The discourse on priorities in African higher education is placed in a contested terrain, where grantors and grantees not only negotiate one another’s perspectives but also contend with inhospitable national contexts. In certain African countries, governments do not necessarily encourage the development of universities or international donors who are not overtly cooperative. Much to their credit, U.S. foundations have helped universities become self-sustainable and less dependent on government funding. They also succeeded in raising awareness about higher education in Africa as a sector worthy of financial support, thus making the case for Africa’s universities in national and international contexts. However, these foundations did not engage sufficiently with non-English speaking institutions, even when this was important to generate more equity and sustainability on the very sector that they sought to promote.

U.S. foundations have general tendency to mainly make grants to English-speaking institutions. This claim suggests that U.S. foundations applied a geopolitical strategy of investment and maximization along former colonial lines, in particular former British colonies. By favoring higher education organizations that use English as the language of internal and external communication and learning, U.S. foundations create durable connections with the continent’s future leaders and entrepreneurs along a language associated with cultural references that they dominate. Several cases (such as Ford in Egypt) can be seen as exceptions to this rule as their geopolitical agenda might not have been formulated with specific post-colonial considerations. Nonetheless, the colonial lines emerge as clear demarcations between Africa’s new knowledge societies. These lines are then reinforced by U.S. foundations’ grantmaking strategies.

U.S. foundations concentrated their efforts on a select number of institutions that use English as the dominant language. These were, for the most part, elite institutions to which foundations were accustomed to giving funds. Their approach of targeted selection, which has remained central to their strategies of institutional development at home and abroad, is understandable. Yet, it has left many institutions of higher learning wondering what to do to attract foundation funding. These also include less prestigious institutions, or fields that are not a priority for foundations.

Additionally, considering the importance of language and culture in the mechanisms of globalization, and acknowledging that language groups compete in the knowledge economy, the influence of U.S. foundations in Africa reinforced the dominance of English as the lingua franca of the continent’s development. By favoring higher education organizations that use English as the language of internal and external communication and learning, U.S. foundations created durable connections with the continent’s future leaders and entrepreneurs along the lines of a language associated with cultural references that the foundations dominated. Universities in Francophone, Lusophone and Arabophone countries appear to be less equipped for receiving grants from U.S. foundations. Both foundations and universities in these countries should reach out to each other and work together to remedy this problem.

U.S. foundations’ geopolitical agenda might not be formulated with specific post-colonial considerations. Nonetheless, colonial lines emerge as clear demarcations between Africa’s new knowledge societies. These lines are reinforced by the foundations’ grantmaking strategies. Arguably, the lasting connections established between U.S. foundations and Africa’s elite, maintained through the English language, ensure a guaranteed return on investment for donors in English-speaking nations.

Fabrice Jaumont

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