What role do U.S. foundations play abroad?

The role of American foundations – those that dole out money to causes – has been controversial for a long time. For those who know the history, it is a well-known fact that private foundations arose from the wealth of wealthy industrialists, who wanted to use their wealth for ‘common good.’

The ‘Robber barons’ of the 19th century were scrutinized for their use of wealth and often criticized for how they made their wealth, often by not paying their workers enough and suppressing labor unions. This trend seems to have changed, for foundations are universally accepted as being forces for ‘good.’ While there is some criticism among academics, there seems to be  an emerging consensus among academics and even nonprofit professionals that private foundations are necessary – even if they end up distorting ground realities in societies where they function.

Recently released book ‘Unequal Partners’ by Fabrice Jaumont examines the role of American foundations in the space of Higher education in Africa. Jaumont offers a nuanced perspective of how American foundations have operated in the continent. While there is a clear understanding that each foundation comes with its own cultural understanding of what is relevant and what is not, the book takes a hard look at the operating conditions of these foundations and the countries where they work.

An observation he makes is relevant : He suggests that there seems to be a bias towards English speaking projects/ countries, where American foundations operate and among French speaking countries, there is a greater influence/ support from France/ Francophone foundations, reflecting a bias from the days of the colonial powers.

An area of conflict is when research priorities of the universities receiving the grants dont match those of the grantees. For instance, Jaumont points out “Grantees must compete for grants and although their research agendas do not always match those of donors, their priorities are realigned in order to access the available funds.” (p.125). This also complicates issues of ownership and priorities of national development, emanating from the local governments. All these are terribly complex situations and the reason for much confusion. He suggests that many of the foundations contributed positively by increasing the capacity of these universities to carry out work, both by training and increasing the IT infrastructure.

Jaumont also enforces the idea that collaboration is needed, between the foundations; given that no single foundation can solve the complex problems that are before the nation.


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