In 2015, Robert F. Smith was the only African-American man listed on the Forbes 400 list. While that accomplishment is noteworthy in and of itself, Smith made even bigger headlines in early 2016 for his philanthropic pursuits after announcing a $50 million commitment to his alma mater, Cornell University. That gift establishes a fellowship program, supports chemical and biomolecular engineering programs, and supports black and female students at Cornell’s College of Engineering.
As we've reported, Smith directs a good amount of his personal philanthropy toward education. His Fund II Foundation does much the same with a focus on music and STEM education. Another big priority at Fund II is human rights. While the foundation’s rights work tends to be fairly broad based, supporting efforts to “counteract human rights violations wherever they happen,” Smith himself is targeting a specific group with his latest commitment.
Smith announced that he would foot the education bill for 24 Chibok girls, including the 21 who were released by Boko Haram in October 2016. The 24 girls will be admitted to the American University of Nigeria, and Smith will cover the estimated $5,000 to $11,000 yearly expenses for each one of them. Smith has also pledged to take responsibility for the education of the remaining 219 Chibok girls whom the world hopes will eventually be released by their terrorist captors.
While much of the media notes that there is a great deal of national and international interest in the Chibok girls, we have yet to see that interest bear fruit—at least not when it comes to philanthropy. Many donor governments have pledged increased support to Nigeria in an effort to combat the Boko Haram insurgency—which, by the way, began back in 2009—and aid agencies like Unicef have made public pleas for support. Still, there hasn’t been a lot of movement here, and very few funders stepped up for the people of Nigeria.
Over the past couple of years, the Gates Foundation has awarded around $2 million in grants to major NGOs such as CARE and the International Rescue Committee for their work addressing the needs of Nigerian refugees.
Gates does have an established history of support to groups working in African countries that have been mired in conflict for years. But refugee funding remains low on the priority list for the foundation, as it has only committed close to $33 million since the late 1990s.
Other than a few grants from Gates, other funders haven’t really stepped up in a big way for Nigerians who have endured nearly a decade of terror. The Boko Haram insurgency hasn’t made the news much lately, and it can feel as if the world has forgotten about the suffering inflicted by this group.
Well, Robert Smith hasn't.