In this interview, Folashadé Soulé and Camilla Toulmin speak with Carl Manlan, the Chief Operating Officer of the Ecobank Foundation – responsible for Ecobank’s social impact engagement with the communities in which the bank operates in Africa – on the role of African philanthropy and corporate social responsibility in the response to COVID-19 on the continent.
Carl Manlan works at the intersection of public, private and civil society sectors. Through his professional career he contributed to health financing through multi-lateral organisations. As a Mo Ibrahim Fellow at the Economic Commission for Africa, he focused on industrial and agricultural policies designed to accelerate the transformation of the African continent. Prior to his current role at Ecobank Foundation, he led a public-private initiative to support an African response to Ebola in West Africa.
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered in Africa, just as in many parts of the world, both a health and an economic crisis. Although the continent seems – for now – less affected than others by infection and high death rates, the economic impact has been much harder. Growth in sub-Saharan Africa has already been significantly affected, in part due to lockdown measures, but also to a significant drop in global demand for Africa’s exports. From your standpoint, how do you assess the economic and social impact the pandemic is having on African economies and livelihoods?
The social impact was always going to be profound, and to have assumed otherwise was to ignore the obvious. When you have a continent with the large number of individuals that work in the informal sector or the popular economy, as you do in Africa, you realize that government measures to safeguard health are felt differently here. When an informal trader misses an opportunity to sell her wares on a given day because lockdown measures mean there is no traffic on the road that day, she cannot guarantee that there will be food on the table, or that her children will be able to continue going to school. She has no safety net. The challenge is persistently social.
The question the pandemic has highlighted is one that we have always known: what happens when the informal or the popular economy can no longer operate on a daily basis? We can only ignore this question if we are fighting diseases and viruses that do not restrict movement, that do not restrict the informal trader’s ability to interact with her customers.
When we had the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, we started to see the impact of a virus that travelled. Ebola moved from rural areas – where it has always been – to urban areas, before getting on a plane and going overseas without a visa. We saw what the global reaction was at the time. A coalition of 50 countries pledged billions of dollars. Now, with COVID-19 we see a virus with a different character, one which primarily affects individuals that are connected to the world through travel, and spend a lot of their time in different countries. When this group of people in our societies were hit by COVID-19, the response was completely different from that during the Ebola outbreak and we continue to see the differences.
The race to tackle the virus is an economic issue. Is it a social issue? I am not so sure. Of course, the two are connected and that’s the beauty – if I can call it that way – of the current situation. COVID-19 has forced us to confront our realities: that you cannot have a conversation about double-digit economic growth without addressing how the livelihoods of individuals and communities will improve. Economic growth and improvement in livelihoods should be in sync. If the objective is to improve somebody’s livelihood through trade, agriculture, manufacturing, or industrialization, we cannot assume that the social aspect will resolve itself.
Let’s take much simpler diseases that affect African communities. I like to use examples of neglected tropical diseases, because they remind us that even when science has given us the tools to beat many complex medical problems, we still struggle to end them for good. Take schistosomiasis, for example, transmitted by parasitic flatworms. It limits children’s ability to go to school. On a continent with a majority youth population, the leaders of tomorrow, can we afford to have children miss out on an education because of a preventable disease? With neglected tropical diseases, we have left the social elements to be resolved by others.
What COVID-19 has shown us is that we can no longer ignore the social elements because they are embedded in the economic growth narrative. Without taking the social elements into consideration, whatever economic growth we have will not be sustainable. And unfortunately, for us, this is what COVID-19 has reinforced. It’s a message that we must all heed.
The impact of Covid-19 in Africa so far has been severe: millions of Africans who were economically vulnerable before the crisis have lost their jobs and livelihoods. Several African companies and their foundations, like the Ecobank Foundation, have also stepped up during this crisis, not always in a very public manner, but there have been various initiatives. How do you analyze the way African companies have carried out their corporate social responsibilities during the crisis? And what has been the specific role of the Ecobank Foundation since the beginning of the crisis?
My favorite SDG is Goal 17 because without partnerships, we cannot accomplish the other goals. Ebola had already shown us that it is impossible to tackle big challenges without partnerships. Big challenges are surmounted through collaboration and coordination between civil society, private sector, public sector and government. The response to COVID-19 in Africa has been instrumental in showing us how coordination can be done at the country, regional, and, critically, at the African Union level. We demonstrated that we had learned the lessons of the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, when we didn’t have an Africa CDC – Centre for Diseases Control. Now we do.
The fact that you had political alignment on how to deal with Covid-19 helped private sector organizations construct a clear narrative as to how resources should be used. Almost every country set up a solidarity fund to which individuals, private sector companies and organizations were asked to contribute – and people did. So for me, that demonstrates a certain element of trust in society – to believe that we are in this together and whatever you have, you should pool your resources, so we can do more.
At Ecobank Foundation, the response was primarily a direct response to the situation in each of the countries where Ecobank is present. So Ecobank Togo, Ecobank Rwanda, Ecobank Guinea-Bissau etc. looked at what their host government needed and what measures had been put in place, and we contributed accordingly. So that’s where the support went, because governments were very clear about what they needed. If there’s one key lesson, it is the combined ability of governments to identify priorities, for example from a health perspective, and for others to join in those efforts.
COVID-19 is peculiar because of its social impact. It is an urban phenomenon. And I think that is for me, one of the lessons to be learned for how we deal with viruses or diseases on our continent. When a disease is urban-focused, it affects a group in society that in general has better access to resources. Their reaction to it is also faster because they can immediately see its impact on their livelihoods and on their businesses.
If we look at diseases that predominantly affect rural areas, we do not see the same swift response. So, a fundamental question for me is, how do we learn from this experience? How can we use what we have learnt to resolve some of the health issues that still hamper our economic transformation? Now we have a blueprint to respond to these kinds of emergencies, how do we strengthen further the Africa CDC, and other Pan-African institutions so that they can respond better in future?
In terms of the corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda, it has become clear that you can no longer separate CSR from core business. Because for CSR to exist, you need to be making money; if you’re not making money, your CSR funding inevitably will be less. The way we do business on the continent needs to embed the social elements that guarantee a common future for all citizens. Even though some of us were able to quarantine in safe environments, the majority of people was not able to do so. How do we safeguard the lives and livelihoods of millions of Africans who inhabit informal settlements? In these environments, it is impossible to comply with guidelines for physical distancing and handwashing. In its current conception, CSR cannot resolve these challenges. The conversation needs to shift to the type and quality of CSR needed for the continent, and what kind of philanthropy we need for this continent. These questions are familiar to us, but COVID-19 has made them starker. CSR is tied to profit, so if a company is not making any profit, the CSR conversation is a very limited one. We have to find other sources of funding for social projects – for example, can we turn to the diaspora? Can we turn to Africans with greater disposable income? COVID-19 forces us to look inward – if all countries are suffering, at different scales, can we expect other countries to set aside resources to continue funding development aid?
African philanthropists have stepped up their support for the people and communities most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic throughout the continent, but their actions have mostly remained very local and not beyond their country of origin. How do you assess the role of African philanthropy in responding to COVID-19?
The first response, if you think about where the business of these philanthropists are located, is to safeguard the livelihoods and the lives of individuals in the country where they operate and most of their assets are secured. But this is only the visible tip of the iceberg. In each country, you have wealthy individuals and many of them have responded without necessarily being on the front page of a newspaper. If we don’t see it, does it mean that it doesn’t happen?
When Jack Ma, via the Alibaba Foundation, decides to donate PPE equipment to all African countries, we need to see that in the context of China having become the industrial hub of the world. Therefore, distributing PPE and masks, is simply buying and shipping a product that is produced on his doorstep. But the company that shipped most of the Alibaba Foundation’s goods was an African company, Ethiopian Airlines. We hope that Africa, through the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, becomes an industrial hub and can then produce these goods themselves.
In Africa, the private sector has mobilized in at least Nigeria, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. Initiatives have included support to micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) at the local level, but also at the continental level, in recognition of the fact that MSMEs are actually the bread and butter of our continent. If we want to escape the economic trap of viruses and diseases, we need to make sure that we strengthen our MSMEs.
Regarding the future of philanthropy in Africa, a report by the African Philanthropy forum proposes a shift to “dynamic localism” —more specifically, five systemic shifts in how philanthropy as a whole will need to evolve over the next year and beyond in Africa. These include: a shift in the locus of power – from institutions to beneficiaries; Moving towards digital-first planning and programming; Embedding resilience throughout; Strategic flexibility as a core capability; and an end to ‘transactional’ partners. What is your opinion about this proposal?
First, these factors have always been present. When Ebola hit DRC, an outbreak which only recently ended, it was a neighbor, a local shopkeeper, a farmer who were the first responders. And because we don’t put a monetary value on this support, we don’t call it philanthropy. But the local aspects of who we are as a community and how we care for each other are themselves a very solid foundation. You are unlikely to go out to care for somebody that you do not feel connected to. The humanity that we demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic did not just appear out of nowhere, it has always existed in our communities. The African Philanthropy Forum report states the obvious by saying that we have to start thinking about existing networks and mechanisms that support our communities. We may not be able to put a monetary value on existing networks, but we are reminded by a crisis like this that there exist networks that can leverage diverse resources. You need to take the time to understand how existing networks operate.
The second element for me has to do with individual contributions to a larger pool. What should be the purpose of philanthropy on a continent where the majority of young people still lack access to better education and health? Do we look at these needs through a philanthropic lens or through a sustainability lens? Perhaps we can do both, but it is critical that we approach these challenges in a way that ensures we deliver the sustainable development goals.
The third element for me takes us back to partnerships. Do partnerships only exist when big entities, big philanthropists, are coordinating the efforts? Or can partnerships exist in other ways? Take for example, when a group of five or ten women in the rural area, somewhere in Africa put aside $1 or $2 and use this as seed money to invest in a small business. These small partnerships should also attract our attention because, while it is nice to see big numbers being announced, it is the small numbers that permeate throughout our communities. What we are able to do in our local communities, the number of people that we are able to help by sending money using digital platforms, the efforts to support a relative we have not seen in decades, and so forth, that is where impact resides.
Crises can provide a window of opportunity, a moment of enhanced possibility, when it is easier to achieve large-scale change. Despite all the suffering caused by the coronavirus, could it also be an opportunity for reform? Will economic globalization be different after coronavirus? And if it will be different, how?
Surely the model of having a strong domestic market is critical, but to achieve that strong domestic market, you need to have people that are engaged in economic activity. You need to be creating jobs. We must think hard about achieving greener, more sustainable industrialization. Success will depend on our ability to deliver green and renewable energy. Otherwise, we may not be around to enjoy the benefits of the changes we are arguing for, and we will be destined to leave our children with a poisoned legacy. This is the first time, in a long time, when we have been forced to pause. We have suddenly seen the whole world pressing the pause button by the force of a virus. So we find ourselves asking questions like: Do I really need all these things that I have, or can I share them with someone who needs them more than I do, someone who will make better use of them? The answer takes you back to the community, that is where the future lies. The future is in the ability of communities to find the resources within themselves to offer a better future.
About the COVID-19 and Africa series: a series of conversations conducted by Dr. Folashadé Soulé and Dr. Camilla Toulmin with African/Africa-based economists and experts about their perspectives on economic transformation and how the COVID situation re-shapes the options and pathways for Africa’s development – in support of INET’s Commission on Global Economic Transformation (CGET)