Transcript of keynote address by Mamadou Biteye
August 2, 2023

Thank you very much Ebrima for the very generous introduction. I wonder if my contribution will be as long as the introduction, just to say how generous it was. Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, distinguished guests. I am very pleased to an honored and humbled to stand here before you with the opportunity to address you and very humbly share some of our reflections on African philanthropy at an inflection point. What the challenges are, in what context, and what can we do to take advantage of this situation?


Audience, I am conflicted right now, I am conflicted between just going ahead and reading a speech that I have prepared, or just going with the flow, and reflecting on many things that we see in this space. I think that I would rather go for the second option. This speech will be made available to you, for you to read.


When we talk about philanthropy at an inflection point, my mind goes to three things. There’s probably more, but I want to think first about the many inflections that we have seen in the global arena over the past couple of years. The first one whose impact continues to have an effect on us in our lives and our economies is COVID-19, one of the deadliest, in terms of effect and showcasing the vulnerability of the world, regardless of whether you are a rich or a poor country, of how, as a global community, when we are not ready, when we are not building resilience, when we do not have strong systems and shared systems, how we are vulnerable, and the impact it has had on lives on economies on vulnerability. The global economy has shrunk, if I remember correctly, globally by 2.2% in GDP, and in Africa I believe, about 1.6%, and we continue to live that.


The second one in the global arena for me that is very important and that we cannot ignore is the war in Europe, and what a wake-up call it has given us as Africans. I think that even more recently, we have seen the withdrawal of Russia from the Grain Agreement. The big concern it has brought to the world but more importantly in Africa. The wake-up call it gave us is also a threat to our own ability to feed ourselves. It has brought or rather reaffirmed a new paradigm. We talk mostly about food security in the world, but this change leads us to speak not just about food security, but about food sovereignty. It makes us reflect as a continent with 30 million square kilometers, and 1.3 or 4 billion people, about how we can depend on the agricultural production of two countries that combined together, may be the size of DRC. So that is a big change that we are seeing. Another thing is the issue of capital, as well as induced by that, and how capital has been mostly channeled toward addressing the impacts of these issues in the countries where most global philanthropic money was coming from and coming into Africa. This raises the importance of us banking on our own cells, even more. I think those are really important points at the global level.


In Africa, we can see the issues around democracy, and we can agree that our continent, for many years, has been on a trajectory of increasing democracy. However, what we are seeing in West Africa, largely due to the economic crisis these days, calls for our attention. I remember in the late 90s when you looked at the map of West Africa, you would see that every head of state was either a military or a former military person who came to power through unconstitutional change. We have seen a lot of change over the past 15-20 years, where, almost every country is led by an elected head of state. However, in the past three years, it looks like we are going backward. What does that mean in terms of democracy, and where do we focus our resources as countries to address the challenges or empower our people to address the challenges they face?


We are also seeing the impact of that shrinking space for civil society, and also a big population growth that is increasing faster than the economic growth and the vulnerability which has put the youth of the most useful continent by 2050, under strain. Only the youth segment between 18 and 24 will double to 400 million and what does that mean? We are seeing many young people dying in the Mediterranean and Atlantic these days, losing faith in the ability of our continent to secure a future for them, and ready to perish at sea. What does that mean, and what does it mean for African philanthropy? If I think that philanthropy is the grease, that oils, the wheel of progress in society, then I think that it is important for us to also look at, what are the inflection points that we see in philanthropy, and particularly in African philanthropy, and which ones we need to address or take advantage of for philanthropy to hold holds the promise to support, transformation of society. I will list some of them, not comprehensively but some I think are important.


This is a constantly changing landscape. We are seeing many family foundations joining the movement. We also see many high-net-worth individuals coming in and instituting Foundations, and there is a lot of hype by the way. We also see a growing number of what I could call ‘’, corporate foundations coming. Today, we are seeing a very interesting change in the space, what used to be called RC, is being re-packaged as corporate foundations in that way, not necessarily focusing on inclusive economies, but using philanthropy to get a license to operate is also an important change that we need to see.


If we think again about the hypothesis, philanthropy has power. Unlike governments, its decisions do not depend on the potential outcome of the next election, and unlike corporates, its decisions and investments are not based on the potential quarterly or half-yearly earnings, and how those support that. We have a unique power and opportunity to have the freedom to do what actually matters. However, it is important to understand that regardless of the resources available to us as philanthropic groups, what we have is never enough. It is just a drop in the ocean of needs. Therefore, the idea of leverage becomes even more important in the midst of all those changes that I have talked about. 


You have given us four themes to concentrate on and reflect on as a group, which are people, power, practice, and policy, to have the impact that we foresee. Let me share my thoughts about each of them. When I think about people in this context, and in our community, I really think about skills and knowledge that foster innovation, and innovation that is not just disruptive change but one that provides proven solutions that are fruitful, applying them to new problems, new places, and new contexts. To do that, we need knowledge and skills, we need a knowledge society. This means that we need to increase investment in people and when I say people, it is not people out there. It is first and foremost, people within the philanthropic sector.


I always say that to have a good plant you need two things. You need a very good seed, and you need fertile soil. Think about the good seed as the competent, knowledgeable, and skillful people coming with all the other soft skills such as leadership, accountability, and readiness to serve. I think that this is something that is extremely important that we today as a community, think about. How we invest in ourselves to really up the game and bring the kind of knowledge and skills in emerging sectors that we do not have in the community. I think it is extremely important, perhaps, for some of these organisations here to undertake an inquiry or study to look at the challenges and upcoming challenges we face today in the rapidly digitising world. Do we as a philanthropic community have within our organisations, all the skills that we need to be able to face those challenges? Obviously, it is not there.


I cannot talk about people without talking about institutions because I talked about two things; good seed and fertile soil. Fertile soil for me is institutions. We should ask ourselves today, if we look back to say, do we have today, the right institutions, those institutions that are ready and able to tackle the challenges of today, and the challenges of tomorrow? I think that many of us will be tempted to say, no, then what does that mean? What should those institutions look like? What are the transformations, and the ways of working, this speaks to the problem of practice, that needs to take place to be able to have those two conditions. I always say those two conditions are not enough if we are not as a philanthropic community, not looking at that mindset change in terms of our role, and responsibility. We know there are challenges around financing and other things. But our ingenuity, change of perspective, and mindset are going to make that difference.


It is very interesting and many of you would be surprised if I said that crops do not need rain. But it is true. Crops do not need rain, they need water. It is all about perspective. We often see in Africa farmers sitting next to a water stream and complaining that it has not rained yet – think about that in our own context. That is the kind of change of perspective and change of mindset that I am talking about.


The second point is about power. In my perspective, I think that when we talk about power, it is really about the balance of giving and the recipients. How do we change the narrative that we are helping and supporting people transform their lives without making them too dependent? What does that mean, for our upward and our downward accountability towards them, not just us thinking about what is nice, what are the good solutions to them, but how to genuinely make them and bring them in as part of the solution? To me, it is about power. To me, the power also speaks to the private sector. I said earlier that because the imperatives of the next quarterly earnings limit the ability of the private sector to invest in untested solutions, we have seen it and seen it again. But here is an important role that philanthropy can play because we can fail, we can learn, and we can invest in those new untested ideas, and not do it just because it is cool. We believe that because when it works, and there is a proven business case, there is someone who is a market for it, and there is someone who will be willing to invest in that solution and take it to scale. That is also about the power of philanthropy. Again, this can only be done if we adopt that change of mindset that I have been talking about.


I want to talk briefly about practice. It feels to me, and I think that CAPSI and perhaps many other organisations like it can also do some inquiry about that. Yes, it is a growing community of philanthropy in Africa, we have many platforms, and some of them are here. However, I believe that more evidence needs to be brought to the fore. I think that we are together, without truly always being together in addressing the key challenges that we face; mutualising our efforts, knowledge, influence, and resources to tackle big problems. This will require many of us to move away or put less attention on the issue of putting cool stories on our websites, but really look into how we can build a common narrative as a community and showcase how we can address and tackle problems.

I will give you an example of what I have been an actor in. A few years back, probably seven years ago, I was heading the Rockefeller Foundation, and investing significantly in agriculture. I realised that many of our colleagues were funding the same actors for the same goals, but we were measuring outcomes differently. Our work was not coordinated. At the end of the day, the African organisations we were funding and supporting, were busy satisfying our individual organisational desiderata than actually focusing on the real problem of transforming African agriculture. This is often the case in this space.


What we then did was to call a few of them to sit down and evaluate this issue and see how we could better coordinate our work. We brought in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, ourselves as the Rockefeller Foundation, and USAID, and we sat down to discuss how our objectives compare, and we realised that we were pursuing the same type of outcomes. Then we agreed to have a common results measurement framework and to put our resources together and empower one organisation (Agra), that has very solid goals in many countries and with big numbers to reach – that is what we did.


For five years, the Gates Foundation put in $200 million, we put in $50 million, USAID put in $90 million, and that started the program. We were coordinating and having only one meeting with all the stakeholders through Agra. That way there was less pressure and more resources for Agri to actually focus on the development outcomes. Along the line, many others joined. GiZ joined with €30 million, UK joined with another £50 million, etc. This gave probably the biggest philanthropic budget for agricultural transformation to a single program, over $700 million just for five years. I think that is possible. We need to come together to mutualise our resources for big problems. We all do great work, here and there transforming the lives of one, two, or three people in small communities. But the issue of scale of impact is a big problem, and it cannot be resolved, if we do not come together on joint programs, joint goals, and joint ways of measuring our impact. Also, it tells the story of not one institution but tells the story of a group of institutions making change, which to me is about what we can look at in practice.


The other thing is about being ruthless in measuring and showcasing our impact. Today, we must admit, the policy or regulatory space is still not as incentivising on our continent, although there are differences from country to country, it is still not very favorable to the strengthening of philanthropy. Sometimes we even see the contrary. I will come back to this with a story that I think my brother Akwasi here will remember. A few years back, I think in 2010 or 2009 here in Senegal, the government decided to revoke the registration of all international development organisations, and everyone had to go back and register individually. We are seeing many similar things happening in different places. I remember we brought everyone together and met at our Oxfam offices after receiving individual letters to discuss the issue and see how we could co-strategise to address it. I remember there was somebody who suggested in the meeting that we make this issue public to garner the support of our beneficiaries. And I remember I and I think this was brother Akwasi in this wisdom, who said, ‘Do we have evidence that if we put this in the public, we will be supported by the public? What do we think about how the public sees us beyond just the beneficiaries of our work in remote rural villages? How are we seen in town, are we seen as the big guys in four-by-four cars, flying from place to place, etc.? Would it be more positive support or negative support to us?’


I am telling this story because it speaks to the issue of our accountability to everyone. Because of the nature of how we are funded as philanthropic organisations, we do not feel the pressure to account for what we do, especially to the broad public. I think that occurrence or issue showed that more than ever before, the importance of not just accounting to the people who fund you, or the people that you work with directly, but also the importance of your accountability worldwide to society more globally. This is something that is extremely important that we need to look at and consider in our practice.


The last point I will talk about, because I am conscious of time, is the issue of policy which is extremely important. Policy and regulation, I want to add regulation because I believe that the first step in policy implementation is regulation. We think that we have an important role to play also in this space because policy is best done when it is evidence-based. Evidence comes from two places, perhaps at least, but probably many more. One is research. How are we as a community supporting the generation of knowledge through society working with academics and with think tanks? Today, we at ACBF support the Africa Think Tank network, a network of 60 think tanks. But the biggest challenge these think tanks face is their funding and sustainability. What role can we play to support them in conducting the research and generating the knowledge, evidence, and insights that private sector actors and policymakers need to devise conducive policies? I think this is very important, and to make it demand-driven, as well, and I think we have a very important role that we can play with them.


The second area for me is that evidence comes from practice within our work. The programmes we develop, implement, and evaluate go beyond just evaluating whether we have done it or not, but look deeply in terms of outcomes and impact, to measure how it is changing the lives of people. What are the lessons that we are learning from that and how do we disseminate those lessons and put them in the hands of those who make policy? I think there is an extremely important role that philanthropy can play in that.


But it is also the issue of data. Last year, in partnership with and the Mac J. Govern Foundation, we released the report on ‘data talent in the social sector’. What we realised is that there is a huge shortage of data scientists, and data miners in the social sector. When we say social sector, we mean the government, philanthropic organisations, and civil society organisations. This suggests that probably most development programmes that are being developed are not based on real and strong evidence. Because not only do we not have the data, but we also do not have the capacity to mine it and make it provide that evidence. Therefore, it is extremely important for us, and this links to my first point about people, to figure out how we can invest in building that capability in increasing the data talent for our sector. That way, investment decisions are not based on our goodwill, or what we see as cool and nice, but on the right evidence, and data to guide decision-making.


I cannot finish without delving into a little bit about the African Capacity Building Foundation and the role we can play in this. ACBF was created 32 years ago in 1991, in the midst of structural adjustments in Africa. At the time, there were 12 states that received massive funding from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, UNDP, and others to support this structural adjustment programmes. But things were not moving. Countries were having challenges using the resources, the burn rate was very low, and at the end of programmes, a significant amount of those resources were being returned. Thus, it was in that context, that ACBF was created, understanding that it is not just about an issue of money, but it is also an issue of capacity, capacity to plan and execute. Over time, ACBF has trained over 50,000 civil servants, and many of them today hold high offices in their government, ministers, governors of central banks, and many more. It has also supported policy, and evidence-based policymaking through the creation of several think tanks, many of which are known today here, I think that our friends from Kenya would be familiar with KIPPRA. There are quite a number of them today, though with uneven influence, because it again depends on the appetite of policymakers for evidence and knowledge.


We continue to focus on our new strategy for 2023-2027, to implement the same mission and mandate that was created 32 years ago and continue to build human capital through skills, and also build institutions. This me brings back to my earlier statement; these tools are intimately linked. So, we provide skills through the ACBF Academy, that is launching two big schools that are extremely important to address the issues of shortages. The first one is the African School of Taxation and Public Administration, to address the issue, and build the capacity for increased resource mobilisation on the continent, while also improving public finance management, not through technical skills, but through soft skills, such as transformative leadership, accountability, inclusivity, purpose driven budgeting PFM.


By the way, in this space, civil society is far more advanced than our public, because civil servants are not wired that way to be open and accountable to citizens. This is why we are not focusing on technical skills, but more on soft skills. The second school that we are launching at the beginning of 2024 is the African School of Regulation. As I said earlier, regulation is the first step in policy implementation, and we drastically lack regulatory capacity on our continent. What we do on the continent in terms of regulation is more compliance with others’ regulations, but not our own. There are many sectors that are not regulated at all, and it is important to change that.


It is also through the institutional accelerator. An institutional accelerator is a tool that allows you to look at any organisation and conduct an assessment of 10 big parameters ranging from governance, talent, processes, systems, fundraising, results measurement, etc. to identify strong points and weaknesses of that organisation and coming up with a capacity development plan – high touch, medium touch or low touch, to end this cognisance that if you build the skills but do not have the right conducive institutions, then the impact can be jeopardised. This is what ACBF offers as part of this community, and we are already doing it for several foundations. Unfortunately, mostly funded by foreign foundations but I pledge this to this community, we will see how we can work together to really strengthen our organisations to improve and increase the ability to make an impact.


This has been long, but I hope that some of those points were thought-provoking. Nothing new, but just putting the finger on issues that I think that if left unaddressed, our impact will continue to be limited. Thank you for your attention.