The Business of Philanthropy

Dr. Mo Ibrahim; A Conversation with Badr Jafar

July 19, 2021 Badr Jafar Season 1 Episode 20
The Business of Philanthropy
Dr. Mo Ibrahim; A Conversation with Badr Jafar
Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Mo Ibrahim, Founder and Chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and Badr Jafar, Founding Patron of the Centre for Strategic Philanthropy, speak about the governance of philanthropy, the intersection of technology and philanthropy, and how private philanthropy can help alleviate global challenges.

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Badr: Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim is the founder and chair of The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which was established I think, in 2006. And is laser focused on supporting good governance and exceptional leadership on the African continent. Dr. Ibrahim has also had a very successful career in business, of course, especially in the telecoms sector. And I'm very interested to get your views also on the intersection of technology and philanthropy a little later in our conversation. However, I'd like to begin with a subject that goes right to the heart of why the Center for Strategic Philanthropy was created in the first place, and why we believe that its mission is so timed [phonetic] [0:01:08]. So, a number of the fastest growing economies in the world, as you know, are on the African continent. A lot of wealth is being generated very quickly. Are you witnessing a rise in the number of individuals and families perhaps from these countries that are becoming involved in philanthropy?


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: Not really, unfortunately. Frankly in Africa and I would say in Arab world as well, is not really widespread. And we had a number of conversations about this with many friends, and it appears to me philanthropy or a form of philanthropy in the region, is really focused on relatives, families, and, you know, the immediate community around the Philanthropy by nature is giving, really, for people you never know and you'll never meet, I mean giving in principle. 


Badr: Selfless.


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: Absolutely, in principle, people you have never seen, and you will never see. But somehow, culturally speaking, in Africa, we have this concept of, you know, extended families. A family in Africa is going to be more than 300 - 400 people. And whoever gets a little bit well off, will start by looking after these people. People are very cooperative and in the African culture, I mean, if you live in a village and you need to rebuild your house or your hotel or whatever, everybody will come to help build it. You have a problem with your [Indiscernible] [0:03:06], people really work. It’s not strange because of the lack of social safety nets. None of our African countries have any adequate social programs or safety nets.


So, people look after each other, but the way they do it is to look after each other within their own community, their own village, their own extended family. And that, yes, it is great, it’s a form of cooperation, a form of help, but is not exactly philanthropy, as we define philanthropy. They are awarded at seminar as well, and only time people will step out outside the extended family they will generally do something like build a mosque. That's the only time I notice people will generally go out of the extended family and build a mosque. And I always argue, guys, we have a lot of mosques, actually. And maybe we just have to look after some more needy people. And I think God will reward you more for doing that. But it is a question of culture.


Badr: Right. And as an extension to that question, I guess, would you then say that the practice of institutional philanthropy is relatively nascent or a very early stage, and the general attitudes towards governance of the sector, would you say is something that requires more work or is there at least a trend in that direction?


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: Actually, there's not much in our regions because as I said, it is not really a recognized institution as such. And if the flooding in our country, the President will make an appeal, he will ask well-off people to help, give the government some money in order to look people, this is a form of social what are called that, you know, social cooperation or - but we don't have that concept of – I mean even the concept of NGOs. Also, it's, you know, is started now, several sites have started to rise slowly, but mainly focusing in areas around politics, around corruption, around human rights, etc. This is the scene in our country.


I remember I was having a discussion with Bill Gates, who's doing the Giving Pledge. And he was telling me, he traveled to Saudi Arabia, he traveled to the Gulf. And he said, “Look I mean, there's a lot of billionaires in the region, and we cannot find people who are willing to join us. And what is wrong?” And I tried to explain to him, “It’s not necessarily wrong. But people have a completely different approach to generosity, than what you have.” Also, I must say, I was a little bit ashamed. I think our well-off people are not really looking beyond their noses.


Badr: Yeah. And I think this is really, as they say, therein lies the opportunity, right, because I think more and more people in these regions of the world and of course, as you said, the African continent is not on its own in this respect, but as more of these regions really identify with the business case, if you will, behind institutionalization and professionalization. And again, realizing that institutionalization does not mean bureaucracy necessarily, right. It could also mean streamlining, but it can also strengthen the whole essence of what it is you're doing, the whole practice and ultimately lead to improved and enhanced impact. I think the more and more we realize and accept that, the more and more hopefully we will see more institutionalized and well governed practice of philanthropy.


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: This is wonderful. And I love the word “strategic” in your center because that is really important.


Badr: Yes, absolutely.


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: There must be a strategy behind the giving and wisdom.


Badr: Absolutely. Yeah, thank you. Strategy behind I think, not just the practice of giving, but the follow through, and the focus and really discipline around impact and what that means, and holding oneself accountable for that impact. And as you said, not just leaving it to God to figure out how that money is going to be spent. You're absolutely right. Going to, you know, your foundation publishes an annual index of African governance concerned, of course, with state governance and governance of national institutions. It obviously varies by country. But how would you describe the current state of governance on the African continent? What are you most encouraged by? And conversely, what are you most concerned about?


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: Over the last 15 years or so, we have data from year 2001-2002. So, I have all the 10 years or 20 years of data. There has been a marked improvement in governance, especially in the first 10 years of our work. Then we started to see stagnation and which is rather unfortunate. So those warning signs, three quarters of our people today live in better governed societies than 20 years ago. So that's step forward. But it has been slow and in times it has been stagnant, and that is worrying.


So, it is hard work. We have to keep pushing. We have to, you know, [Indiscernible] [0:09:39], to move things forward. Thank God, we're not going backwards. We're just stagnating. But that's not good enough.


Badr: Okay, good. Well, no conversation would be complete these days without mentioning the C word. So, do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have a lasting impact on how people around the world think about the role of private philanthropy in responding to global challenges, and what other lasting impacts do you expect the COVID 19 pandemic to have on the sector?


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: I think to start with, it's a very strange situation and strange times. Apparently, the economic impact of the virus is far greater than the health impact actually. In Africa, we have lost about 35,000 lives. That's out of 1.2 – 1.3 billion people. Actually, we lose almost just below 400,000 people every year, to malaria. So just look at the two numbers, every year we lose 400,000 people to malaria and nobody talk about this.


Nobody talks about this. Yes, some people and some philanthropists are doing some work, especially Gates Foundation, doing a lot of good work in the malaria area and the global funds and the various people doing some good stuff there. But it's obviously not enough because we are still losing a lot of people. So, the health impact is far less in my view than the economic impact. That is a severe one, which we're reading from. Once the countries responded by writing big checks and you have no problem creating debt, or just printing money.


The emerging world and Africa specifically, we don't have that fiscal space. So, the impact on Africa is really severe. And the progress of the last 15 years is really in danger now. And unlike the previous crisis, I mean, when we had the banking crisis in 2009, there was some leadership and we all recall how [Indiscernible] [0:12:37] played a very decisive role there. And one has to really appreciate the unsung hero of that crisis, who's got the ground, who's really growth, the G20, the [Indiscernible] [0:12:55] among them and he chaired it, He grow the G20 really to act and act decisively. There was leadership, this time there is no international leadership to revive this. This is a huge event.


Philanthropy on its own cannot really play a major role there. The capacity that is required is far greater than the resources available to philanthropy. Yes, they help. It is just a fraction of what is needed. So, I'm really worried about the economic impact. And now as you see a second wave starting, clearly, we'll have to live with this for some time. And many countries are now thinking of another lockups and another curtailing over lack of economic activities. And this is also going to be a big problem. So, between the rock and the hard place, you know, it's unfortunate situation, but one thing, Badr this emphasized to us first, our vulnerability as human beings.


We need to be, you know, this small piece of routine really humbled us as humanists. We thought that we are almighty, masters of this universe and we are sending rockets to Mars, to moon. And then this little thing is just playing havoc with us. It also shows a lack of preparedness, we are not prepared. Our health systems are inadequate, completely underfunded. And this is not only in emerging countries, you can see rich countries, I mean the main worries is will our health system collapse. That was the main worry. in UK, Europe, France, because we did not prepare ourselves for such a pandemic, because at the end, this virus is really benign. Mortality rates is below 1%. Imagine this was something more serious and what would have happened to us. I hope this emphasizes our limitation, as one of the species which live in this planet. We need to be more respect really to the environment around us. And otherwise, we're in danger.


Badr: Absolutely. And as you wisely say, Dr. Ibrahim, leadership and fundamentally management is ultimately what the world needs more of and is sometimes unfortunately, in short supply. You mentioned, of course, the fact that philanthropy on its own can't do anything. And I think, you know, each, if you see capital as a group of soloed actors, then that in itself misses a huge opportunity, because each of those pools of capital, I think, can help the other go further. So, this concept of blended capital, where together you're greater than the sum of your parts, and you can use one perhaps to try and derisk aspects for the other, I think is where the opportunity lies. And philanthropy seems to have been sort of I refer to it as the Forgotten child of the capital system, almost seen as a sort of periphery player. But there are hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions of dollars that are disbursed in philanthropic capital, but more often than not exactly as you said, it's sort of off the radar screen. So, if we don't, if we're not able to properly institutionalize it, and bring the right transparency and accountability towards the investment of that capital, in tandem with other forms of capital, then we're going to have muted impact, if not even in some cases, unintentional destructive impact, where we are actually doing, you know, making a problem worse, unintentionally, then, then then making it better. But I wanted to ask you about technology, you obviously have a lot of experience in telecoms and networks. How is the so called, information age changing the nature of giving today, in your view, and how can strategic philanthropists harness the power of these technologies in the most effective way? Any thoughts on that?


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: Yeah, I think really, technology and recent development is already changing our lives. Suddenly, we'll discover that we're much more predictive than ever before. And if this was coming from this pandemic, is the fact that we even discovered that we can teach or study or go to school online. We discover we can buy our stuff online; we can communicate with others. Here we are having an interesting conversation online. In the past, one of us will have to travel 4000 miles in order for us to sit down and have a talk. We have quite a reasonable talk online.


Of course, you lack a little bit of humanity there. The human touch, or you know, to shake hands, to hug or whatever, but the contents are there. Still, you can communicate. So that really opened for us a lot of opportunities. We are more aware of what's going around us in the world. Today. Something happened in Vietnam, in China, in India or the United States, we're all into it, you know. So, it's bringing us really closer together. It makes much easier for us to organize ourselves and to act. It's very easy to bring the group of people together internet to organize something or to cooperate in doing something. So operationally it helps us a lot. And also, it cuts the cost of acting together.


That can be done really at almost zero cost. So that opens a lot of venues for us in order to act together, to organize together, to learn from each other. So, yes, technology affecting all aspects of our life, including, of course, philanthropy now.


Badr: One more thing on leadership, you know, your leadership fellowship and scholarship programs are committed to identifying and mentoring promising leaders in a range of fields, I think. What's different about emerging leaders of today, compared to when you first embarked on your own career?


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: I think younger generation now are better equipped to deal with issues of society than ourselves. Because let me give you an example. When I was young man in Sudan, and that was many, many years ago, we had only one TV channel, it was run by the government. Okay. And the first item in the news was always what the President had for lunch or he met with whom, you know, it’s just meaningless. And so, the flow of information in all our countries we had a military, full military information.


So, information is controlled by government ministry. And this minister job is to inform us, what he chooses to tell us is what we had to receive and that's it. So, our channels of information are very difficult. The newspaper, one was owned by the army, one was owned by the government. Well, there's only one, maybe two, which are independent. But again, they have to be careful what the publisher body say. Our chance to get information was to go at that time to buy Newsweek [phonetic] [0:22:10] was very popular at the time and Time magazine were quite popular.


But this sometimes also doesn't arrive, you know, but you try to listen to the BBC could have good well service at the time. They are cutting costs now. So, our access to information was really limited. And in many cases, effectively, censored, which are by design, or just as a byproduct, by this narrow channel, of flow of information. Today, information is everywhere. Actually, we have information fatigue, because we cannot process all this information available to us. I just did it on my computer and I had umpteen things to see there from various, you know, news channels to YouTube to WhatsApp, some personal, some organized. You have a deluge of information you are buried under. Our problem now is not information but processing of information.


Badr: Yeah. no, absolutely. And as you say, ultimately technology isn't the agent of change, we the connected people are the agents of change and time will tell whether we've used technology for the betterment of humanity and our planet or just to exacerbate our own human flaws.


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: Absolutely. And you know, but also, let's use first names if your mind is much easier, please don’t call me doctor. One aspect also, which is of interest, our issue - the scope of our issues in our time was very limited. For most of us, the main issue was independence. How to get rid of the colonial rule, okay. So, matters are simple. There's a colonial power there, and you're fighting for independence. And it's not difficult. Things are clear, demarked and you know, what are the lines there.


Today it’s a much more complex world, where we are now fighting on multiple fronts now. Developments, what does it mean, developments? Human Rights, climate change, there is so many issues around us which require an array of policies. So, it is a much more complex now those young leader has to deal with.


Badr: Absolutely. So finally, for the aspiring philanthropists out there that are watching this, any tips or tricks, if you can impart in relation to the what, where, and perhaps importantly, the how of giving?


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: I think we need to - as you mentioned, I mean, the word is strategic. What are we trying to do with our philanthropy? What's your objective? Who you want to help and how you want to help? When we started our foundation and because we made some money in Africa from business, and we said, let us give back to Africa. In what way to give back? There is a number of options in front of us. We have a lot of refugees in camps, we can take baby milk, blankets, etc., and give to people, that is wonderful.

You know, we can open some schools to help educate young generation that is amazing. But the question we faced was, and that’s specific to Africa, we say, hold on, why we have so many poor people. That's the question. Why we have so many poor people, what is wrong with Africa? And you look at Africa, and it's a rich continent. And the number of people living in Africa are very small, actually. Because Africa is a huge continent. You know, we have less people than the Chinese or the Indian people or, and you can take India and China and America and Europe, and put them in and Africans have more space. So why are we poor? Mandela used to say a very interesting statement when he said, Africa is rich, but Africans are poor.


And you say, that's interesting, why. And what we hear the answer we came up with was probably the reason is Africa, the way we run our campus




Yeah, Its governance, governance and leadership. That is a problem with our countries. That's why we are backward. I mean, many African countries were far better than South Korea, far better than China, far better than Malaysia at the time of independence, if you go back to ‘48, ‘50, ‘55 GDP or per capita in Africa was higher than many of those countries. So why these countries have moved now to a much higher level of development and we're still backward.


And clearly this is governance. So, I want to say hey, the government is stupid, you know, that is good. So, we decided to focus on that area. For the first instance, you will say, oh, but this is not philanthropy. I think it's probably a higher form of philanthropy because in able to help the poor, we need to change what is happening in the country, that is the best way to move the education system, improve the health system, etc., by real governance and self-reliance on our resources, which should be fine.


Badr: Sure, no, it's a philanthropic investment in infrastructure, in the infrastructure, absolutely and without solid and resilient infrastructure, everything built above it will be weak and will be susceptible to corruption and all the other ills of society and the economy. 


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: By fighting corruption, supporting good leadership, trying to move governance moves. So that is the best way to help the poor in our capitals. So also, our work is - doesn't look like giving, because we're not grants giving, we don't give grants, but except the scholarships and some things, but we believe we're helping the poor is a really significant way for building systems [Indiscernible] [0:29:26]. So young philanthropists, really think what we're trying to achieve, and what is the best way to achieve that. It's a direct attack, is its indirect attack on the problem, is it leveraging, it’s collaborating. It’s what you have to achieve, what you want to do in the most effective way. You want a big bang for every dollar you [Indiscernible] [0:30:06], and it is like business.


Badr: Precisely, it is an example you. Absolutely.


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: And this will be the human beings. Wonderful investments.


Badr: Absolutely. And the example you gave is really what strategic philanthropy is all about. And so really on that basis, as always, refreshingly sincere and insightful. Dear Mohammed, thank you, once again for your time, your experience, and of course, your friendship. Thank you very much.


Dr. Mo Ibrahim: Thank you very much. Thank you very much what you're trying to do, that is a great stuff you are trying to do there. Thank you.


Badr: Thank you