Does Philanthropy Have Limitations?

Volume 14, Issue 2  | 
Published 27/10/2017
John Sibi-Okumu

In this regular column a teacher, writer and media personality starts from personal anecdote to present an outsider’s reflections on the experience of a different community. The views expressed are entirely his own. His website:


From 12th to 14th August this year, Kenya’s Asian Foundation organised Stawisha Maisha – Support Lives - the first exhibition of its kind dedicated to philanthropy, an activity in which the South Asian community has always been actively engaged. I was invited by the Foundation’s chairman, Dr Chandu Sheth, to join him for a breakfast meeting to discuss my possible participation. So it was that I agreed to moderate a panel discussion about the merits and demerits of the philanthropic agenda. In a follow-up meeting at the office of the Asian Foundation, in Westlands, Nairobi, I was also primed to narrate a 20 minute documentary film on South Asian philanthropy.

I attended the opening of the exhibition at the Visa Oshwal Centre, also in Westlands. The tall and dignified David Maraga, newly named Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court, was the guest of honour. Given my forthcoming concerns, these words stood out, in particular, from his key note speech: ‘Why is our society so sick, so delinquent and so poor? The fact that well over 40% live below the poverty line, 54 years since independence, in my view is a serious indictment against the entire country and an issue we must all address.’ Before being entertained by young singers and dancers, the CJ was then taken on a grand tour of the more than 45 exhibits involving almost all the South Asian communities in Kenya.

The panel discussion was on the evening of Day Two. It was preceded by the documentary film.  Some exhibitors came forward later on to query why they had not been featured. The answer, of course, was that only a representative sample could have been shown, for any number of reasons. Apart from Dr Sheth, there were six other panellists: Dr Manu Chandaria, captain of Kenyan industry;  Siddarth ‘Sid’ Charterjee,  the UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative; Janet Mawiyoo, Executive Director of the Kenya Community Development Fund; Senior Counsel Pheroze Nowrojee; Tiffany Chen Nyaggah, founding Executive Director at the non-profit organisation Dignitas, dedicated to the transformation of education in Kenya, with particular focus on informal settlements and Vickie Winkler who had moved on from having been Founder President of HEART – the Health Education Africa Resource Team – which had established a dozen or so community based organisations committed to the socio-economic empowerment of women. It had been agreed at an introductory meeting beforehand that we would go straight into questions and answers, without prepared speeches, followed by interventions from the audience. However, moderators are always exercised in trying to get panellists to speak to each other rather than to their own concerns and this occasion was no different, although valuable insights were offered, regardless.

Day Three gave the public one last chance to engage with the scope and scale of the exhibits in an exhibition which was noteworthy for being free and non-discriminatory.

So my plan for myself in this instance, is neither to give a blow by blow account of what was said and done, nor to highlight some exhibits as being better than others, nor to suggest that some South Asian communities seemed more philanthropic than others, nor to criticise certain initiatives, nor to make suggestions for improvement. I would much rather share some of the thoughts which I had after this experience.

Of the essence, then, would be to have a shared definition of philanthropy. In this regard, let me give credit to two web searches. In one, it was defined as the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes. Another went into slightly more detail: A conventional modern definition is ‘private initiatives, for the public good, focusing on quality of life,’ which combines an original humanistic tradition with a social scientific aspect developed in the 20th century. The definition also serves to contrast philanthropy with business endeavours, which are private initiatives for private good, e.g., focusing on material gain, and with government endeavours, which are public initiatives for public good, e.g., focusing on provision of public services.

Given these definitions, I was reminded of the CJ’s lament. To my mind, he skirted the issue by questioning Kenya as a country when he should really have been questioning Kenya’s government of the day. I was also reminded of the repeated comment in our discussion that we cannot stand aloof to suffering and we are compelled to benevolent action. However, I am not yet entirely convinced that the government should be let off so easily, especially in such priority areas as education. Should the government say: ‘let the philanthropists build our schools where some will be lucky beneficiaries and others will be forsaken, through placement and fate?’ And do the recipients of philanthropy have no preordained obligation to give back in some way, in their own turn? Should the government not monitor philanthropic initiatives, such as they are, and provide checks and balances? This could be a heretical statement to some, but it seems to me all too easy to feel good about doing good without a constant awareness of how much good is required, where, when and for whom. Else philanthropy, far from being entirely laudable, runs the risk of becoming yet another veiled instrument of division, in a country of already sharp and skewered inequality.

Copyright: John Sibi-Okumu

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