Long-term Roots of Philanthropy
in Africa as a New Challenge

Excerpt from "Long-term Roots of Philanthropy in Africa" as a New Challenge by Giuliana Gemelli published in Africa e Mediterraneo n. 78, "Filantropia africana"


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Horizontal philanthropy is a process in which people who are poor mobilize and share resources among themselves. Its transactions provide types of mutual support, but can also act as investment to improve conditions and future prospects. Local idioms in various parts of Africa illustrate the way this type of transaction is understood: «one hand washes the other» and «help so that you can be helped», tontines, harambee, merry-go-around.

Alan Fowler and Susan Wilkinson-Maposa1 who developed the issue of horizontal philanthropy in several publications, suggest that there are two forms of community philanthropy. First, philanthropy of community, that is, the ethos and practice of help that happens as part of the social life. Second, philanthropy for community or what happens to a community through external support and intervention of organized philanthropy and similar types of support. The community foundation concept is a recurrent and consolidated example. In Europe and more in general in the Western world we had traditionally the development of the second concept, but the strong impact of the financial and economic crisis is increasingly changing the landscape. Originally relayed to the poor, horizontal philanthropy is now an expanding pattern among different social groups through different frameworks: for example the extension of micro-credit to the needs generated by the strong lowering of workers’ income and debts generated by increasing taxation, and, last but not least, the development of “transition towns” in which mutual aid and exchange of natural goods outside the market is crucial. In this process there is an interesting inversion of trends and of cress-fertilisation of patterns of influence from South to North and not only the opposite that was the rule in the 20th century.

The long-term historical roots of horizontal philanthropy patterns are located mostly in Africa but, to some extent, they recall very old models related to public policies in the 19th century Europe, such as the tradition of mutualité, social ateliers, and even centuries before, in the period, which preceded the enclosures phenomenon, the sharing of communal goods.
Let me briefly illustrate the main difference between the two approaches: vertical and horizontal.

First of all the assets involved in horizontal philanthropy, are more diverse than in the community foundation model. Both material goods (money, food and clothes have a high premium) and non-material resources (e.g. advice, access to information and contacts, ideas, prayer, moral support, accommodation, transport, time) have a strong importance. Moreover, it is the fact of helping not its amount that is crucial.

Vertical help transactions are widely understood to be informed by charity, patronage, altruism and generosity. In contrast, horizontality is premised in a common condition and mutual survival and is informed not only by compassion and pity but also by the need for reciprocity. Put another way, vertical philanthropy is largely believed to be an act of personal choice, whereas horizontal philanthropy can also be seen as a social duty or obligation or at least as a way to respond to immediate needs of groups and communities.

In vertical philanthropy, the notion of community is largely geographic. A community development approach tends to take geographic location and physical proximity as both the site and the cause of “community”. This is apparent in the Community Foundations model. Their names – such as Foundation for the Mid South, Community Foundation for Ireland, Fondazione per il Sud, examples among many others – illustrate the point. In combination, a geography-plus-endowment approach assumes there is sufficient stability of “community”, of the people and local institutions that comprise it, to make long-term perspectives viable.

In contrast, the nature of horizontal help suggests that community needs to be seen as a combination of proximity and demand. Proximity has two elements. One is physical closeness; the other is affinity and kinship. Horizontal philanthropy is thus not limited by physical space. Its “community” is more likely to be based on need and the ability to satisfy it.
Horizontal philanthropy also has its rules (though unwritten), which inform how a transaction is conducted – a need is shared or help is asked for – and the criteria to determine both eligibility of the actor and legitimacy of the need. When agreed rules are followed there is an implicit reward – enhanced reputation and qualification to be helped again. When the rules are broken, sanctions are applied.

The concept of horizontal philanthropy offers a different way of looking at the assumptions and concepts that underlie the general understanding of organized philanthropy. Crucially, it offers a means of understanding “community” from the perspective of horizontal help and mutual support.

An Example from the African Tradition

Less known than micro-credit, the tontines are based mainly on the activity of women who collect money and create a common fund that generates a series of loans on a mechanism of rotation in order to start different kinds of activities and economic income and with the rule of returning the loan in a due time. In some countries this practice is based on collecting and sharing labour activities instead of collecting and distributing money. This is particularly the case in the period of the harvest and during the building of houses in villages. This is a practice that is developed in other parts of the world, including the US, if one considers as an example the Mormon communities. The more diffused practice is the gathering of married women on a regular basis and the definition of an amount of giving which is not necessary money, but could be also a material good. […]

Giuliana Gemelli, professor of Contemporary History and History of Philanthropy at the University of Bologna, is director of the Philanthropy and Social Innovation (PHaSi) research centre and editor of the Giving, International Journal on Philanthropy and Social Innovation published by Bononia University Press


1 – S. Wilkinson-Maposa, A. Fowler, The Poor Philanthropist II: New Approaches to Sustainable Development, UCT Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, 2009, see also S. Wilkinson-Maposa, A. Fowler, Horizontal Philanthropy – A Right Angle on Community Philanthropy, in «Alliance magazine», 1 June 2005.
2 – http://www.marsgroupkenya.org/Reports/LawsandConventions/Kenya_PublicOfficer_Ethics_Act_2003.pdf
3 – http://www.ascleiden.nl/Library/AnnualDevelopmentPlans/adp_kenya.aspx
4 – Hindu Press International, July 5th 2003 available at:
5 – Rasna Warah, Kenya: What’s in a Name? Goddesses Have Always Been Worshipped