What Is the Influence of American Foundations on Universities in Africa?

What is the influence of American foundations on universities in Africa?
By Fabrice Jaumont, Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (FMSH) – USPC

University of Cape Town, South Africa: $80,902,000
Largest donor: Gates Foundation

University of Makere, Uganda: $42,352,000
Largest donor: Rockefeller Foundation

University of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa: $28,742,000
Largest donor: Rockefeller Foundation

University of Ghana: $19,992,000
Largest donor: Ford Foundation

University of Ibadan, Nigeria: $14,162,000
Largest donor: MacArthur Foundation


The ecosystem of donors in the higher education sector in Africa includes many foundations and international agencies, along with several development funds and pan-African organizations. Compared to other international organizations or governmental agencies like the World Bank, USAID, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the British Council, the International Development Research Center of Canada, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Danish Agency for International Development, the United Nations Development Programme, and many others, foundations have several advantages that these other institutions lack: they are independent and are free from the pressure of achieving short-term results; they can take risks and have developed a high degree of expertise in specific areas.

Is it possible for foundations to create value in the field of higher education in Africa and to help universities transform and improve themselves? And how do they influence higher education in Africa?

Higher education, an engine for development

Because of the constant need for new skills in knowledge societies and the increasing obsolescence of industrial economies, higher education is once again being recognized as an engine of economic growth, especially on the African continent. However, the context in which African universities are evolving makes them increasingly precarious and they must adapt in order to survive, as was already demonstrated by William Saint in a 1992 report for the World Bank on the revitalization of the higher education sector in Africa.

All things considered, what is the role of international philanthropy in this context?

The relationship between American grant-making institutions and their beneficiaries is by its nature unequal; therein lays the great dilemma of philanthropy. Nevertheless, universities are becoming increasingly important actors on the global market. Strong educational institutions can be a precious resource for countries trying to leverage their entrepreneurs and researchers onto the world stage, even if those institutions are structured according to a Western paradigm.

Remarkable Initiatives

Critics of philanthropy sometimes argue that foundations have “too much” power and point to the arrogance of donors, their lack of legitimacy, their poor planning and ethical conduct, and, in some cases, their corruption.

While these questions are often raised in the United States with reference to educational reform, similar issues can easily be found in cases where American foundations finance educational initiatives outside the United States, such as the establishment of medical schools in China by the Rockefeller Foundation after World War I, Ford’s financing of intercultural publications after World War II through its publishing house established in 52 countries, or the development of higher education in Africa by the Carnegie Corporation during the period of decolonization.

Despite all this, the achievements of these foundations are remarkable considered the relatively small amount of money involved ($4 billion between 2003 and 2013 in Africa) and their capacity to leverage funds from outside sources.

For a society of pluralistic knowledge

Recently, several internationally-recognized philanthropic foundations such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Kresge Foundation advocated for the importance of higher education in the economic development of Africa.

This new goal reflects a strategic realignment in the ecosystem of international development organizations, at a time when the concept of “knowledge societies” – societies where the creation, usage, and transmission of knowledge becomes the key to economic and social development – continues to gain recognition.

By extending their reach and their expertise to higher education in Africa, these foundations have reaffirmed the role they play in the building of knowledge societies on a continental scale through their support of academic institutions, research centres, university networks, and specialized media like The Conversation Africa, financed by grants from the Gates Foundation and the Knight Foundation, among others.

They also have extended their vision for knowledge production to the rest of Africa through the reach of their programs. The areas of interest of these foundations for the higher education sector in Africa are varied. For example, Ford has sought to improve access to higher education while Rockefeller has focused on climate and the environment, Carnegie on libraries, MacArthur on human rights, and Mellon on the humanities.

Mutual influences

The close relationship between grant-making foundations and recipient universities in Africa not only suggests that these two types of institutions influenced one another over a long period of time, but also that they established a competitive sector that puts pressure on weaker institutions.

For example, the foundations in the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa went outside of their comfort zone and focused their efforts on Internet access, a priority identified by their beneficiaries.

In doing so, the foundations discovered an opportunity to use their influence and collective resources to generate change on a large scale. Improving bandwidth and reducing the cost of Internet access for universities were not typical initiatives for these foundations. Nevertheless, they were able to create an economy of scale by creating a consortium of universities willing to purchases bandwidth together, thus earning a high-volume discount and passing those savings on to higher education and research institutions in Africa.

Towards an anglicized world?

The preference of foundations for English is particularly clear in the higher education sector. According to the IRS 990 forms that are accessible on the Foundation Center website, there are 97 foundations that have invested a total of $573.5 million in institutions of higher education in Africa between 2003 and 2013. During this period, 1,471 grants were made to 439 higher education institutions in 29 countries.

In the context of higher education, the primary language of instruction – the language that is used in class and to conduct research – is an important but complex factor. In many countries, the language of instruction varies between the primary, secondary, and university levels. Unsurprisingly, American foundations investing in higher education on the African continent target institutions where English is the primary language of instruction.

English is the primary language of instruction at more than 90% of the institutions of higher education that have received grants from American foundations; the equivalent figures for French and for Arabic are 4% and 3%, respectively.

In addition to institutions of higher education, the grants made towards the development of higher education in sub-Saharan African also include several major programs financed by these foundations in agriculture, health, and development.

In this sense, the universities constitute an important contribution to the socioeconomic development of the African continent by producing knowledge, skills, and innovation adapted to the African context. To see universities as engines of development or, in other words, as an integral component of the economic future of Africa reflects the various geopolitical strategies adopted by international donors, and especially American foundations.

Unequal leadership

Without any other competing funders or government oversight, foundations have easily been able to position themselves as leaders in the higher education sector, especially in former English colonies, as demonstrated by the success of grants made to Makerere University in Uganda since the 1960s, making it a model for modernity on the continent.

American foundations have forged connections and gained access to the best institutions of higher education in Africa, as well as to a new generation of researchers and students, especially in places where English is the primary language of instruction.

Foundations have strategically positioned themselves in the ecosystem of international development organizations with the goal of defending the importance of higher education for the development of Africa. In addition, considering the role played by language and culture in the mechanisms of globalization and the fact that linguistic groups must compete with one another in the knowledge economy, the influence of American foundations in Africa reinforces the prominence of English as the lingua franca of development on the continent.

To their credit, the investments of American foundations have backed a large number of research initiatives throughout the African continent and have reinforced pan-African organizations. These foundations have attempted to revitalize and strengthen academic institutions and higher education networks in Africa, the success of which has yet to be measured.

The foundations were also in a position that enabled them to propose new policies and new reforms to these institutions. As a result, the influence of foundations on a small group of elite African universities could lead part of the university system, including, among others, top-tier Francophone institutions, to be dragged into a competition for which they are underequipped.


The ConversationFabrice Jaumont is the author of “Partenaires inégaux: fondations américaines et universités en Afrique” published by Éditions de la MSH, and of “Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa” published by Palgrave-MacMillan.

Fabrice Jaumont, Chercheur en sciences de l’éducation, Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (FMSH) – USPC

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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