Private Foundations and the Perils of Education Development

Issues around the impact of donor funding on education reform have resurfaced both in the local and global arenas. A recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times [1] questioned the role of foundations and philanthropists in U.S. public education, highlighting the Gates Foundation’s debatable “failures” to accomplish concrete results. On her well-followed blog, Diane Ravitch even called the funding choices of Bill Gates, Eli Broad or the Walton Family “unwise” and “undemocratic” [2]. This debate is hardly new as major newspapers [3]  have regularly underscored the negative impact of major private donors’ gifts on the United States’ secondary school system, particularly during the dire economic climate which left schools facing abysmal budget cuts.

Critics often attack the philanthropists’ pet-project approach, arrogance, and irritating influence, which swings like a pendulum over the course of the country’s school reform efforts. The literature abounds in examples of donor-led education projects judged as utopian, and succumb to the schools’ institutional environments, producing limited results and ignoring the link between educational attainment and poverty. [4] Foundations are also accused of taking control away from local communities, teachers, or other stakeholders.

As these issues are raised locally in the U.S. with reference to school reforms, similar issues need to be raised with regard to U.S. foundations’ funding of education initiatives outside of the United States. But I believe that this discussion deserves better than just taking a one-sided look at the work of foundations. In my upcoming book, Unequal Partners. American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa (Palgrave-MacMillan), I acknowledge that foundations do make important contributions to education systems and academic institutions. Much to their credit, American foundations’ investments in African higher education led to the successful support of research initiatives across the continent, as well as to the strengthening of pan-African organizations. Other areas of focus and substantial investment included information technology and the provision of internet bandwidth at affordable prices to African universities.

Yet, foundations have also stimulated interest in areas such as collaborative projects and the generation of data about higher education in Africa that need to be sustained without dependency on donor funding. U.S. foundations have positioned themselves strategically as key stakeholders in African higher education. They have attempted to re-energize and empower African higher education networks and academic institutions, the success of which has yet to be measured. The role of universities in the economic development of Africa has been under close scrutiny since the post-independence era and is likely to remain so until scholars and African governments can identify a pragmatic role for higher education in Africa’s development.

American foundations have also been in a position to propose new directions for policy and reforms to a number of institutions. This particular point might foreshadow that these foundations’ influence over a small elitist group of African universities will either drive a divisive wedge within systems or push institutions to enter a competitive race for which they might not yet be ready. Questions remain about the degree of grantee participation in the foundations’ pre-conceived agenda. It will take more effort from U.S. foundations to nurture institutional agency in the local organizations that they fund, and reinforce the role of African universities in the early stages of their decision-making processes and development strategies. Can private donors embrace Africa’s development on Africa’s terms?  Can African universities fully own their participation in the socio-economical development of Africa?

[1] “Gates Foundation failures show philanthropists shouldn’t be setting America’s public school agenda”

[2] Diane Ravitch. Los Angeles Times to Bill Gates: Stop Trying to Run the Nation’s Schools!

[3] How billionaire donors harm public education by Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, October 19, 2010

[4] Can $100 Million Change Newark’s Schools? Room for Debate. New York Times. October 5, 2010

To refer to this article:
Jaumont, F. “Private foundations and the perils of education development,” Pulse. June, 25 2016

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