New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Education / Philanthropy and Historical Research

Early 20th Century American Philanthropy in the Near East

Editors’ Note: Continuing the site’s forum on philanthropy & education, Michael Limberg presents some of his ongoing dissertation research on early twentieth century U.S. development in the Near East.

By 1920, field workers and administrators of the New York-based humanitarian agency Near East Relief realized they had a problem: they had been extremely successful, perhaps too successful, in creating orphanages for war-ravaged Armenian, Greek, and Syrian children. NER estimated their orphanages housed 54,000 children and provided meals or partial care for 48,000 more orphans or needy children who lived near relief centers. While many of these children could be placed with local families or turned over to local governments, NER knew that many could not. An organization set up to provide emergency relief now had to begin planning for a long-term commitment to provide education and vocational training.

NER used advisers, models, and funding from philanthropic organizations active in the U.S. South to guide their transformation into the renamed, development-oriented philanthropy Near East Foundation (NEF). These influences also spilled over into the work done by missionaries and other relief organizations across the Near East during the 1920s and 1930s. Together American missionary boards and philanthropies launched programs for vocational education and for health and educational extension, intended, in the words of a NEF report, to transmit “the practical experience by which America has solved rural problems similar to those which perplex the Near East today.” As Andrew Zimmerman points out in Alabama in Africa, American models of racial uplift and instances of subaltern agency connected the American South and development projects around the world even in the early 1900s. Many assumptions American reformers and philanthropists deployed in regards to the South—that it was a backwards region, economically underdeveloped, unhealthy, racially divided, and culturally bereft—were the same terms they applied to the Near East, with similar proposed solutions.

NER first brought in educational experts to devise a program for their orphanages. They turned to two men in particular, Dr. Paul Monroe, head of Columbia University’s School of Education, and Dr. Thomas Jesse Jones, Educational Director of the Phelps-Stokes Fund. The Phelps-Stokes Fund was an important philanthropic organization providing research and advice to universities and government educators on education for African-Americans and Native Americans. They and NER’s field staff developed a curriculum of vocational and technical training “to bring the children as rapidly as possible to self-support and to productive industrial leadership.” Orphans were taught carpentry, weaving, agriculture, and homemaking skills, even helping to produce their own food and clothes. NER consciously drew on models from Hampton and Tuskegee in their early orphanage work. As orphanage and refugee work turned into permanent development projects in Greece, Lebanon, Bulgaria, and elsewhere during the late 1920s, NER incorporated rural extension work for agriculture and health based on models from the US Department of Agriculture and the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board. Jeanes-Slater Fund programs for embedding teachers in rural African-American communities inspired a program for Palestinian Arab teachers run jointly by NER and the American University of Beirut. Thomas Jesse Jones was a major influence in creating these practical programs, using his experience with philanthropy in the U.S. South and abroad to theorize a vision for the “Essentials of Civilization” that all could achieve. NER and its successor NEF created partnerships with missionaries as well as local governments, spreading the influence of philanthropic uplift models across the region.

Rockefeller Foundation money and advice had an immense influence on the medical and educational programs Americans created for the Near East during the 1920s and 1930s. At the American University of Beirut, for instance, President Bayard Dodge waged successful campaigns during the 1920s and early 1930s to secure more than two million dollars from the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Health Division and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial. These funds went to expand AUB’s medical school facilities and train faculty, operate an extension clinic in Beirut, and increase the school’s endowment. Rockefeller money helped AUB run several programs in conjunction with the Near East Foundation, including the extension-based Institute for Rural Life. As in the American South, Rockefeller philanthropy’s efforts for disease control and support for schools aimed to create an industrial workforce and efficient state bureaucracies to integrate a supposedly “backward” region into a larger economic world.

These connections highlight how interwoven domestic and international philanthropic organizations have been throughout the twentieth century. Models initially used for alleviating black poverty or Southern backwardness were extended around the world. Americans in the Near East used some of the same problematic assumptions about the abilities and needs of other races. As Joan Malczewski pointed out in an earlier post, however, the participation of local actors and governments in American programs gave many ways for them to exert agency. Similarly, Americans had to fit their aid programs to the desires and requirements of the Greek government, or work to support the new Turkish government’s existing anti-malaria campaign. A number of Arab or Greek staff members filled field staff positions and gradually rose to leadership roles, as Basil Moussaros did in NER projects in Greece. They could not direct organization policy from the top, but they could influence its application on the ground. Across the Near East, American philanthropists built an extensive network of education and health projects that both drew on American models and shifted to meet local needs.

-Michael Limberg

Michael Limberg is a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut specializing in U.S. foreign relations. His dissertation “An Abundant Life: U.S. Development in the Near East, 1919-1939” is about the network of missionaries, philanthropists, and diplomats encouraging economic and social development in Turkey, Palestine, and Lebanon during the 1920s and 1930s.


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