Why is there no robust domestic Philanthropy in Kenya

Allies of Starehe MP Amos Mwago serves Street Boys food at Jivanjee Gardens for Christmas Season on Sunday, December 25, 2022. [Samson Wire, Standard]

In a rare outburst, Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua cried out to have been reduced into a beggar. He publicly expressed the humiliation he felt for reaching out to even our former colonial masters to beg for food on behalf of the suffering masses.

In a functional democracy, anyone would be able to identify with his anguish. I have said here before that it is a national shame that we cannot feed our people after 60 years of self-rule.

About two weekends ago, I was having a conversation with a senior medical practitioner and academician about the general healthcare challenges in Kenya. I was not amused when he said that there was no recent literature on some of the diseases with high mortality rates in the country. This is because the Western countries from which top authors of the books and researches local professors rely on eradicated those diseases many decades ago.

Theoretically, there is nothing to research and write about because that is no longer a problem to them. Other than the pharmaceutical billions spent on drugs, there really would be no other motivation for such kind of research for them.

However, while the DP’s lamentations sound pedestrian, they raise fundamental questions about the country’s development model and the missing link for local philanthropy.

Writing on the risk of caring, a philosophy of philanthropy, in his book, Take the Risk, Ben Carson equates the benefits of giving to charity to the biblical teachings on tithing. This is the one area where God invites believers to test Him with their 10 per cent tithes and see if He will not open the windows of heaven and pour down blessings until there is no more need (Malachi 3:10).

Carson argues that in this type of God’s economy, by giving to others, each one will somehow generally end up better off individually, as well as the rest of the world. Overall, this may help mitigate many crises in the country.

Social contract

But of course this in no way means the government should abscond its obligations to the people. The social contract implied from general elections obligates political leaders and bureaucrats to act in the best interest of the voters. Thus, advancing the socio-economic interests of their citizens remains the primary responsibility for all elected leaders and those who work under them.

However, from an OECD conference policy brief on the role of philanthropy in financing for development in Addis Ababa, July 2015, philanthropic foundations play an important role in sustainable development. They not only help mobilise resources but also act as engines of development by their own right.

Therefore, instead of working in isolation, governments should include philanthropists more strategically in policy discussions at both global and local levels to optimise development results. Locally, there is evidence of an increasing role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), now defined as Public Benefit Organisations (PBOs), under the PBO Act of 2013, in national development.

Missing in action

While their immense contribution in the country’s developmental agenda is unquestionable, there is shockingly very low participation of local philanthropists. In a study on Not for Profit (NPOs) Sector in Kenya in 2013, Karuti Kanyinga and Winnie Mitullah of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Nairobi, argue that there has been little generated about the actual size, scope and structure of the sector. This is despite a robust growth of the sector over the past three decades.

The Annual NGO Sector Report of 2020/21 estimates that there are 11,890 registered NGOs in the country. Of this, an estimated 9,525 are active, but only 2,712 filed their returns in compliance with the Act. Based on the filed returns, the NGOs received at least Sh158.7 billion in the 2020/21 fiscal year. Of these, Sh71.9 billion spending was on development projects. In the same year, the sector directly employed 42,308 Kenyans.  

Of the finances mobilised by the sector, 84 per cent were from sources outside Kenya. Majority of the projects undertaken by the sector were concentrated within health, children, relief/disaster management and education.

The sector’s sustainability index was assessed at 47 per cent, a major decline from 66 per cent in 2018/19 fiscal year. The major challenges facing the sector are high dependence on foreign donor funding, lack of strong governance structures and low compliance with the legal requirements.  

Interestingly, while there is little public information on the size of local philanthropy, the number of dollar millionaires has increased significantly in the country. The Africa Wealth Report of April 2022 estimates that there are at least 8,500 dollar millionaires in the country. Some 5,000 of these are within Nairobi, making the city among the top five in concentration of dollar millionaires in Africa.

Globally, Maria Di Mento, in an article in The Los Angeles Times of December 30 last year reports that the annual rankings by Chronicle of Philanthropy, the top ten world philanthropist gave at least $9.3 billion (or Sh1.13 trillion) in 2022.

Bill Gates topped the list with a donation of $20 billion (Sh2.5 trillion) to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The net contribution for 2022 was $5 billion (Sh619 billion), with the remainder $15 billion (Sh1.86 trillion) used to clear an earlier pledge made in July 2021. Second was Ann and John Doerr who donated $1.1 billion (Sh136 billion) to support research at Stanford University. Other top donors were Jackie and Mike Bezos, Warren Buffet and the late Ruth DeYoung who donated hundreds of millions of dollars each for various causes.

Possible reasons

With scanty details on African philanthropists, a Forbes article from 2013 quotes Aliko Dangote, the largest known donor in the region, as saying most Africans maybe prefer giving anonymously possibly for spiritual or personal reasons. Based on this article, five of the top donors in Africa were Nigerians, one Zimbabwean, two Kenyans and one Ugandan in order of their donations. The two Kenyans on this list were Manu Chandaria and the late Naushad Merali.

The question then is: Why are Kenyans not giving to charitable causes to complement government efforts in national development?

There are three possible reasons: One is that as a society, we still suffer from a scarcity mentality despite the economic freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. That could imply a lack of faith in our individual and collective abilities to generate and retain wealth. Two is the possibility that most of the wealth is acquired through dubious means. Thus, most people fear going public would open scrutiny to their wealth, their tax status and accountability.

Finally, possibly the burden of black tax is too heavy for folks to ever think of building structured foundations to channel their giving to worthy causes. Or maybe we hoard everything to buy political offices to selfishly gain from the attendant local benefits?

As we roll through 2023, I feel we could add a bout of generosity as one of the individual and collective New Year resolutions!