New Works in the Field

Information, Education, and Security as Public Goods: When Are Philanthropic Foundations the Providers of Last Resort?

Editors’ Note: Building upon his article in the latest issue of the Journal of Latin American Studies, “La gran dama: Science Patronage, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Social Sciences in the 1940s,” Álvaro Morcillo Laiz considers U.S. foundations’ funding of education, the elaboration of statistics, and human rights activism in Latin America as producing public goods. 

If public goods are broadly defined as resources that not only benefit those who possess them but society in general, then US philanthropic foundations have long been providers of public goods in Latin America, due to their grants to institutions of research and higher education and to human rights activists. One of these resources that can be considered public goods are what I call “sound policies.” Here the term simply means policies devised by properly trained public officials that have access to the information necessary to achieve their policy goals.

My article in the latest issue of the Journal of Latin American StudiesLa gran dama: Science Patronage, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Social Sciences in the 1940s, is the first chapter of a book in preparation. In every chapter, I analyze the specific circumstances – foundation policies and local scholarship – that explain why a major grant was awarded. At the same time, I argue that every grant tends to buttress a relation of domination through which the foundation tries to advance an agenda that can broadly be described as supporting a liberal, empirical, and mainly quantitative form of social knowledge akin to its US counterpart. This form of social knowledge should be the alternative to Marxism and to a more conceptual and historical social science. In chronological order, I explore how between the 1940s and 1970s major grants by the Rockefeller and the Ford foundations to recipients in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile shaped the disciplines of sociology, political science, and economics. As important as the grants to the Colegio de México, the University of Buenos Aires, the Escola Livre de Sociología in São Paulo and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences was the fact that the foundations rejected applications that advanced historical understandings of social science. In all of these places, both rejections and grants can be considered to be the means through which foundations tried to wield influence and achieve their own goals. In some cases, they actually succeeded, to the extreme of being able to appoint the recipients’ high-ranking staff, as they did at the Colegio de Mexico in the 1960s. In other places, it looks as if they simply buttressed the local powers that be, as in Argentina’s field of sociology. In other occasions, foundations brushed off local, left-liberal takes on sociology and political science, leaving the field wide open for Marxist interpretations within the social sciences, as it happened in Mexico in the 1940s.

In this contribution to HistPhil, I propose to briefly look into these and other cases, though from a different perspective than the one I offer in the book: namely considering education, the elaboration of statistics, and human rights activism as producing public goods. I first spell out the new insights that we obtain if we consider philanthropies’ involvement in facilitating, for example, training to diplomats and economic statistics as a strategy to provide sound policies. Less intuitive is the claim that in the mid-1970s, when the Ford Foundation initiated its human rights programs in the Southern Cone, philanthropic foundations and other donors became providers of a second type of public good on the continent, in addition to sound policies, that is, security. Common to both public goods is the centrality of information.

Knowledge about a state, i.e. statistics, can be considered a public good even in the narrower sense in which economists use the term (non-depletable and, under most circumstances, non-excludable). For a wide range of actors, to know the number and characteristics of a state’s population, its economic output, the money supply etc. are a basic resource for decision-making. Governments (and private actors) need to be informed about certain economic magnitudes to be able to conduct long-term planning; decide on investments; detect unfulfilled needs and ways to satisfy them etc. This is why the history of statistics, both the history of its production and the history of the academic discipline, is so tightly linked to the rise of the modern “rational” state. It stands to reason that the availability of such knowledge is not only non-depletable and, in principle, non-excludable (unless it is declared secret, knowledge is bound to be in libraries, archives, and, nowadays, the Internet). In short, because the state needs knowledge about itself, it has been a main producer of statistics. And because information possesses many of a public good’s properties, this is one of the ways in which states may produce a public good.

Philanthropic organizations, however, also have contributed to the production of this type of information, including even the production of sheer statistical data – a classic governmental task. A case in point is population research, an undertaking to which both the elaboration of statistics and philanthropic involvement are intrinsic. A less polemical instance than the connection of the “philanthropic-industrial complex” to population statistics (explained by historian Emily Merchant) is the elaboration of international economic data. Another instance is the initial grant awarded by the Rockefeller Foundation to the Latin American Center for Monetary Policy (CEMLA) so that the CEMLA could begin to publish yearly monetary policy reports starting in the late 1950s. While the reports were produced at CEMLA’s headquarters in Mexico City, they encompassed all of Latin America. The reports included “monetary statistics, data on capital markets, banking legislation, role of institutions in various countries, analysis of monetary developments, inflationary trends, etc.”

But why did the Rockefeller Foundation decided to finance the production of what seems rudimentary data? According to foundation officer Norman S. Buchanan the report would constitute a badly needed “medium for greater inter-country understanding and exchange of information on current government and central banking operation in Latin America.” The absence of such a report facilitating the exchange of information had dire consequences, namely a “Mismanagement of monetary policies” that “has long been a retarding influence in Latin American economic development.” This mismanagement was a result of “the boards of directors” from the central banks trying “to meet recurrent crises by short-term emergency measures.” The Rockefeller Foundation wanted to contribute instead to “sound long-term monetary policy.” To promote the coordination of central bankers in order to produce fixed exchange rates and “consistent economic policies” were, as Charles P. Kindleberger, an MIT economics historian, argued years later, “international public goods.” Similarly, the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf recently insisted that “economic stability is itself a public good.”

In addition to statistics, the production of sound policies requires apt public officials. In the case of the CEMLA project, the Rockefeller Foundation officers highlighted to their trustees the utility of statistics, but also pointed at the project’s potential to become a training ground for the officials employed at Latin America’s central banks. According to the officers, the report would not only improve the availability of information on matters relevant for monetary and other policies, but also enhance the quality of work coming from the officials working for the Latin American central banks. The reason was that these officials would receive some “training-by-doing” as they supported the US economist employed as the main author of the report.  Since the years previous to War World II, the training of public officials had been an interest of the Rockefeller Foundation, which paid internships and training for Latin American officials in Washington D.C. and Geneva, but by the late 1950s it had gained a new significance.

The connection that the Rockefeller Foundation perceived between apt public officials and the enactment of sound policies in government, central banks etc. can be even more easily discerned in the grants centered on education and training. Such grants were not only awarded to Latin America, but worldwide. Actually, in the 1950s the Rockefeller Foundation established a program for the training of diplomats from Asian and African countries that had been born out of the decolonization process. The public officials in the newly created foreign ministries could hardly possess the training of their counterparts in the former colonial powers, the US or the USSR. Therefore, the overall goal of the Rockefeller program was to train diplomats from new countries in ways that facilitated the collaboration with them in the United Nations and other international organizations (even if competition with the Soviet Union to gain the allegiance of new countries was also a motivation).

Despite the program’s focus on recently de-colonizing regions of the world, Latin America also benefitted from this program focus on education and training of public officials, which was used to buttress meritocracy in the administration and combat clientelism in higher education. The Rockefeller Foundation supported a center for international studies in Mexico City where the futures cadres of the Mexican secretary for foreign affairs received their education; nationals from other Latin American countries were also invited to study at the center. The center was established at the Colegio de México, a small institution similar to a liberal arts college that had received substantial Rockefeller support since the 1940s. In the context of this post, the reason why the Colegio was chosen is not without importance: the foundation officers were convinced that the Colegio, unlike the large public university (the UNAM), was free from political influence. Because the Colegio was a private entity, the Mexican government could not employ party clients posing as scholars. To put it differently: the Rockefeller officers thought that clientelism was incompatible with delivering public goods – sound policies devised by apt public officials – that they wanted to promote in the region, as in other even newer states around the world.

Now to the topic of human rights, scholars and activists have interpreted the pioneering attempts by the Ford Foundation to defend human rights in the Southern Cone in a number of different ways. One of these interpretations, which possesses a pronounced microeconomic character, has been to consider the defense of human rights as Ford’s strategy to defend its “investment.” Investment, in this case, refers to the previous grants and other forms of support that Ford had awarded to the same (social) scientists that the military dictatorships were prosecuting. Ford Foundation also relocated scholars to neighboring countries, smuggled endangered scholars to safe havens in the West, and established new research centers in the region where the persecuted scholars could continue their work. In this undertaking, Albert Hirschman, not exactly an orthodox economist, advised Ford. Similarly emphasizing continuities, some scholars of philanthropy have relied on the testimony of Ford officers to argue that the human rights programs were an extension of former policies, i.e. Ford’s long-standing commitment during the Cold War to Russian and Eastern European journalists and scholars and their freedom of speech.

Alternatively, these measures adopted by Ford and other donors could be considered ways to offer precisely the public good that usually distinguishes the state from other organizations: security. The state purportedly provides security to all, with security being the classic example of a public good from which nobody can be excluded. The state provides security through its monopoly over the means to employ violence such as weapons and cadres of individuals trained to use violence. What happened in the Southern Cone in the 1970s is that the state, instead of offering security to its citizens, became a threat for tens of thousands (in numerous cases this danger was realized). The state purportedly offers security to all. Actually, security is the classic example of a public good from which nobody can be excluded. Under these circumstances, when the state presents such a deteriorated public good as equivalent to ‘security,’ it looks as if foundations could play–as they did in Latin America– a crucial part in offering a remedy.

At least in my historical research of U.S. foundations in Latin America, foundations—in providing this public good—do not resort to the means of violence, let alone monopolize them. What they have done instead, and in close collaboration with human rights activists on the ground, is mainly to collect and disseminate information on how the state is using its monopoly over the means of violence. Through grants to human rights organizations, which protect these organizations by giving them enhanced visibility, foundations have facilitated the collection of information on the number and characteristics of those killed or imprisoned, which for the state increases the costs of continuing uses of violence. Support for habeas corpus requests aims at reducing the chances of those in jail being assassinated. Foundations and human rights organizations publicize the names of potential future targets, which has offered them some protection by making crimes against them more visible for the international public sphere. Foundations also have offered new livelihoods to those who have lost them and smuggled those who are endangered out of the country. Instead of resorting to means of violence, and again within the scope of my own historical research, foundations have improved the visibility of certain crimes, making apparent to repressors that crimes against certain individuals would receive substantial attention, at home and abroad. When the state has used the means of violence to create insecurity, foundations have enhanced security by informing about crimes, actual and potential ones.

During the 1980s, the Southern Cone’s military dictatorships ended, but Ford and other donors conducted further activities related to human rights. Arguably, they helped to produce a public good, justice, and more specifically, transitional justice. Information was again at the core of these activities.

It is well-known that after the end of Southern Cone’s military dictatorships in the course of the 1980s, foundations continued backing groups that originated during the fight for democracy and human rights. These groups, of which one of the most prominent is the Center for Legal and Social Studies in Buenos Aires (CELS), expanded their activities from defending victims to prosecuting perpetrators, for example. In addition, CELS and other organizations such as the Vicariate in Santiago de Chile received help from Ford and other donors for preserving and making accessible the archives of the organizations. Arguably, the goal of these grants was also to contribute to a policy, transitional justice, by facilitating the prosecution of perpetrators, for the countries and periods in which it was possible, and by keeping the memory of the victims and the crimes alive.

Generally speaking, observers have criticized US engagements with Latin American social sciences and praised Ford’s support to human rights in the Southern Cone. Despite being very widespread, both views are one-sided.

In the case of social sciences, a more nuanced view can be obtained if—instead of focusing on the egregious Camelot Project, which the US military, not foundations, financed—we differentiate across disciplines. In economics both Rockefeller and Ford backed the neoliberal project through substantial and sustained subsidies to the Universidad Católica de Chile’s collaboration with the Chicago school of economics. In sociology, however, these same donors subsidized a number of leftist scholars. Although Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was to become the president of the Brazil, is the most famous case, other sociologists and political scientists who in Europe would be social democrats, and in the US left Democrats, benefitted from foundations’ grants. Some of them were affiliated to two organizations based in Santiago de Chile, but whose significance was regional: the Latin American School of Sociology (ELAS) and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO). In terms of their faculty’s politics, the same applies to the scholars that Rockefeller and Ford supported at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina’s CELS, and the Colegio de México.

This is not to say that US philanthropies were a consistently progressive force in Latin American social sciences. Rather, what I mean to say is that the scholars they supported held to a relatively wide range of political views (donors cannot always pick the politics of their recipients). In terms of politics, the only official taboo shared by these U.S. foundations at the time was to avoid funding communists. As they consistently reasoned, doing so would have endangered their tax privileges at a time when the U.S. Congress was already suspicious of U.S. foundations’ supposed friendliness to left-leaning scholars.

Another preference of foundations, extremely consequential at the time, though less often discussed is that they regularly preferred applications compatible with the liberal, empirical and mainly quantitative form of social knowledge practiced in the US. In this way, local research questions and non-positivist sociology and political science routinely were quenched. The foundations officers had a relatively clear sense that the social sciences they funded should be identical—both in methodology and purpose—in the East Coast, the Mexican altiplano, and in the River Plate, if they were to deliver some public good.

By placing Ford’s funding activities in the Southern Cone since the mid-1970s within the foundations’ US context, it then becomes possible to assess more clearly the political significance of that support on the continent. By the mid-1970s, U.S. foundations and particularly Ford, were starting to move away both from their decades-old alignment with US foreign policy and their established strategy of collaborating with recipients’ governments. These foundations would cease viewing universities as preferred grantees, providing greater attention to social movements—such as the civil rights movement in the U.S.—as key players in society. Their counterparts abroad, human rights activists, increasingly attracted the attention of Ford and later of the Open Society and other donors.

Because by 1970, it had become increasingly difficult for U.S. foundations to collaborate with the military dictatorships in Latin America that the US government supported. The dictatorships were dismissing professors and other public officials from their jobs, prosecuting, and even killing their own nationals, among them individuals that foundations had supported in the hope that—as future professors and public officials—they would contribute to the education of their fellow citizens, the elaboration of sound policies, and the production of further public goods across the region. As they shifted their funding strategies, U.S. foundations such as Ford ended up diffusing information on the crimes against its former grantees and their fellow citizens. Foundations did so as a way to provide them and others with a public good that usually, though clearly not always, distinguishes the state from other organizations: by providing a minimum of security.

-Álvaro Morcillo Laiz

Álvaro Morcillo is a scholar of international relations interested on how philanthropic foundations use their awards as the means to shape the social sciences and human rights activism. Álvaro places institutionalized power relations – domination – squarely in the middle of his research, but on the shoulders of Weber and Bourdieu he attempts to go well beyond “cultural hegemony” and emphasizes instead resistance and contingency. A former associate professor at CIDE in Mexico City and a fellow at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, he currently holds a Mari Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB).


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