America has the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Clinton Foundation. It was also the home of Andrew Carnegie, whose giving has been described as “without peer” as he set up charities that continue to run centuries after his death.
While Kenya’s rich list does not even sniff at the heels of what America has to offer, it still boasts some impressively wealthy individuals, some of whom bear the tag “Dollar Billionaire”.
However, a recent report by Kenya Community Development Foundation shows that Kenya’s philanthropic report card is littered with Ds and Es, failing miserably on altruism and brotherliness.
Not to say that Kenyans do not give big, because they do. One just has to look at the overwhelming response to the 2011 ‘Kenyans for Kenya’ campaign, where over Sh600 million was raised to buy food aid for hunger-ravaged Turkana County.
Or the sheer numbers that rallied behind the ‘#WeAreOne’ crusade to donate money, food and blood to those afflicted by the Westgate tragedy.
On a smaller scale, we have all contributed in those informal fundraisers we so dearly love, the harambees; Sh500 for a sick child, Sh1,000 for someone’s university education abroad, Sh1,500 for somebody else’s wedding budget... everyone has given money to a cause of one’s choice, some more than others.
So if Kenyans give so generously, why do we score so poorly in the philanthropic department?
The reason is that while Kenyans are great at informal charity that addresses an immediate need, they are a little less successful at structured philanthropy, where money is geared towards a specific goal, usually long-term.
Indeed, as one of the respondents in the KCDF study says, “there is philanthropy in Kenya, but it is different from the West”.
“We come from a culture where we support each other and not necessarily in a structured manner,” says the respondent. “In the West there are structures, but in Kenya family and social needs force us to channel resources towards a cause.”
The study finds that “structured or organised giving to philanthropic organisations is not very common among Kenyans”, and that “giving is commonly for deeply personal motivations and happens mostly when the need arises”.
Dr Vijoo Rattansi, of the Rattansi Education Trust, agrees. “Philanthropy is in our blood. Even in the old days, if one member of the village fell ill, the rest of the village would come together to help out. Maybe that’s just good neighbourliness, but to me it’s also philanthropy,” she says.
However, this kind of “piecemeal” philanthropy is unreliable and erratic. If anything, it makes the need for more structured philanthropy much more urgent as a way of systematically eliminating the need for knee-jerk giving.
The folks at KCDF venture that a strong tax incentive is one way of encouraging more individuals or companies to set up structured philanthropy programmes.
However, “there is lack of, or limited levels of, public awareness about the income tax regime that governs public benefit organisations in Kenya,” they warn.
Almost all respondents interviewed for the KCDF report did not have accurate information, knowledge or understanding of the tax laws governing the philanthropy space in Kenya.
Not only are Kenyans unaware of how the tax incentives work for charities, most do not even know that they exist at all.
The report says that donors do not understand the law as it currently stands, saying that it is unnecessarily complicated and designed to discourage potential donors from taking advantage of it.
“Most donors are not aware of the tax receipts that can be utilised to claim tax deductions and they would be hesitant to start such a process because of government bureaucracy,” says the report.
But Dr Rattansi is among the very few who know about, and have taken advantage of, the tax incentives given by the government.
“Oh, there is a tax incentive!” she beams. “I remember when I was chair of the East African Association of Grantmakers (EAAG) we approached the Minister for Finance then, Mr Amos Kimunya. He understood the situation.
“At that time, Tanzania was allowing a certain tax waiver for philanthropy. In East Africa, Kenya was the only country where if you gave there was no tax incentive. He gave us a no-blanket tax incentive, meaning, for instance, if you wanted to donate half your salary to a recognised charity you don’t have to pay taxes.”
And Dr Rattansi should know. She heads the Rattansi Education Trust, a family-run charity that gives students from poor backgrounds a chance to pursue higher education.
The trust was started by Dr Rattansi’s father-in-law, Mr Mohamedally Rattansi, in 1956 and has since then helped over 11,000 Kenyans get a university education. She takes us through a short history:
“I think philanthropy is anchored in what you believe in. My father-in-law started Rattansi Trust because he wanted to do something for the country he loved.
“So he — and his wife Maniben — looked at the socio-economic realities of the time and realised that the country was on its way to gaining independence, and so it would need educated people to run it. So they decided, what better gift than education? And that’s how the trust was born.”
The unique thing about the Rattansi Trust is that, from the very beginning, it was designed to cater for Kenyans from all races, even with the segregation that was rampant in colonial times.
It was decided that the Trust’s resources would be split into equal categories of Africans, Ismailis, Europeans, Muslims and Hindus, and everyone else not included in the classes.
However, after independence, the categories were scrapped and it was made open for any Kenyan.
“Many people assume that my father-in-law was rich and that is why he set up the trust. But the truth is he was not a rich man at all. He wore one pair of shoes for 10 days! He owned a grocery business in Nyeri and invested in properties little by little, then eventually gave up his prime property for the Trust.
“His philanthropy started in Nyeri when he built a ward for non-Europeans at the Tumutumu Hospital to give Africans and Asians a place to sleep if they were admitted in the hospital,” she says.
The biggest challenge facing the Rattansi Trust has been an extremely high demand for help from needy students that it is unable to cope with.
“I wish we had oodles of money to give away so that nobody has to go away disheartened,” says Dr Rattansi.
It would be impossible to talk about philanthropy in Kenya without talking about Manu Chandaria and his foundation.
He is arguably Kenya’s most visible philanthropist, running the Chandaria Foundation, which has left its mark in schools and hospitals across the country.
He agrees with Dr Rattansi that African philanthropy is mostly family- or community-centred, with no real vision of a collective good.
“African philosophy is to look after oneself and one’s village, tribe or family,” he says.
Streak of selfishness
This substantiates the KCDF concern that people are willing to engage in philanthropy only if they can see the results in those near and dear to them, which might reveal a nascent streak of selfishness where most of us are wired to help those who might be able to return the favour in future; or those that will free us from the responsibility of having to look after them for an extended period of time.
This can be seen, for example, when somebody helps to educate a relative so that he or she gets a good job to reduce the chance of being burdened by that relative’s financial problems in future.
The end point in these acts of philanthropy seems to be selfish, more a function of self-interest than true altruism.
Dr Chandaria argues that one of the biggest problems with “piecemeal” philanthropy is that there is no sustainability on such projects.
“During the time of Kenyatta — Kenya’s first president — and his clarion call for ‘Harambee’, quite a lot of money was collected. Moi, too, with his ‘Nyayo’ philosophy inspired quite a bit of giving among Kenyans. This was a good thing, but the major failing of this kind of giving was that there was no clear indication of how much money was given, making it hard to plan for it,” Chandaria explains.
He says that although a lot of Harambee schools were opened up as a direct result of the call for communal giving, most of those schools were in pitiful condition because there was hardly any money to run them.
A more structured form of giving is seen among companies that identify a cause and support it in a certain way. About this kind of giving, the KCDF report states: “Some corporate bodies will only engage in Corporate Social Responsibility in areas that receive the most attention, or to deeply moving stories, and not necessarily to priority areas of long-term need.”
Dr Chandaria agrees. “What we normally see in this country is CSR. Companies have a responsibility to give back to the communities within which they operate. However, CSR is different from philanthropy,” says Chandaria.
“Pure philanthropy is when people have no other motivation apart from a genuine desire to do good. This is not to say that companies are not engaging in philanthropy; they do that by setting up foundations and trusts that operate outside of where the company is located, and are indiscriminate to the people they serve,” he explains.
The government cannot do everything, and that is the truth. We, the people, need to recognise that and come together to improve things.
For example, if the government has built a dispensary in the village and the only nurse who works there lives 50 kilometres away, it makes sense for the villagers to build a house for the nurse to ensure that she stays closer to the dispensary, therefore making her available to attend to patients even at odd hours.- Dr Manu Chandaria, Chandaria Foundation
He gives Safaricom, East African Breweries Limited and Kenya Commercial Bank as examples of corporations that have well established philanthropy arms in the form of foundations.
A common argument against philanthropy is that the government should provide everything its citizenry needs because people pay taxes for that purpose. In an ideal world, government services would be adequate and nobody would need a helping hand to access basic needs.
But the reality is that the government is hopelessly overstretched and can hardly keep up with the pressure to allocate resources where they are most needed. And this is where philanthropy comes in, to stand in the gap and provide that which the government cannot.
Oh, there is a tax incentive! I remember when I was chair of the East African Association of Grantmakers (EAAG) we approached the Minister for Finance then, Mr Amos Kimunya.
He understood the situation. At that time, Tanzania was allowing a certain tax waiver for philanthropy. In East Africa, Kenya was the only country where if you gave there was no tax incentive.
He gave us a no-blanket tax incentive, meaning, for instance, if you wanted to donate half your salary to a recognised charity you don’t have to pay taxes.- Dr Vijoo Rattansi, Rattansi Education Trust
Dr Chandaria argues that it is lazy and selfish not to give to charity because a government exists. “The government cannot do everything, and that is the truth. We, the people, need to recognise that and come together to improve things.
“For example, if the government has built a dispensary in the village and the only nurse who works there lives 50 kilometres away, it makes sense for the villagers to build a house for the nurse to ensure that she stays closer to the dispensary, therefore making her available to attend to patients even at odd hours,” he says.
He adds that, as opposed to popular perception, philanthropy is not just about giving money.
“If you can give your time or your service to making somebody else’s life better, then you have done your part,” he says.
Dr Chandaria paints a candid picture of why philanthropy is important; it helps realise what cannot be realised by the systems in place.
Just like the Rattansi Trust, the Chandaria Foundation is self-financing, drawing from profits made from investments to fund its activities.
Dr Chandaria and Dr Rattansi both believe that the philanthropy space in Kenya has room for many more people to participate.
“There are a lot of rich people in society who could make a real difference if they wanted,” says Dr Chandaria, “However, you cannot expect somebody to have the same philosophies as you.”
But Dr Rattansi believes that the future of Kenyan philosophy lies, not with the well-heeled members of society, but with the many young people she comes across every day.
“Young people who were born in a free Kenya are the future of organised philanthropy. They live in a free country, are free spirits, and have an abundance of generosity and warmth,” she says.
But isn’t she being too optimistic? The generation she talks about has been often criticised for being too self-absorbed to really take notice of what is happening with other people. Aren’t these the same people who have been described as selfish, self-serving, and with a waning sense of African community?
“There are more good people than bad ones. If one person gives, it might look like just a drop in the ocean, but remember the ocean is full of drops. In time, a few good deeds add up into an avalanche of good deeds,” concludes the incurable optimist that is Dr Rattansi.