Donor funding – ‘COVID-19 will change everything’

The growing need for universities to reduce their dependence on external funding and international philanthropy and pursue sustainable, locally focused funding strategies was highlighted in discussions at last week’s webinar hosted by the Alliance for African Partnership (AAP).

Speaking frankly on the topic of “COVID-19 Impact in Africa: Opportunities for Partnership and Engagement”, Innocent Chukwuma, West African regional director for the Ford Foundation, said funding for universities and civil society organisations in Africa was likely to dwindle after current efforts by private foundations to assist institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“African higher education institutions need to know that COVID-19 is going to change everything,” he said.

Referring to the announcement last month that the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development is to be folded back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Chukwuma said the move signalled a new era for bilateral and multilateral institutional funding. Combined with indications that private philanthropic foundations were moving to fund fewer groups with larger amounts, it meant that some recipient groups would inevitably miss out.

“This is where the whole idea of cultivating local philanthropy, the idea of finding sustainable funding, both for universities and civil society organisations that we work with, has come to the fore.”


“The days of basing dependency on external funding may be numbered. I shouldn’t be saying this but beyond the immediate response we are providing, there is going to be a reckoning down the line and that is where a webinar of this nature comes in … so we can begin right now at the outset to ask ourselves hard questions. Where are we going to get funding to support critical institutions that underline the work we do in Africa?

The Ford Foundation was formed in 1936 in Detroit, Michigan, by Henry Ford and his son Edsel, founders of Ford Motors. Early funding programmes in Africa were focused on higher education in the sense of providing training to post-independence leaders to prepare them to take over positions in public administration being vacated by colonialists.

“A lot of people today who hear about departments of public administration in African universities may not know they were actually started by the Ford Foundation in an effort to build the technical capacity of public servants and civil servants,” said Chukwuma.

While the foundation ran a number of scholarship and fellowship programmes over the decades, Chukwuma said Ford’s current focus is governance issues. “We now work essentially with civil society organisations, supporting them to hold government accountable, and to subsidise government where services are not being adequately provided.”

Although there was no longer a dedicated higher education programme, he said the foundation supported a portfolio of “utilitarian relationships” based on university needs and what higher education could offer.

Current programmes in West Africa tend to focus on two key areas: ending violence against women and girls; and natural resources and climate change. “Our relationship with universities in the prosecution of these two programmes is on the basis of research and technical support.”

He said COVID-19 had not radically shifted the foundation’s funding priorities, but measures were in place to help beneficiaries “weather” the pandemic.


When asked about how multilateral funding agencies could help higher education institutions, Chukwuma “pushed back” again.

“Instead of asking how multilaterals can help African higher education with funding, the question should actually be: what do higher education institutions have to put on the table to make multilateral institutions who may be disinclined to fund them open to talking?”

Chukwuma intimated that African universities were not adequately pulling their weight.

“Take for instance the issue of COVID-19: Africa is not contributing to funding for the research. Only South Africa, as far as I am aware, has its personnel in the research. Conservative institutions like churches, using conspiracy theories, are telling Africans not to be involved in the clinical trials. So at the end of the day, when the vaccine is eventually produced, we will come to say, ‘Oh, on the basis of equity, Africa should benefit from it….’

“We need to find a way of putting something on the table,” he said.

He said the foundation had endowed a chair in a philanthropy programme at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa in an educational initiative which responds to the idea of growing African philanthropy. At the Lagos Business School in Nigeria, the foundation had made a contribution towards the training of non-profit leaders and managers.

“This is an area of growth; it is the kind of low-hanging fruit that universities can develop programmes around and get support for.”

Chukwuma said the foundation was also interested in programmes which utilised the expertise of professional private sector retirees, bringing them into the educational system as professors of practice.

“So these are some of the areas in which universities can develop programmes, come to the table and say, ‘This is what we have; can we work in this area?’”

A new agenda

Chukwuma said institutions had been pursuing donor-supported development agendas in Africa since independence. “It has not gotten us good headway … What is the next phase in all of this?”

He said since the introduction of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals there had been a movement away from donor dependency towards the notion that Africa is “open for business”.

“What Africa needs is investment and not donor aid and COVID-19 is going to bring that to the fore.”

If Africa is open for business, it will need entrepreneurs. Which is the central thrust of the Tony Elumelu Foundation founded in 2010 by African entrepreneur Tony Elumelu to identify and support young African entrepreneurs.

“We can no longer continue – just as my colleague from the Ford Foundation said – to rely on aid, charity, philanthropy, etc. We need to empower the private sector to play its leading role in developing the continent, including job creation, driving innovation and generating revenue … Only when we have a capacitised and well-resourced private sector will Africa be truly and sustainably transformed,” said Somachi Chris-Asoluka, head of policy and partnerships at the Tony Elumelu Foundation.


The work of the foundation is based on “Africapitalism”, an economic philosophy developed by Elumelu predicated on the belief that Africa’s private sector can and must play a leading role in the continent’s development.

Chris-Asoluka told the webinar that at least 1,000 African entrepreneurs receive mentoring and training on a yearly basis through the foundation’s flagship programme.

The foundation works with global development partners such as the United Nations Development Programme, African Development Bank, GIZ, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, among others.

“The reason why partners have approached us is because they have identified our focus on entrepreneurs as sustainable and a viable means to transform the continent from the grassroots up,” she said.

She said the foundation engages policy-makers in various countries to work towards the creation of enabling environments for entrepreneurs and businesses.

She said although beneficiaries are not required to have formal education, the foundation works with African and international universities to conduct research on Africapitalism and to codify the philosophy.