Sunday, May 27, 2012

Open Forum 2012: Money

"Money, money, money/It's so funny/Makes the world go around"- ABBA

I spent the morning of day one hunched over a bowl of minestrone trying to convince my respiratory tract to cooperate, which it did eventually, allowing me to finally enter the Forum in an afternoon panel session about African Philanthropy. Here are some highlights of what turned out to be a riveting conversation:

1. Amusingly enough, there was a point at which the various Foundation representatives on the panel tried to defuse the argument about dirty money funding activism with a simple message: philanthropy is conscience laundering. I believe it was Hadeel Ibrahim, scioness of Mo Ibrahim and Board Member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, who offered the phrase. I loved it because it acknowledges the tensions between the money-making ethos and the nearly diametrically-opposed philosophies of social change- activism for equity. 

Because this is a contradiction that I find difficult, so far I have chosen to avoid it by practicing an almost monastic rejection of the commercial on the Mikocheni Report. And yet here I was, staying at 15 on Orange with a magnificent view of Table Mountain to greet me every morning and evening. with a pocket full of Uncle George's money giving me the sexy eye from my side table*. It didn't help that Jay Naidoo chose his moment to strike at the core of what bothers me about working as an activist today, and getting funded to effect +ve social change. He tugged on his salt-and-pepper goatee and lobbed an "in my day," challenging young activists to get up and do what they need to do without waiting for perdiems, for donors, for friendly Foundations to organize them. I don't think that's the case with all youth and activists but I do see his point about the insidiousness of the donor model in civil society in general, and its effect on manufactured activists in particular. (manufactivists?...there's a smash-up word lurking in there somewhere). 

It would be easy enough to say to people with a cause that the best way to avoid that moral dilemma is to simply avoid funding, raise their own funds for activities, focus on voluntarism and that sort of thing. But at the end of the day, it cannot be denied that money has its uses and that sometimes to get things done we do collaborate with the self-safe corporations that we so love to denigrate. The only answers are found at the individual level, or that of the organization, where decisions must be made about how to navigate these complexities. 

2. On the panel we had: Ms. Ibrahim and Mr. Naidoo- already hyperlinked above- as well as Janet Mawiyoo, Wieber Boer who heads the Tony Elumelu Foundation** and Cedric Ntumba being moderated by Akwasi Aidoo. There was a lot of money sitting up there along with the obligatory sheepish admission about how murkily the money may, or may not, have been made- necessary considering the crowd. Ironically as the week progressed one of the big issues I picked up listening to the SA news was a story about some kind of salary subsidy that the government has been giving to 'young' citizens- I wasn't clear on whether this targets students of people in the workforce. In combination with the consumer culture that has SA by the short and curlies, it has unfortunately been subverted in a culture of conspicuous consumerism that's putting people into debt with clothing stores not to mention the occasional kid who commits suicide because they can't keep up with trends, and other interesting behaviors in-between. Hm. 

Until we can craft a post-money world, I am resigned to the fact that we need this stuff, this construct, this system in order to function at the levels of complexity that underpin contemporary life and globalization. However, I am worried that there is a de-coupling between the making-money bit of things and the making-a-change bit of things. Social Entrepreneurship, like Corporate Social Accountability, is a term that fills me with bemusement as I try to grasp how it can actually work without being overwhelmingly self-serving. Ideology has been pushed aside in favor of these flavorless terms that are too malleable for my liking. 

More importantly, as we grow a generation of Africans who are going to make their millions from our natural resources and other means, as we push the enterpreneurship (capitalist) agenda, why aren't we also talking about what should be done with the astronomical profits that more of us stand to make in the next ten, twenty years? It would be good to see a lot more effort put to selling philanthropy as a way of consuming those future fortunes, along with the Courvoisier and the Maybach. With all due respect to Mr. Naidoo, I don't think his generation was suffering quite the same pressures of materialism as we are... and it will only get worse. It was all too brief a discussion, as all good ones are. 

And then after a quick lunch where I finally understood how small plates really do work well for portion control, a confab with my fellow panelists for our afternoon session and a brief hug with the Jetsetter who was operating at speeds that are not seen in nature in East Africa I managed to attend at least 45 minutes of a session titled: "Democracy for Sale? Secret party Funding- South Africa's next democratic challenge." Just two brief points to make about this session: 

1. This was set up almost like a university lecture, which gave me no end of pleasure. The panelists were: Barbara Hogan, Anthony Butler, Ebrahim Fakir, and Daniel Weeks- who was facilitating the encounter I think. I particularly enjoyed Barbara Hogan's framing of the South African party funding mechanism and Ebrahim Fakir's quick tour through the continent with sound-byte descriptions of mechanisms across roughly 8 countries. I didn't get a chance to ask him what he knew about Tanzania, but he gave some excellent starting points on what to look for in the democratic architecture of a country. Really didn't get a chance to absorb much more but the good thing is that with academics there will be materials, so I'll be on it soon enough. 

2. To bring this home, in Tanzania our public funding discussions are usually focused on things like extractive industry tax revenues and how much MPs are paying themselves out of our pubic coffers but I don't recall seeing any real attention being paid to party funding mechanisms outside of election years. And I am immensely curious as to how we have set up that area of our democracy,  and of course I am ye Grand Old Party the eye. CCM you cynical Socialist, where are you getting your money? Where are you investing your money? Who is giving you money and how much of it are you taking? Of course I must shine the light of unwanted questions on Chadema and CUF too... and, for color, what has got to be the most consistent, well-funded one-man show in parliament- Mr. John Momose Cheyo's United Democratic Party. 

I had to run off to my panel and freestyle for participants who were interested in the meat and potatoes of this social media for change business, so did not finish this excellent session. But I got enough to know where to start digging for more. 

* If you are wondering, I got over my guilt very quickly. Luxury is indeed seductive. And thanks to Uncle George, I managed to afford a certain electronic toy I have only been slavering over for the past forever. I put it down in my "productivity tools" column in the expenditure tracker ;) 

**It occurred to me that George Soros stands out for not having named his Foundation after himself. I wonder why. It's not like it's easy to leave behind bronze cast statues of yourself triumphant, or build a pyramid or a Basilica anymore as a way to be remembered through the ages. The urge to carve 'I Was Here' into the face of human history is definitely not a motive force to be ignored,  and it is always interesting to see how the successful choose to do so.

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