Dolly Parton, legacy and global philanthropy

Dolly Parton, legacy and global philanthropy

It is too important for South Africa to ditch its research institutions. There are so many needs at this time in our history when we are faced with unemployment and inequality, but we cannot lift ourselves up without innovation, research and development.

Much to the amazement of many, The Guardian reported on 17 November that American music idol Dolly Parton had made a $1-million contribution towards Covid-19 research at Vanderbilt University Medical Centre in Nashville, Tennessee.

The university was part of the research team that helped make the breakthrough Covid-19 vaccine that will be produced by Moderna in the US. For most South Africans, Dolly Parton is not associated with philanthropy, but other than her music, this may well be one of the most lasting legacies for which she will be remembered. 

In the US and in the music industry, Parton is known for her philanthropy which includes, inter alia, a programme entitled Imagination Library, which is now operating globally and has distributed 100 million books to children from birth until they start school, the Save the Music Foundation, wildlife sanctuaries and hospitals. 

In South Africa, most philanthropic funds are directed at education, but not necessarily to research. One of the failings in South Africa is that the government, while cutting research budgets, decries the fact that we need to rely on other countries’ research and development.

We potentially have a great facility in South Africa to manufacture vaccines (Aspen in Port Elizabeth), and as early as April 2020, South African scientists had revealed the first genome sequence for Covid-19 from a South African who had travelled to Italy and returned with the virus. Yet, we could not develop a vaccine.

According to an article in Daily Maverick in June 2020, South Africa has the experience and capacity to make a Covid-19 vaccine. The authors pointed out:

“Covid-19 is a reminder that even if vaccines were to be made in abundance and be made available free, unless domestic R&D and production capability are supported and enhanced, South Africa and Africa will remain a net consumer and be continuously dependent on external supplies and may not be able to respond to future pandemics.”

We simply cannot expect to be a Thuma Mina, world-class country without research and development, yet funding for this is drying up. 

According to an article in University World News in July 2020, the South African government will be cutting R295.4-million from various scientific entities including R96-million from the National Research Foundation (which funds a great deal of our university research projects), nearly R100-million from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and R32-million from the Human Sciences Research Council. 

Taking into account the president’s focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is a surprise that the Technology Innovation Agency will also be taking a R45-million cut. 

We cannot as South Africans bemoan the fact that we are reliant, particularly on the West and increasingly on China and India, for so much of our knowledge and technology, including basic products, while at the same time we are cutting these budgets. 

Philanthropy cannot replace government funding, particularly in South Africa which has a relatively small community. Yet it can seed projects in their early stages in areas where the government or the corporate sector cannot (or will not). 

A critical example in women’s reproductive health is the development of the contraceptive pill. At the time, many governments were hostile to the idea of contraception and the US government would not fund research into women’s contraception for ideological reasons and for fear of losing votes.

The research that produced the first birth control pills was funded by wealthy heiress Katharine McCormick, in 1953. She spent more than $2-million on the research which was approved in 1960 for contraceptive use. 

It is too important for South Africa to ditch its research institutions. There are so many needs at this time in our history when we are faced with unemployment and inequality, but we cannot lift ourselves up without innovation, research and development.

People who wish to make philanthropic contributions respond frequently to their heartstrings and therefore funds go to children, to welfare, to animal conservation and to their faith-based institutions. This is as it should be, but it is important to think more strategically as to how the systems evolved that created poverty, ill-health and destruction of our environment and to invest in remedies for those as well. To add to the dynamic, philanthropy can take an informed risk, so those who claim to be entrepreneurial can seed some wonderful initiatives. 

Legacy philanthropy through bequests can also make a significant contribution. Depending on the passion of the individual, bequests can be made not only for environmental, scientific, technological or medical research, but also to a range of other disciplines at university level, such as a chair in a specific department in the humanities or a law library. 

These kinds of investments are clearly not for every donor as people have different interests and different income levels, but in South Africa, there have been some interesting cases of local philanthropic foundations investing in research and development. 

One of these was recently outlined in the IPASA 2020 Review of South African Philanthropy in the case of the Carl and Emily Fuchs Foundation that supported innovation and technology at the Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing at the Central University of Technology, Bloemfontein, for close on 20 years. From this long-term partnership, CPRM has built the capacity to manufacture tailor-made medical devices and is a leader in additive manufacturing technology (3-D printing). 

The centre, now recognised globally for its work, specialises in “using 3-D printing to design and create prototypes and medical implantation devices that enable researchers, students, professional engineers, manufacturers and medical practitioners to collaborate in designing and producing patient-specific medical devices”. 

These are “precision-fitted during advanced surgical procedures”. As a result of its success, the centre has now attracted other funding and the “multiplier effect” is evident. For those who are looking at the impact of their funding, this is a remarkable story.

The knock-on when a donation has such a multiplier effect was shown when a $200,000 donation was made for research into automated DNA sequencing at Caltech in the US. It is now estimated that this has created $800-billion in economic value. 

There are also cases where many small donations have made a huge impact. One of the most famous of these is the March of Dimes. This fundraising campaign to eradicate polio brought in donations from even the poorest people in order to create the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938, shortly after the Great Depression.

The campaign was led by President Franklin D Roosevelt who was himself a polio victim. In their appeal for as little as a dime (10c), it was pointed out that it only took ten dimes to make a dollar, and if a million people sent a dime, they would have $100,000. Within a month, 2,680,000 dimes ($268,000) were collected for polio research that eventually enabled Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin to develop their polio vaccines in the 1950s. 

We may well think this could not happen in South Africa, but there is the remarkable case of the campaign to found the University of Botswana. When Roma University in Lesotho (the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland) was nationalised in 1975, Botswana had to make a plan for its students and create a university in Botswana itself.

A campaign was established called Motho le Motho Kgomo, or One Man One Beast, focusing on the need for self-reliance and community giving. While funds came from the corporate sector and Botswana’s bilateral partners, money also flowed in from citizens themselves, including cash, livestock (such as cattle and chickens) or grain donated by farmers and workers. Citizens recognised the need for higher education, for research and development as a key to their own long-term sustainability and success. 

It is too important for South Africa to ditch its research institutions. There are so many needs at this time in our history when we are faced with unemployment and inequality, but we cannot lift ourselves up without innovation, research and development.

A role for philanthropy in this space, seeding projects and seeking partners with other sources of finance, could have a significant impact.

Published on DailyMaverick