you will see that colonialism understood localism very well. There is absolutely nothing new about recognising that the people on the ground know better. But we have systematically and continually found ways of obstructing that partly because of language, partly because of sophistication, partly because of jargon. But partly because at the core of our industry we have many people, and again this is a bias, who are not bad or cruel people, who think that they have the answers. They are social engineers; they have the answers. They have the answer in their pocket, they carry it with them. How can you ask that person to listen to somebody who does not use the language that they have, and that is the challenge.


Yesterday, I have to say, I was bowled over by the keynote speaker yesterday, it was very powerful because the language that was being used was the language of capacity building. I had come with my own bias and hostility to the word, capacity building, I cannot stand the word, to be honest. It always puts you in a position where you are assuming you know something, you have a secret, and you have something in which you can help somebody else gain capacity, what an insult. I was coming to the speech with that kind of attitude. I said later to Mamadou that I had an ‘Aha’ moment because he was talking about a very different kind of capacity building. He was talking about capacity building of us, not them. He was talking about the capacity building of the professional, not the unschooled, unwashed. He was talking about the capacity building of us because we need capacity building to be able to interpret what is going on on the ground. That is what I got from yesterday’s keynote speech, and I thought, my gosh, that has helped me. Yes, I believe in education and yes, I believe in knowledge, but that knowledge must be applied in a particular place, it cannot be that you are assuming that you have something to offer somebody else. I will carry that from that keynote speech, and I look forward to reading the written version of it because it was a very important lesson.


Then we had something happen yesterday, that also blew me away and I have to recognise it. Sometimes it is good not to plan too much. Yesterday, we had a very African meeting, we had to wait, and we waited and were patient. We knew there were protocols that needed to be observed. We also needed to occupy our time. What did we have, we had a master rapper with us. Okay. Ali just blew me away, he told us what we had been saying and for a few minutes, talked about our capitals and all the cities. He created an ‘us’ community in the space of about five minutes. So, Ali, thank you very much for what you did yesterday.


I am here representing the Africa Europe Foundation, which is also something that, you know, is new. It is a new foundation that is trying to occupy a very special niche, and it is a very special niche because it is really trying to make sure that the relationships between the European Union, and the African Union, are equitable and real. That is really an important thing because we are going to need policy, and we are going to need governance, and we are going to need serious input from these institutions at some point. The Africa Europe Foundation is doing many different things, it is working on climate change, health, carbon transfer, and African space, which I believe it is working on a whole range of different things. So, if you want to hear more about what it is doing, please talk to me or to Andres, who is in the room representing the Africa Europe Foundation. But I wanted to just say one thing about what it’s doing that I think really matters, and civil society needs to help, therefore I hope you can give us your cards and so on so we can begin to reach out to you. One of the things it is trying to do is to monitor the fulfillment of commitments being made by the EU and the African Union to each other at their summits. This is the way to hold people accountable for promises made on our behalf. So civil society needs to recognise that this space is being occupied, and it needs to help an institution like the Africa Europe Foundation work. Now they have a good pedigree. One of the organisations behind the Africa-Europe Foundation is the foundation you all know very well, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. One of the things that the Mo Ibrahim Foundation has done that I have found extraordinary in the last 10 years has been to take the index that they created around governance and make that index something that African intellectuals, African think tanks, African specialists, African scientists are the ones who are adding to the index and adding every year new and better indicators and collecting the data. Frankly, this tool, the African Governance Index, is one of the most powerful tools for holding African governments to account by African citizens, and I think African civil society needs to take that into consideration.


Having said that, I will shut up. Please tell me what I have said is total nonsense or maybe there is a grain of truth in there somewhere. Thank you.