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First Lady philanthropy – a double-edged sword?


Shelagh Gastrow provides advisory services to the philanthropy sector, higher education advancement and non-profit sustainability. She works with individuals and families on how to integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and universities through programmes to develop their financial sustainability whilst promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work has gained public recognition locally and internationally.

Should we in Africa be promoting this special category of person?

The concept of “First Lady” comes from the US where she is generally known as FLOTUS (First Lady of the US), tagged on to POTUS (President of the US).

First Ladies are often expected to grace the table of the president, look good and undertake charitable works. While there have been a range of newsworthy First Ladies such as Imelda Marcos and Grace Mugabe who are known for their questionable purchasing power, the concept of First Lady has definitely migrated to Africa where we also have our First Ladies who are going ahead with their own roles in philanthropy.

The leader of the pack in Africa appears to be First Lady of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame, who has started to play an overt role in encouraging philanthropy or at least ensuring that there is philanthropic investment in her country. As far back as 2001, she hosted the first African First Ladies’ Summit on Children and HIV/AIDS Prevention in Kigali and she helped to found the Organisation of African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS the following year, serving as its president from 2004-6.

As First Lady, Kagame now also serves on the boards of a number of international entities such as the Friends of the Global Fund Africa and the Global Coalition of Women against HIV and AIDS. She currently serves as vice-president of OAFLA. She has a long list of awards in recognition of her work including the UNAIDS Award in 2001; International AIDS Trust Award in 2003 (presented by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton); The John Thompson Legacy of a Dream Award on Martin Luther King Day, in recognition of the ground-breaking “Treat Every Child as Your Own” African First Ladies Campaign in 2007; the CISCO Corporate Social Affairs Award in 2007; the Outstanding Global Leader Award by Women Inspiration and Enterprise in 2013 and an Honorary Doctorate from Oklahoma Christian University for her contribution in the fight against HIV/AIDS and poverty.

Kagame appears to have an extraordinary capacity for mobilising Africa’s First Ladies. In September 2016, she spoke at a reception co-hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies at which she stated that “philanthropy could be the avenue through which Africa would attain sustainable development”. In attendance were other First Ladies, including those from Niger, Mali, Benin, Israel, Namibia, Chad and Nigeria along with philanthropists from other countries. Speakers at the event explored the linkage between philanthropy and social entrepreneurship, especially providing opportunities for women to enhance development. There are growing trends towards collaboration between philanthropy, government and the private sector in order to create opportunities in various sectors such as health, education and entrepreneurship. Kagame, who is the president of the Imbuto Foundation, pointed out that “Investors are attracted to this model because they can tap into new markets while honouring their social responsibility; recipients develop new skills and expertise, including managerial capabilities, to eventually grow their own businesses and invest in other ventures; and governments win on all ends, with new investments fuelling countries’ growth and people shifting from dependency to self-reliance”.

At the same event, Monica Geingos, First Lady of Namibia, spoke about the role of First Ladies globally through the foundations they have established. In her case, she has set up the One Economy Foundation that focuses on reducing poverty by connecting people to opportunities.

Besides Kagame, the previous First Lady of Nigeria, Dame Patience Faka Jonathan also received awards for her philanthropic work including the Beyond The Tears International Humanitarian Award New York in 2008; she was the African Goodwill Ambassador Award in Los Angeles in the same year and she also received the Wind of Change Award from the South/South Women’s Organisation.

When her husband, Goodluck Jonathan, was governor of Bayelsa State, before becoming president of Nigeria, she was involved in various philanthropic initiatives focusing on women’s empowerment, setting up the A-Aruere Reachout Foundation to support the socio-economic upliftment of women. She was also apparently involved in other charitable activities including soup kitchens, scholarships and medical assistance for children with heart problems.

In South Africa we have our own First Lady, Tobeka Madiba Zuma who has established a foundation in her name which delivers “sustainable health care and community development initiatives that are accessible to all, irrespective of social status and geographical location; traversing all nations and races; giving hope and future to the hopeless, the poor and the oppressed; speaking for the voiceless”.

Our previous First Lady, Zanele Mbeki, generally preferred an understated role, yet she helped to establish the Women’s Development Bank which offered micro-finance to poor women and in 2003 established what is now the largely defunct South African Women in Dialogue, which opened dialogue between South African women with the aim of supporting various initiatives such as the objectives of the African Union, the attainment of the UN Millennium Development Goals and support for the government’s Urban Renewal Strategy, among others.

In South Africa we also have a double First Lady, Graca Machel, who has become an international figure in her own right. She established the Foundation for Community Development in Mozambique and founded the Graca Machel Trust in Johannesburg where she has focused on strengthening women’s socio-economic position; education; the abolition of child marriage; food security and promoting democracy and good governance. She also serves on various boards and chairs the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Childhealth as well as the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). In addition, she founded the Zizile Institute for Child Development.

While not technically a First Lady, but definitely a First Daughter, Isabel dos Santos, the oldest daughter of Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, is an extremely wealthy woman and billionaire. According to reports Isabel dos Santos undertakes some philanthropic activity, serving as president of the Angola Red Cross. She does not appear to have any family foundation. Despite these good works, she was included in Transparency International’s list of the 15 cases that most symbolise corruption in the world.

However, this takes us to some of the critiques of the First Lady syndrome in Africa. In an article written by Dr Ugoji Egbujo on the website the concept of First Ladies in Africa was viewed as a nuisance where people use “philanthropic enterprise for personal aggrandisement”. He points out that every First Lady who comes into office in Nigeria immediately abandons projects established by her predecessor and starts new ventures.

He complains that their “sense of philanthropy is never self effacing, it is nearly always geared towards vain glory. They mobilise funds, they mobilise other women into subservience, and they become empresses. They revel in extravagant gatherings of cronies, embracing frivolities in furtherance of their class distinction”. His long critique is emotional, but also raises some key points about how philanthropy is perceived when undertaken by First Ladies, often in states that are corrupt and where they have extraordinary access to resources. Philanthropy is usually about using your own financial resources for the public good, but it is more common for First Lady philanthropy to raise resources from elsewhere and it barely makes a dent in their own personal wealth. The critique of the Clinton Foundation, for example, was that through their connections they were able to influence governments, build high profile networks, avoid protocol and dispense patronage, all words that can be taken out of Egbujo’s critique of African First Ladies.

First Ladies will always create some media frenzy, but others have managed the media very carefully such as Queen Rania of Jordan whose philanthropic activities appear to be carefully considered. This is an area where questions will always be asked about the role of the First Lady and whether we in Africa should even be promoting this special category of person. DM


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