The recent Madonna debacle in Malawi – centered around a statement sent from the State House erroneously labeling the singer as a pompous attention-seeker for her charity work (who would have thought?) – has led to a much larger investigative look at the role philanthropy now plays in Africa. I recently read a lengthy piece on the BBC’s site by Africa correspondent, Andrew Harding, illuminating a new sensitivity hitherto disregarded and raising the issue of the changing role and challenges Africa faces globally, “That old image of a white person holding a starving black child is just embarrassing these days,” said one official, speaking off the record. “The emphasis is on partnership, on building resilience in communities, and on business models.”
Although the fact remains that much of the continent is still impoverished and struggling with privations that the West can’t understand – clean water, power and agricultural sustainability are still difficult targets for many countries –nonetheless, there is definitely a palpable sea change occurring: many self-reliant industries and new approaches to global problems (like energy) are emerging from all over Africa – this isn’t the 1970s, after all. Other interesting avenues like the emerging mobile phone app ‘revolution’ have taken root in many places, often superseding the West’s still lumpy approach to banking and communication on-the-go. But, if the Madonna fracas highlights another issue, it’s that many nations are moving beyond governmental involvement altogether. Philanthropy, in general, certainly tends to move without the cumbersome involvement of politics.
This current mess may really be more of an example of the entanglement of government (and their ineptitude, in this case), with good charity work, and an important lesson in better diplomacy. Unfortunately when money is involved, as it is with everything, things can get messy. Let’s hope that Madonna et al can get over this current spat and realize why they are there in the first place: a caring response to need, and the respect afforded to those who are both giving and receiving.