How to Spread It: Mo Ibrahim

2013-05-05 10:00

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Mobile networks billionaire Mo Ibrahim (67) is the founder and former chairperson of Celtel, the company that brought mobile phones to more than 76 million Africans in 14 countries during the 1990s.

An uncompromising advocate for good governance in the continent of his birth, Ibrahim is the creator of one of philanthropy’s most unusual and controversial initiatives.

The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, worth $5 million plus an annual stipend for life, is awarded to democratically elected heads of state who leave office voluntarily after improving the living standards of their country’s citizens according to the annual Ibrahim Index of African Governance.

Q: The Wall Street Journal called you “a strange sort of philanthropist” because you don’t do handouts. Yet there is a noticeable trend among 21st century African philanthropists to “invest” in goal-oriented people and programmes that will produce real change, rather than simply writing cheques for charity. Would you agree?

A: I owe my success, and the foundation’s resources, to my conviction that it was and is possible to do good business in Africa. Like business, I think philanthropy must insist on a return on investment and, where possible, measurable results.

The philanthropy that Africa needs is not about simply writing cheques, it is about directing resources to where they can create the greatest results and support Africans to achieve their full potential.

In the case of the foundation’s work, we think that better leadership and governance will unleash Africa’s huge human resource potential. In our continent that is blessed with natural resource abundance, it is our people – particularly our youth – that is our greatest asset in the context of global trends towards ageing populations.

It is to this end – identifying the public goods and services that governments must deliver if citizens are to fulfil their potential – that we created the Ibrahim Index and the Ibrahim Prize.

The foundation is also investing in the next generation of Africa’s leaders through fellowship and scholarship programmes, because we need our young leaders to learn from all the good and bad that has preceded them in order to move our continent forward.

Q: You’ve taken issue with critics who see only doom, gloom and corruption in the continent. You highlight the psychological importance of celebrating the good and of having “African role models”. Can Africa’s homegrown philanthropists make a difference to how we see ourselves?

A: Yes. I believe it is critically important to celebrate Africa’s success stories. Just as we must be honest about our weaknesses, we must honour our Mandelas and Chissanos.

Most of our (Nobel) Prize Laureates – with the exception of Madiba – were unknown outside their country or subregion. I hope the prize has created some new role models for young people and created some counterexamples. Everyone has heard of Mugabe and Idi Amin, and that is fair enough. But should they not also know of President Pires or President Mogae? That is the kind of balanced narrative that we aim to promote.

Of course, a new generation creates even further balance by showing that you do not need to enter politics to contribute. Creating businesses that build infrastructure, offer services and create jobs is also key to development and I hope I, and others like me, who have had some success in business, have shown that.

We need great African business role models, scientists, technologists – there is no field in which we should not be competing or collaborating with the best in the world.

Q: Since its inception in 2007, the annual Ibrahim Prize has been awarded just three times – to Festus Mogae, Joaquim Chissano and Pedro Pires. You’ve declined to award this prize in other years. Why didn’t former South African president Thabo Mbeki make the cut?

A: That is a question for our prize committee, which is independent from the foundation and which I do not sit on, but I suspect their answer would be ‘no comment’!

Q: Is the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) having an impact?

A: I believe and hope so. Every year, we see more coverage, find more governments wanting to engage with us on the findings and see wider citation. We were delighted, for example, that in her recent trip to Cote d’Ivoire, Christine Lagarde of the IMF benchmarked that country’s progress against the IIAG.

Q: Post-apartheid South Africa has produced many new millionaires. Do the rich have a duty to give away some of their wealth?

A: It is not for me to say how others should spend their money. Rather than use the word ‘duty’ I would prefer to use the word ‘interest’. I think it is all of our interest to seek to create a dynamic, inclusive and prosperous Africa. Personally, I have been very lucky, and I believe very strongly in giving back.

Q: You were born in northern Sudan and grew up in Egypt. Now a UK citizen, you remain passionate about Africa. If charity begins at home, was there anything – or anyone – in your childhood that shaped your ideas about giving?

A: I grew up in a Nubian community. We have the culture of extended family, which is effectively a sort of safety net or collective insurance for the community. In our culture, it is disgraceful if you have a full belly and your neighbour is going without.

Q: Can we hope for an Ibrahim Prize winner in 2013?

A: Every year we hope for a winner. But we must also recognise that in any year there are very few heads of state coming out of office. Statistically speaking, we are as unlikely to find an excellent winner leaving office in Africa in a given year as we are in Europe or Asia.

But this is an award for excellence. We cannot accept anything less than that simply because we are African. We have proved that we can produce some of the greatest leaders of the past decades – leaders of the calibre of Mandela. We should not accept any less than that.

This series was developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust.

» If you know How To Spread It or know of a philanthropist who you’d like to read about, please email us:

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