BY: Temitope Osunrinde
On the 8th of April, 2020, ‘Ponmo’ a local delicacy in Nigeria trended for the wrong reasons. In a now-viral video, a woman had reportedly spent over N1 million to feed her neighbors during the Federal Government COVID-19 lockdown (a necessary occurrence to curb the viruses transmission but had grave consequences for citizens operating in the informal sector).
The unnamed woman, a professional caterer identified as ‘a good Samaritan’ was reportedly shocked by the response. Misunderstanding the gesture, the recipients of her generosity lamented about the quality of the food provided after being indoors for several days and complained about the lack of meat.
One woman who provided a glimpse of her food: jollof rice and protein in a disposable takeaway pack shared the viral quote, “I don’t even eat Ponmo, I don’t eat Ponmo”.
Unsurprisingly, the reactions from the charity recipients sparked outrage among Nigerians on social media.
Comments were a mix from moderately benign to outright insulting- calling the recipients ungrateful. In less than 24 hours, the original post had generated over 5,000 tweets with a trending tag #Ponmo deriding the charity benefactors and memes for the ‘I don’t even eat Ponmo’ lady.
Barely weeks after this incident in an unrelated incident, IT entrepreneur, Victor Asemota, in a series of tweets criticized the giveaway culture in Nigeria, commenting that online begging started from 419 and its origins in superstition, occultism, and fetishism.
He shared his experience of a ride with some Nigerian policemen who, in a conversation, said that some 419 guys are told to spend certain amounts within a period or they will die.
According to them, some of these 419 people give money to artistes to distribute on their behalf, which may explain the humongous amounts distributed by celebrities on social media recently.
Asemota noted that he feels it may not be superstition. “Maybe it is a way to cover up your tracks with money laundering. If you create many accounts that beg online and receive, you have created a different trail. Passing it through others as philanthropy makes it look even better.”
Our assumptions about charity
Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘David and Goliath’ has a famous line I will paraphrase: “Why do we automatically assume that someone smaller or poorer or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage?” Why do we, in the context of our #Ponmo chronicles, automatically assume that people who give are making sacrifices, while the receivers, for the most part, are ungrateful people who are unappreciative of the effort, resources and time of the donors?
From the commentary on the origins of online philanthropy in Nigeria and the response to the beneficiaries of our #Ponmo chronicles, (we can plausibly see the differing perspectives of philanthropy). Why then do we believe that all philanthropy is good? Why do we assume that the broad-brush programs by philanthropists and charitable persons are addressing the current needs of their recipients? Why is a lot of local philanthropy frothy; too much noise with little substance? Are we misreading and misinterpreting philanthropy?
In an article, Adam Waytz, Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University explains the dynamics of a charitable endeavor. When people are on the receiving end of help, they tend to prefer something called agentic aid, which allows them to choose how to respond, yet people often prefer the opposite — paternalistic policies — when helping others.
According to Waytz and the research team, people show more support for paternalistic policies if they believe recipients are not very mentally capable, that is if recipients seem unlikely to exercise self-control, plan, and make thoughtful decisions.
However, aid recipients tend to think more highly of their mental capabilities than of others’, thus expressing stronger support for agentic aid for themselves.
While their research does not choose a better form of aid, it discovered that paternalistic aid may hurt the recipients’ public image as offering food instead of money to the poor, make them seem less mentally capable.
Experts believe that charity only exacerbates the challenge of inequality and polarises participants on both ends of the charity quotient as privileged and unprivileged; the former class has a surplus and can aggregate resources to provide food and drive around to give it out while the latter category is trapped at home, unable to trade but have to rely on other people.
Philanthropy cannot solve the inequality problem.
On the contrary, it seems to open a Pandora’s box. Peter Buffett, coined the term ‘philanthropic colonialism, (when sponsors, who have very little knowledge of a particular place, think that they can solve a local problem by transplanting what worked in one setting directly into another with scant regard for culture, geography or societal norms). In a New York Times opinion, he noted the unintended consequences that resulted from this thinking, analogously explaining how distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS in a brothel area, for instance, didn’t reduce sexual diseases but created a higher price for unprotected sex. Philanthropy, he stressed, should create greater prosperity for all not a perpetual poverty machine oiled by the need for people to pat themselves on the back.
Philanthropy, especially in African countries has since followed that one-way road; people with ‘savior complexes’ continuing to repeat the same thing done by others. It has become a fashionable smoke screen for local celebrities to commemorate their birthdays with publicised visits to orphanages and old people’s homes, indulge in well-placed photos and leave cartons of Indomie.
It has become an emblematic of the show of wealth, without an improvement in recipient outcomes. Weaponized charity has become a meal-ticket for smart people out of poverty themselves, advancing philanthropic at the expense of the vulnerable.
It has become obvious that philanthropy is not a substitute for access to good health systems, economic opportunities, and decent wages, social protection for the jobless and effective education and infrastructure.
In “The Prosperity Paradox”, late Professor Clayton Christensen and Efosa Ojomo of the Clayton Christensen Institute, opine that while poor infrastructure is one of the most visible signs of poverty in developing countries, it cannot be pushed in, but must be pulled.
“Pushing infrastructure into low and middle-income economies before there are enough markets to use the infrastructure can result in big, expensive white elephants [visible and painful reminders of what once seemed possible].
Like infrastructure, philanthropy must be pulled in, not pushed, to sustainably assist people. As what is supposed to be a thoughtful gesture to help vulnerable people can mutate into a cry for financial equality.
A pull charity attempt occurs when philanthropies are inclusively strategic in their goals, and discover new ways to involve the people they hope to impact.
An opt-in, technology-enabled intervention platform that aggregates both donors and recipients can help.
Every solution must involve, at the minimum, the following components: time, education, partnership, a champion, and accountability.
Time and effort, undertaken to understand the specific needs of charity recipients; a technology-driven platform that educates stakeholders on the process; partnership with multiple agencies, funders, and companies; a champion and total accountability.
For instance, the vulnerable can be categorized into different classes; single, needs-cooked-food; single, can-cook-so-needs-provision; married, needs-family-food-packs; married, has-food-but-needs-hospital-access-for-sick-child. When you think through it, you realize there are many sub-groups within the vulnerable population. The dynamics of these subgroups is reflected in their pain points.
Food charities can be made more sustainable by engaging in what Professor Christensen terms ‘market-creating innovations”. After defining the categories, food charities can discover that a sizable amount of their populations are families. Low-income families need customized food packs, similar to what Honeywell Flour Mills- Lagos State Government partnership produced.
A donor can, for example, go to Project ABC’s website to donate 50 food packs, which tentatively cost N5000 per pack. Project ABC will reference requests for Honeywell food packs on its website and give the requesters. However, requesters may donate N1000 per pack to Project ABC or promise to redeem a N2500 pledge at a later date.
For those who request food, for instance, Project ABC can have food vendors in selected areas who provide cooked food (requesters indicate preferences) at a cost subsidized by the charity organization.
This approach preserves the dignity of the vulnerable, satisfies the philanthropist’s quest to be a knight in shining armor, funds an existing business, generates income for the charity organizations and provides a growing pool of volunteers from their vulnerable stakeholders.
The focus of charity must remain the vulnerable and poor people. We may need to define new ways of measuring this in the era of giveaways. Any philanthropic activity should then reflect the views of this class, to understand what they want and how they want it.
Osunrinde is a senior marketing executive who is passionate about protecting organizations, businesses, people, and ideas from reputational risks. He can be contacted via email@example.com