Paul Theroux Critiques Philanthropy in Africa

via Renowned Writer Paul Theroux Critiques Philanthropy in Africa – by Paul Theroux

Renowned author Paul Theroux discusses why the philanthropy of Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Bono, and Jeffrey Sachs largely fails. Here’s what works.

The desire of distant outsiders to fix Africa may be heartfelt, but it is also age-old and even quaint. Curiously repetitive in nature, renewed and revised every decade or so, it is an impulse Charles Dickens described, in a wickedly accurate phrase, as “telescopic philanthropy.” That is, a focus from afar to uplift the continent: New York squinting compassionately at Nairobi.

Never have so many people, so many agencies, so many stratagems, so much money been deployed to improve Africa — and yet the majority of the movers are part-timers, merely dropping in, setting up a scheme in the much-mocked “the-safari-that-does-good” manner, then returning to their real lives, as hard-charging businessmen, Hollywood actors, benevolent billionaires, atoning ex-politicians, MacArthur geniuses, or rock stars in funny hats. It’s not hard to imagine the future tombstones of the Clintons and Bono and Gates, and many others bitten by the eleemosynary itch, chiseled with the words, Telescopic Philanthropist. The farther away the donors are, the shorter their visits (“Chelsea Clinton took time out of her 10-day humanitarian trip in Africa to meet some of the kids that her AIDS work is benefiting…”), and the more passionate their feelings.

Never mind that Africa receives roughly $50 billion in aid annually from foreign governments, and perhaps $13 billion more from private philanthropic institutions, according to Penta’s estimate. Never mind that Angola’s oil revenues are around $72 billion, and Nigeria’s $95 billion; that Africa boasts at least 55 verified and somewhat detached billionaires. I can testify that Africa is much worse off than when I first went there 50 years ago to teach English: poorer, sicker, less educated, and more badly governed. It seems that much of the aid has made things worse.

I am not alone observing this fact. In his new book, The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, economist Angus Deaton questions the usefulness of all aid, and describes how the greater proportion of the world’s poor are found not in Africa but in the booming, yet radically unequal, economies of China and India. Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo calls aid a “debilitating drug,” arguing that “real per-capita income [in Africa] today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population — over 350 million people — live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades.” The Kenyan economist James Shikwati takes this same line on aid, famously telling the German magazine Der Spiegel, “For God’s sake, please stop.”

There have, of course, been a few successes. For all his faults, Bill Clinton’s strong-arming of pharmaceutical companies to lower the price of one-a-day AIDS medications, to less than a dollar per pill, has delivered real relief to Africa’s most vulnerable. But we also need to be honest about such grandiose ambitions: Most fail. (For lessons on what to avoid and what to do in order to execute effective philanthropy in Africa, see the box at end of story.)

The most recent example of a Westerner running amok in Africa appears to be the celebrity-economist Jeffrey Sachs and his $120 million effort to end extreme poverty there. Nina Munk documents in her book The Idealist (see Penta Sept. 12) how, among other things, Sachs’ Millennium Villages Project poured $2.5 million over three years into a sparsely populated community of nomadic camel herders in Dertu, Kenya, and trumpeted its success.

In actual fact, the charity’s paid-for latrines became clogged and overflowing, the dormitories it erected quickly fell into disrepair, and the livestock market it built ignored local nomadic customs and was closed within a few months. An incensed Dertu citizen filed a 15-point written complaint against Sachs’s operation, claiming it “created dependence” and that “the project is supposed to be bottom top approached but it is visa [sic] versa.”

With such glaring examples of failure, the nature of African assistance is heading in a different direction. Today, there is a new push from wealthy Americans to jump-start self-help capitalism in Africa, rather than feed a bottomless pit of philanthropic aid, and in this group sit the likes of Howard G. Buffett, the philanthropist-farmer investing $100 million in the Great Lakes region of Africa (see Penta, Oct. 25); Ron Cordes, the co-chairman of Genworth Financial Wealth Management and a proponent of impact investing; and John Coors, the brewery scion and founder of CoorsTek, hoping to convince like-minded families to invest in a start-up African fund.

But are these efforts really so new? When Coors spoke to me of his One Thousand & One Voices (1K1V) mission — currently a 15-family effort to raise a $300 million Africa fund — he said, “We need to create jobs that people are proud of, and the best mechanism for creating jobs is business.” I smiled in recognition. Coors was echoing the sentiments of one of the progenitors of the telescopic breed of Africanophiles, the English baronet Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845) — who was also made wealthy through his brewery and wished to fix Africa with family connections and beer profits.

ABOLITIONIST AND SOCIAL REFORMER Thomas Buxton urged in his book The African Slave Trade and its Remedy (1839) that a delegation sail to Africa to conclude treaties with African chiefs and kings, and convince them that, instead of capturing and exporting slaves, they could make a steadier (and more virtuous) profit in manufacture, and the selling of their produce. Through honest commerce, they could buy the guns, beads, cloth, and trinkets they desired. Buxton emphasized the then-novel view that the missionary impulse in Africa was not enough; trade was the key to improving the material side of the continent; business was salvation, at least here on earth.

Buxton’s book inspired the Niger Expedition, an early version of the Clinton Global Initiative, which sailed to West Africa in 1841, but it failed, from death, disease, disillusionment and fever; and no treaties or business opportunities resulted. Yet a year earlier, a lecture by Buxton in London energized David Livingstone, who was in the audience. Livingstone set off that same year for Africa, his head filled with Buxtonian dreams of commerce on the Zambezi River, in his eyes a potential thoroughfare of prosperity. It is significant that in 33 years of travel Livingstone outlined many plans for commerce in Africa (white settlement, cotton growing, colonialism), but was a distracted messenger of the Lord’s word. He managed to convert only one African to Christianity, according to Tim Jeal’s exhaustive biography Livingstone (newly republished by Yale University Press), and the man later lapsed from the faith.

Buxton also inspired Charles Dickens, who was in his early thirties as a novelist at the time Buxton was preaching his message of legitimate trade. But this Dickensian inspiration was fictional. All potential telescopic philanthropists ought to read Bleak House, in which Dickens satirizes Buxton’s effort in the minor but resonant character Mrs. Jellyby. She is a familiar figure and from her passions and predilections she might be one of our own contemporaries, paging through Barron’s, studying the markets, seeking opportunities in mining and agri-business in Africa. “She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if… they could see nothing nearer than Africa!”


The idea of aiding the continent by bringing Western trade and commerce was first advocated by Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton and David Livingstone in the 19th century, and drolly skewered, even back then, by Charles Dickens. History continuously repeats itself in Africa. The grand philanthropic ambitions of Cecil Rhodes are found these days in the energetic works of the Clinton Global Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dickens knew the humiliations of poverty; his improvident father languished for months in Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison. He is well-known for his depictions of the London poor in his novels, and he was familiar with benefactors (Great Expectations is, among other things, a study in money and patronage). The idea that Mrs. Jellyby — mother of numerous scattered children — ignores her family and spends her time in an effort to fix Africa, Dickens finds a subject ripe for satire. Like Buxton, she ignores the squalor and the culture of paupers in London that pained Dickens and informed his fiction, and as a fundraiser she seeks redemption through her colonists on the Niger River.

It is the most modern of paradoxes. When Mrs. Jellyby says, “We hope by this time next year to have from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger,” she is echoing not only Buxton, but the mission statement of many modern NGOs and family foundations today. And Mrs. Jellyby’s “coffee colonists” will have a further duty: “to teach the natives to turn piano-forte legs and establish an export trade.”

I am not criticizing the humane desire to help. My modest point is that, for all the talk of “reinvention,” aid to Africa has been discussed in exactly the same terms for 173 years. “Microfinance is the way forward,” Ron Cordes, head of the Cordes Foundation, assured me. “We financed an initiative in Uganda. A small fund to provide loans for the village of Buyobo. The work we’re doing is influenced by the business I had — business services, banking the unbanked, assisting people in going up the ladder.”

That too is Buxtonism, and it’s not wrong, it might even work in a small way; it’s just nothing new. And as a matter of fact the tiny village of Buyobo is not a benighted clearing in the Impenetrable Forest; it is a short drive from the prosperous Ugandan town of Mbale, with its 17 banks and three universities. I know this to be so. Working in adult education at Uganda’s Makerere University, I supervised programs for extra-mural students from Mbale (and Buyobo), and economics was part of the curriculum.

That was 40 years ago — see what I mean by repetition?

MY FIRST EXPERIENCE OF AFRICA began at the end of the colonial period, in 1963, in Nyasaland, later Malawi. During the 50 years since, I have listened to the rubious generalities of telescopic philanthropists; I have been one myself — perhaps I still am. I remain in touch with my fellow teachers and some former students; I watch developments in Africa, have written two travel books about traipsing through the continent, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town (2003), and The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola (2013). I give money to help fund an orphanage in Malawi. Out of a population of 15 million people, one million Malawians are orphans, mainly AIDS orphans, the relief of whom is a difficult task for all concerned, but in fact not many Malawians are concerned, another paradox, if not disillusionment, for the aid-givers.

The lamentable fact of so many orphans is something the new investment-minded donors, scornful of check-writing philanthropy, seem to overlook. Unless an orphanage is turned into a Dickensian workhouse, with manual labor as its primary purpose, there is no way for such an institution to turn a profit; and so such places depend on cash handouts, nearly all from telescopic philanthropists, and meanwhile the orphans, like the ones in Malawi Children’s Village, try to be self-sufficient by tending vegetable gardens, doing household chores, helping with the upkeep and at the same time studying at local schools.

For two years in Malawi, I worked at a secondary school attached to teacher-training Soche Hill College outside the southern highlands town of Limbe. Our mission was to educate younger students, who would then join the college, become teachers and replace the American volunteers. When I returned to my hilltop school and college almost 40 years later, I was dismayed to find that foreign teachers were still the mainstay of the faculty. There remained a dire shortage of Malawi teachers; this is still the case.

This suggests a reason why Africa can’t move forward. Training teachers has been a priority of the post-colonial African government of independent Malawi; education was equated with economic salvation. Now, 50 years later, the education system in Malawi is still faltering. Why? Because teaching as a profession in Malawi, and many parts of Africa, is undervalued, if not despised, and poorly paid. Besides, you can always find a foreign teacher willing to do the work: American, British, Japanese, Australian.

“Americans like working in the bush,” my African friends used to tell me, and they were probably right. Jiving a little they would add, “We prefer city life.” With an almost unlimited supply of foreign teachers sponsored by their own governments, what incentive is there for any African ministry of education to improve conditions? I thought I was part of the solution in Malawi, and the experience changed my life in profound ways — as a man, as a writer, as a traveler; but I see I was part of the problem. The obvious conclusion is that an unlimited supply of foreign teachers funded from the outside makes it possible for Africans to avoid having to spend their lives in a classroom in the bush. What is never commented upon is that the spirit of volunteerism that vitalizes foreign teachers in Africa has not created a similar enthusiasm among enough Africans themselves to take on these tasks.

When I voiced these experiences and apparent contradiction to John Coors, he said he was not deterred. On one of his visits to Kenya, he had an epiphany, he said. Driven to do good and unrelated to the profit motive, he flew a team of dentists and doctors to a village and let it be known that a clinic would be open to treat anyone in the immediate area. In the event, thousands of afflicted people showed up, and over the course of three days many hundreds of people received tooth extractions, root canals, and fillings, and medical needs were met.

The American medical team returned home after three days, “and thousands of people who had been waiting were left untreated,” Coors said to me, in tones of genuine concern. He has repeated this story in other interviews, speaking of his “catalyzing moment” and his subsequent move to impact investing. But wait, I said. There is an institution in Kenya called The University of Nairobi School of Dental Sciences. It started as the Department (in the Medical School) of Dental Surgery in 1974 with 18 students, and it has grown, with German government aid, to a university dental school.

The catalyzing moment for me is not that Kenya has no dentists in that village, but the obvious fact that Kenya has been training dentists since 1974, almost 40 years, perhaps thousands of them. And yet there are none in sight — none for those many upcountry with toothaches, witnessed by John Coors. If Kenyan dentists are not willing to travel a few hundred miles into the highlands or the bush to see to the needs of their fellow citizens, why should American dentists travel 10,000 miles to do so? That question also contains the answer: because American telescopic philanthropists provide health care for Kenya and many other African countries, there is little incentive for local doctors to engage in philanthropy.

Uganda, just a short distance up the road, has had a medical school for much longer than Kenya. Makerere University Medical School (as it is known now) has been in existence since 1924 — my eldest son was born in Mulago Hospital, the teaching hospital in Kampala, where I lived, as a member of the faculty of Makerere, for four years after leaving Malawi. There are similar medical schools all over Africa, even in Zambia and Malawi now, places where — another paradox — doctors, dentists, and nurses are in short supply and are eagerly provided by the Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, to name just two of the active billion-dollar philanthropies.

My experience with the teachers in Malawi might explain this paradox. With so many outsiders willing to travel upcountry to improve the state of health care, African doctors tend to stay in better-paying jobs in urban areas, or simply leave the country altogether for places where doctors are held in high esteem and amply rewarded. And the well-funded work on AIDS and antiretroviral drug therapy, known as ART, for HIV/AIDS patients, means that many local doctors are lured into these areas. Foreign donors guarantee better salaries and incentives, allowing them to bypass the crucial work of day-to-day doctoring.

Another ominous trend in Africa is the phenomenal pace of urbanization — people flocking to cities, looking for work and finding none, and creating another circle of Hell in the shantytowns of Nairobi, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Dar es Salaam, and Luanda. Three-quarters of the four million people in the shantytowns of Dar es Salaam have no plumbing, according to my local doctor friend. A lack of facilities is no discouragement: African cities are growing so fast it is estimated that by 2030 half of all Africans will live in them.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I got used to the shocked reaction of newcomers to my district, who believed, faced with mud huts, thatched roofs, and barefoot villagers, that they were seeing destitution. A mud hut and thatched roof is, in fact, renewed every few years; the cement structures and tin roofs built by well-meaning NGOs create maintenance problems. A permanent structure often turns into an unfixable ruin.

Underlying all of Africa’s problems are the infernalities of bad government. Rhodesia did not become independent Zimbabwe until 1980, when Robert Mugabe assumed power. Thirty-three years later, aged 89, with a young shopaholic second wife, he is still president. Mugabe’s policy of violently taking over the white-owned farms has turned Zimbabwe from a well-fed exporter of food to a hungry republic, dependent on handouts from the UN World Food Program and the aid of foreign charities, such as the International Rescue Committee. In October this year, in the country where I help support the orphanage, Malawian President Joyce Banda sacked her entire cabinet for their wholesale thievery of public funds.

I raised the question of government corruption with a number of the new donors, and one surprised me by saying, “It is possible to run successful businesses even in a country where the government is corrupt.”

In my experience, a corrupt government, in Africa and elsewhere, always a blighting force, expects a share of profits from successful businesses, just as the Mafia preys on commercial success, in the form of protection rackets. While I lived in Malawi, Indian shopkeepers were routinely shaken down for contributions — both money and merchandise — by hacks from the ruling Malawi Congress Party. In Kenya, as the serving Indian ambassador told me with a sigh, President Jomo Kenyatta demanded the personal gift of Indian-made tractors for his family farm.

These are trifling examples of what is a general tendency; the thefts by one politician in Zambia, as revealed in court in 2007, ran to over $50 million, and as I described in detail in my last book of African travels, oil-rich Angola is rife with corruption. A western diplomat in West Africa told me recently how China has become the new briber and enabler in the continent.

Consider the cautionary tale of Mo Ibrahim. To encourage good governance, Ibrahim, the Sudanese telecom billionaire, established a multimillion-dollar prize “to reward democratically elected African leaders who retire voluntarily at the conclusion of their mandated terms after displaying strong qualities of governance and leadership.”

In seven years, it has been awarded only three times, and this year it has again gone unclaimed.

It is provable that the most corrupt and oppressive governments in Africa are the wealthiest — the oil economies of Nigeria and Angola being prime examples of this malaise — while the more transparent governments — Ghana, Cape Verde, Botswana and South Africa — are better for business.

When I began teaching in Malawi, in the first years of an independent government, my students spoke dreamily of wishing to build the nation. No one talked about emigrating. But on my trips through Africa in the past dozen years, all I hear in classrooms, in markets, on buses and trains, is the desire to flee. They emigrate and they shine. That’s the universal human drive when corruption has quashed all hope: The most ambitious go where they stand a fighting chance to prosper quietly and safely and raise a family in peace.

My students made me aware that, to see a foreign donor or dignitary hob-nobbing with the hated head of state, is to be severely undermined. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni was visited in 1998 by U.S. President Bill Clinton, who described him as “the head of a new breed of African leaders.” Then Museveni invaded and tried to overthrow the governments of the Congo and Rwanda, rigged elections, and disdained gays; he no longer seemed like a new breed.

In its naked reality, Africa, the greenest continent, is still the most beautiful, the least developed, the wildest on earth. Vast plains, big animals, hospitable people, who have been enslaved, sidelined, colonized, and converted willy-nilly either to Christianity or Islam. This receptive amphitheater of goodwill and big game, inspires megalomania among its foreign visitors who strut upon it — it has always done so, for those who seek the singularity of a little excitement and glory. I sometimes think that if the poorer counties of America’s Deep South had rhinos and elephants, instead of raccoons and possums, the philanthropists might direct their attentions to those parts, too.

A rich white donor in black Africa is a study in high contrast that puts one in mind of the gallery of role models: Tarzan, Mr. Kurtz, King Leopold, Cecil Rhodes, Livingstone, Mrs. Jellyby, Albert Schweitzer, Hemingway, Henderson the Rain King: the overlords, the opportunists, the exploiters, the visionaries, the hunters, the care-givers, the baptizers, the saviors, all of them preaching the gospel of reform and seeking a kingdom of their own, if not an empire.

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century American author, believed that all such outgoing people had something discreditable in their past that through giving they aimed to expiate.

And all are characterized by the rather touching innocence of a billionaire faced with the brutal truth that the relative simplicity of acquiring wealth is nothing compared to the extreme difficulty of giving money away, for the common good.

The real helpers are not the schemers and grandstanders of the eponymous family foundations or charities; they are nameless ill-paid volunteers who spend years in the bush, learning the language and helping in small-scale manageable projects, digging wells, training mid-wives, teaching villagers that unprotected sex spreads HIV; and among these stalwarts are the long-serving teachers who have liberated Africans by simply teaching them English, and are still doing so, even as they make the local governments lazier.

The so-called White Fathers (the Society of Missionaries of Africa) I met in Malawi who ran upcountry clinics used to say, “I guess I’ll be buried here.”

No one ever says that now, and significantly none of the people I spoke with for this piece ever expressed a wish to spend any serious length of time in Africa. None speaks an African language. To the detriment of their aims, they are on better terms with the African politicians than the common ruck of African people.

Years living simply on the ground in Africa convinced me that there was more for me to learn from Africans than to teach. I saw there were many satisfactions in the lives of people who were apparently poor; many deficits in the lives of the very wealthy. I saw that African families were large and complex and interdependent; that old age was revered, that Africa’s link to the distant past — to the dawn of the world — was something marvelous and still intact in many places.

Most of all, I was impressed by the self-sufficiency of ordinary people. Without much in the way of outside help, the people in the countries I knew managed to endure, usually through the simplest traditional means, and finally to prevail. Africa has the schools, the money and the resources to fix its own problems; it’s appalling to think of donors telling them otherwise, of the whole continent terminally indebted and living on handouts.

African Philanthropy Done Right

Foundation Source is the philanthropic advisor and partner to over 1,100 family foundations. Penta asked the organization’s chief philanthropic officer, Page Snow, to provide some basic guidelines on how to successfully execute philanthropic projects in Africa. Her advice:

Beware the panacea. Millions of dollars are wasted on overly ambitious projects claiming to be a ‘killer app.” Projects that employ tried-and-true interventions, narrower in scope, usually have far greater impact.

Demand responsible management. Ask tough questions if money is flowing into a charity, but isn’t flowing out to charitable causes.

Avoid duplication. Be aware of other efforts already on the ground and make sure that your program isn’t a wasteful repeat but, preferably, leverages off what’s there.

Support local, sustainable solutions. Avoid short term fixes by always seeking input from locals; plan for them to run the project on their own in the long-run.

Beware of poor infrastructure projects. Make sure wells are dug where they’re actually needed, that the bridges and roads are integrated into existing plans by government or other NGOs.

Use technology intelligently. Over 90% of households across sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to electricity for their everyday needs, let alone power for laptops. Make sure locals have the skills, resources, and necessary tools to keep tech-dependent elements of your philanthropic project running.

Be prepared to face corruption. Even when a project has been granted governmental approvals, there’s no guarantee of official cooperation; corruption and regional conflicts pose considerable challenges.

Be culturally appropriate. Put on your anthropologist’s hat. Africans have their own process for dealing with grief and loss; Western-style grief counselors following a natural disaster or war aren’t appropriate.

For more lessons on how to conduct effective philanthropy in Africa, please see this list of five charities that have been successful on the ground — and why precisely. The list will surprise you.



  • comment-avatar
    Angela Wigmore 10 years ago

    An intelligent article, the truth of which many of us are already aware.

  • comment-avatar
    Parangeta (Ramrod) 10 years ago

    If Zimbabwe ran it’s Government like Botswana, it would, today, be almost as wealthy as South Africa and certainly second in southern Africa.
    Fo3get about handouts!