Language and U.S. Philanthropy in Africa

The mechanisms of international philanthropy and foreign investment are extremely complex. Africa’s ecology of donors is composed of numerous international agencies, development funds, international foundations, and pan-African organizations that allocate their funds based on a number of environmental and institutional factors. These funds, however, are limited, and grantees oftentimes find themselves competing for resources. Donors thus wield a huge amount of power, shaping the development of the continent through their grant-making practices. This unbalanced relationship between grantors and grantees does not go by unnoticed, and American foundations are often criticized for enforcing a pro-Western agenda as they unilaterally set development goals and priorities. Meanwhile, recent literature on African higher education suggests that African scholars are calling for more ownership in the inception and implementation of programs so as to serve the cause of African development, not Westernization.


This asymmetry between grantors and grantees is heightened when one considers the role of language in the ecology of African philanthropy. Indeed, most grant-making decisions are made in a handful of languages, which are for the most part European and tied to the continent’s colonial history. This reality raises important questions about the influence of languages on the repartition of funds across the continent. When resource-dependent institutions compete for funds it becomes relevant to know if one’s institution’s dominant language can become an indicator of success in one’s quest for external funds. Do donors establish their grant-making strategies based on certain linguistic lines? Do they show a bias towards recipient institutions that speak a preferred language? These questions become increasingly important as English continues to spread and assert its position as the dominant international language.

The recent grantmaking behavior of U.S. foundations can shed light on this issue. Between 2003 and 2013 numerous U.S. foundations made grants to institutions in Africa. These foundations can be classified under five main categories according to the U.S. Internal Revenue Code: independent foundations; corporate foundations; community foundations; operating foundations; and public charities. Their priorities vary greatly, and the many sectors they support are indeed vast. This article narrowed its focus on private foundations in the United States and on the specific sector of higher education in Africa. In this context, higher education refers to university level education carried out by public or private institutions which offer various qualifications, leading to degrees such as Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorates. This definition also includes research centers and Academic networks as they actively participate in the sector’s development and receive funds from international grantmakers as well.

According to the grant database maintained by the Foundation Center in New York City, American philanthropies made 13,565 grants to Africa between 2003 and 2013. All sectors included, 330 private foundations made grants totaling $3.9 billion to support numerous initiative in Africa. Grant distribution per sector showed a high concentration in higher education and research which accounts for 25% of all grants made to Africa by U.S foundations.

The geopolitical distribution of these grants suggests that U.S. foundations show a preference for countries where English is widely spoken or where English is an official language. Sixty-eight percent of all funding went to three countries: South Africa (30%), Kenya (29%), and Nigeria (9%) – predominantly English-speaking countries which are not only close to the United States’ interest but also among the most influential on the continent. The role of language in securing grants from international donors is particularly important in the higher education sector, as English continues to establish itself as the lingua franca of most academic disciplines, and countries elect English as their official language of instruction in order to equip their citizens to participate in the global economy. Furthermore, the share of foundation grants to higher education in sub-Saharan Africa is possibly higher than these results show since many foundations ran major programs in the sectors of agriculture, health, and development either directly through African universities or indirectly through re-granting intermediaries, research centers and universities in developing countries, or regional non-governmental organizations and foundations. In this light African universities appear to emerge as critical engines for the socio-economic development of Africa. Thus, viewing them as integral parts in the geopolitical strategies of international donors in general, and of U.S. foundations in particular, is logical.

To know more about the topic, read Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa.

Fabrice Jaumont

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