The Influence of American Foundations on Universities in Africa. Towards an Anglicized World?

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. I was thrilled to present on this issue during the Comparative and International Education Society’s annual conference in San Francisco in a panel chaired by legendary scholar, Robert Arnove.


I presented on the topic of Philanthropy in Education and shared the floor with several scholars, including Fungisai Musoni from Ohio State who is working on transnational networks between US philanthropic organizations and Sub Saharan African countries particularly looking at the interactions between the Rockefeller Foundation and the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland; Shoko Yamade from Nagoya University who presented her work on the discourse on the education of African elites in the late colonial period and the involvement of US philanthropists. Christopher Collins, and Alexander Jun of Azusa Pacific University who presented on white privilege and racial consciousness. Prof. Esther Gottlieb of Ohio State University was our moderator, and legendary Prof. Robert Arnove, whom has had a great influence on my research for almost 15 years, chaired our panel. I gave him a copy of my book, Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2016).


Our panel discussion sought to further understand the connections between US philanthropic organizations and education in Sub Saharan Africa. The US philanthropic organizations that were discussed included the Phelps-Stokes-Fund, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, MacArthur, Mellon, and William and Flora Hewlett foundations, among a few others. Our papers focused on the movement of people, money, and ideologies from the US to Sub Saharan Africa and vice versa. We wrote from the perspective of history, political science, comparative education, and educational policy studies, based on original research which analyzed the implications of the foundations’ organizational characteristics, modus operandi, and substantive decisions for social and political control of developmental processes.

Apart from highlighting the connections resulting from the movements of people, money, and ideologies, our presentations also highlighted the challenges that stem from these connections. Findings from the research have uncovered both the advantages and disadvantages of those complicated connections in the short and the long run. While these connections enabled African elites to gain leadership training during the colonial era, the continued use of English as the primary language had detrimental results. The transmitting of knowledge using English in post-colonial Africa, at the expense of local languages, has continuously reinforced the prominence of English as the lingua franca of Africa’s development with consequences that are easily traceable today.

This privilege of English as a language of instruction allowed us to show that far from being centers where knowledge is produced, African educational institutions are establishments where power asymmetries reign. 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 centers, university networks, and specialized media. They also have extended their vision for knowledge production to the rest of Africa through the reach of their programs.

A central conclusion of our critical analysis of foundations is the sociopolitical consequences of those powerful philanthropic institutions. By focusing on the movement of students, staff, and administrators as they cross nation-state boundaries from the US to Sub Saharan Africa and vice versa, our panel showed, first, that understanding the history of education in Sub Saharan African entails that we follow the movement of people, money, goods, and ideologies from one region to another. Secondly, that African educational institutions—in English speaking countries—that originate from connections with US philanthropic organizations tend to be hybrids of British, US, and African institutional systems.

Furthermore, 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. In addition, considering the role played by language and culture in the mechanisms of globalization and the fact that linguistic groups do 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.

My PowerPoint presentation can be downloaded here: CIES2019