New Works in the Field / Philanthropy and Education

A History of Unequal Partnerships between American Foundations and African Universities

Editors’ Note: Fabrice Jaumont contributes a post based on his new book, Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2016).

At a time when higher education is once again recognized as a driver of development and income growth, when knowledge economies requiring additional levels of education are displacing economies predicated on manufacturing, and in a context where higher education itself appears increasingly precarious and under dramatic pressures to adapt to new conditions, determining the role of global philanthropy seems a pressing challenge. Education is a critical element of development; societies require well-informed workers to drive progress. However, in universities’ quest for funding, the demands of donors can define institutional agendas. In my book, Unequal Partners: American Foundations & Higher Education Development in Africa, I examine the role of American philanthropic foundations in shaping university education in Africa over the last century. I discuss how new philanthropic trends are emerging from this historical context, the conditions under which philanthropy can be effective, the impasses that foundations often face abroad, and the updated situation of higher education in Africa.

U.S. foundations have been involved extensively with African universities and higher education networks, some for almost a century. The Rockefeller Foundation’s international activities started in the early 1910s and positioned the foundation as an indisputable pioneer of technical assistance and a proponent of institution building and university development throughout its history. Through inter-board discussions on education and health in Africa with the board of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, the leaders of the International Education Board and other Rockefeller philanthropies began to consider how U.S. philanthropy could support vocational training and the medical field in Africa. Under Frederick Keppel, the Carnegie Corporation of New York expended resources in regions of the British Empire, including the Union of South Africa and other British colonies between 1923 and 1941. During the summer of 1927, Keppel and James Bertram (a trustee as well as the foundation’s secretary) visited Africa for two months—a trip that had great influence over the foundation’s commitment to education in Africa.

During the years of colonization, foundations were heavily involved with African higher education. Carnegie conducted a university development program that lasted until the mid-1970s and established a variety of grants to African universities. Rockefeller was also very involved with steady contributions and a commitment to university development. Yet in the 1980s and 1990s, philanthropic efforts focused almost exclusively on basic education, as higher education was perceived as a luxury that African nations could not afford. The field of African higher education was simply ignored by all foreign donors; most U.S. foundations had left the field by the early 1980s. Yet, universities were expected to provide leadership through the production of knowledge, the development of human resources, and the provision of services to the communities such as outpatient treatment, legal advice, field training, health education, and more.

At the turn of the new millennium, U.S. foundations targeted development in Africa and promoted universities as engines of development, providing the bulk of their funding to higher education institutions that played a critical role in responding to bigger needs brought about by political upheavals and a new economic order. Foundations such as the Rockefeller, Ford, MacArthur, Mellon, Kresge, Hewlett, and the Carnegie Corporation promoted a discourse of capacity building that reinforced and established their influential role in higher education in Africa. Working within the paradigm of “knowledge societies”—whereby the effective creation, use, and dissemination of knowledge is increasingly the key to sustainable economic and social development— these foundations positioned themselves strategically in the ecology of international developers to advocate for the importance of higher education in the economic development of Africa. The involvement of foundations presented universities with fresh funding in critical areas, such as research, knowledge production and dissemination, access for women and minorities, and capacity building. Foundations also focused on providing technical training, which helped provide people on the ground with better skills. The field of higher education was gradually becoming fertile—filled with promises for international developers and private foundations operating in the sector.

In Unequal Partners, I look at conditions under which U.S. foundations’ philanthropic efforts were successful in achieving their intent in higher education development. I seek to capture the conditions of grant distribution that governed U.S. foundations in their support of universities in Africa by examining 13,565 grants made by American philanthropies to Africa between 2003 and 2013. These grants totaled nearly $4 billion. However, they were not equally distributed between countries. My study’s main finding confirms foundations’ general tendency to make grants to English-speaking institutions. One important factor affecting a country’s ability to attract grants is its official or primary language. While there are more Francophone African countries than Anglophone, Lusophone, or Arabophone countries, most funding from U.S. foundations went to countries where English is the dominant language. This finding suggests that U.S. foundations applied a geopolitical strategy of investment and maximization along former colonial lines, in particular in former British colonies. U.S. foundations’ geopolitical agenda might not be formulated with specific post-colonial considerations. Yet, colonial lines still emerge as clear demarcations between Africa’s new knowledge societies. These lines are reinforced by the foundations’ grant-making strategies.

Furthermore, the relationship between these foundations and African universities operated within the boundaries of unequal power relations. Despite the foundations’ best efforts to include input from African universities and research centers, the latter’s contributions were weighted less over time. To some extent the agenda continued to be established by the foundations since grantees needed to submit proposals that fit within that agenda, and they were not involved in final choices or strategy making. Pressure was created at the grantee level to tailor the universities’ needs to the foundations’ preferences. Foundations always ran the risk of being perceived as dominating the agenda or imposing an American worldview on African universities. Much to their credit, these foundations made real efforts to include vice-chancellors and consultants from Africa in their grantmaking process. Hiring Africans into leadership roles within the foundations did help, and succeeded in infusing the foundations’ agenda with an African perspective, as was the case with Narciso Matos and, later, Tade Aina, who both helped shape Carnegie Corporation’s African higher education initiative. Yet these efforts failed in permanently setting grantors and grantees on equal footing across the field. This inequality had a bearing on projects’ design, implementation, outcome, sustainability, and ultimately impacted the development agenda.

Funders need to address inequity in partnerships for better results as foundations do play a role in facilitating institutional transformation and in responding to new transnational paradigms of development–a fact that is not well understood or widely accepted within the philanthropic community and which suggests the existence of fertile ground for future investigation.

-Fabrice Jaumont

Fabrice Jaumont currently serves as Program Officer for the French-American Cultural Exchange Foundation in New York, and as Education Attaché for the Embassy of France to the United States. He was recently awarded a senior fellowship at Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris. He holds a Ph.D. in International Education from New York University. He is the author of Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2016).  His research finds itself at the intersection of comparative and international higher education, international development, and philanthropy. For more information on his work, visit


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