Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Philanthropic Foundations in International Development: Rockefeller, Ford and Gates by Patrick Kilby August 23, 2021


Philanthropic Foundations in International Development: Rockefeller, Ford and Gates

American foundations have shaped the world we live in. It's an extraordinary feat considering that the combined giving of all U.S. foundations in 2020 was only about $75 billion — a drop in the bucket compared with the U.S. economy's $22 trillion GDP. But over the past century, those unfettered billions have served to create and reinforce systems, norms, and behaviors that are so pervasive that at times we don't even realize there was a time they didn't exist. The hand of large-scale philanthropy can be felt from the cradle to the grave, from hospitals and schools to libraries and universities, museums, theaters, public spaces, even the food we eat. And it is not just in the United States; American foundations have purposefully gone abroad — as Americans do — to help establish some of the very institutions that underpin the global system. Today roughly one in ten foundation dollars goes overseas.

In Philanthropic Foundations in International Development: Rockefeller, Ford and Gates, Patrick Kilby reveals American philanthropy's travels abroad as a generations-long, if informal, project to preserve the status quo of the capitalist system on which American wealth — and philanthropy — are grounded. Whether a conscious pursuit of American Greatness or an inevitable outgrowth of the near-unrivaled dominance of U.S. economic power, the breadth and depth of American philanthropy's influence in setting the agenda of international development is truly astounding.

To look at the Rockefeller Foundation alone: While the Rockefeller family's gift of real estate for construction of the United Nations headquarters is well known, perhaps less known is the role the incipient foundation played after World War I in forming the League of Nations, or after World War II in bankrolling the World Health Organization (which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation stepped forward to support when the U.S. government momentarily stepped back in 2020). Many have heard of Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug and the "Green Revolution," broadly funded by Rockefeller, but few are aware that today, 60 percent of the world's rice is a variety bred by the International Rice Research Institute, a Rockefeller project.

It might be enough to simply enumerate and celebrate these successes, but Kilby's intention is to illuminate the almost uninterrupted line from Andrew Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth and the pursuit of "scientific philanthropy" to the Rockefeller Foundation's investments in health, science, and agriculture; the Ford Foundation's focus on social research at an international scale; and Bill Gates' conviction that technology can solve global problems in health and sanitation. In many ways, this is a comparison of apples to oranges. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Rockefeller Foundation was peerless in its pursuit of global health policies at a time when the ecosystem of international development didn't even exist. At mid-century, the Ford Foundation funded think tanks like the highly influential Brookings Institution and social research in partnership with foreign governments and local institutions — often but not always in line with U.S. foreign policy — that in part prompted the Reese Commission's McCarthyite investigations into American philanthropy (which indirectly led to the creation of the Foundation Center Library, now Candid). Today, while the Ford and Rockefeller foundations have long operated independently of their founding families, the Gates Foundation remains directly linked to the entrepreneurial and idiosyncratic interests of its founders, the sheer size of its investments serving at times to stifle public debate. Though mismatched on the details, the throughline holds: Great wealth — and the opportunity to transform lives and systems on the world stage — continues to drive American philanthropists into the international development arena.

Philanthropic Foundations in International Development is the latest volume in academic publisher Routledge's Explorations in Development Studies series that shines a comparative and interdisciplinary light on the field. Kilby, an Australian anthropologist, has spent his career exploring the relationship of NGOs, foreign aid, and international development with an eye to understanding the growing influence of philanthropy from the Global South. It is through this lens that he pivots to look — albeit all too briefly — at India's Tata Trusts, Saudi Arabia's Alwaleed Philanthropies (second only to the Gates Foundation in estimated assets), and the nascent philanthropies in China, including the Jack Ma and Ali Baba foundations.

As wealth and philanthropy continue to grow in the Global South, Kilby expects these emerging foundations to mature into their global aspirations — much as the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Rockefeller, Ford, and Gates foundations did before them — influencing national and international development with their own priorities and approaches to how their work relates to shaping the world order. If, as Kilby suggests, American philanthropy is pursued — not so quietly — in service of the capitalist system, what will international development look like a generation from now, when, for example, philanthropy from China — where today's Belt and Road Initiative is conspicuously in service to Chinese interests — grows to rival the established philanthropic environment?

The rise of nationalism is a central worry in Kilby's final analysis. How will an aggressive, exclusionary worldview be expressed in international development? What's more, the wrenching disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic have only exacerbated inequality and accelerated the focus on domestic interests. Will philanthropy turn inward? Kilby sees the Ford and Rockefeller foundations' mostly domestic COVID-related investments — at least initially — as an early Exhibit A. By contrast, the Gates Foundation's outward looking $400 million gift to cover the U.S. obligations to the WHO in 2020 on top of its $1.6 billion re-investment in the public-private GAVI vaccine alliance, suggests American philanthropy's engagement in international development is far from over; after all the U.S. has now returned to the WHO, as well as the Paris Climate Agreement, while billions of American philanthropic and taxpayer dollars continue to flow overseas. And yet, it was in the twentieth century that American philanthropy truly led in shaping the institutions that shape our world. The shape of the twenty-first century remains to be seen.

Daniel X Matz is foundation web development manager at Candid.

No comments:

Post a Comment


Search This Blog

ARCHIVE List 2011 - Present