Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education in Africa
This book offers a nuanced analysis of a US-led foundation initiative of uncommon ambition, featuring seven foundations with a shared commitment to strengthen capacity in higher education in Sub-Saharan African universities. From a sociological perspective, the author puts new philanthropic trends into historical context even as he examines the conditions under which philanthropy can be effective, the impasses that foundations often face, and the novel context in which philanthropy operates today.
This study therefore assesses a genuinely important topic while engaging two issues around which there is emerging interest among researchers and practitioners alike: the shifting grounds on which higher education globally is positioned and the role of global philanthropy within these changing contexts. This is especially important in a moment where higher education is once again recognized as a driver of development and income growth, where knowledge economies requiring additional levels of education are displacing economies predicated on manufacturing, and – amidst this all – in a context where higher education itself appears increasingly precarious and under dramatic pressures to adapt to new conditions. Foundations play a role in facilitating this transformation and in responding to these new conditions but not in ways that are well understood or widely accepted. The book offers the tantalizing promise of allowing us to better understand the conditions of our changing present, the future that foundations would allow us to inhabit, and the constraints and possibilities that all actors involved in these efforts face.
There have been a number of recent studies of foundations, on the one hand, and higher education, on the other. Despite a long history of foundation support for higher education, there have been few books that have engaged the subject of foundations and higher education or research. This in itself makes the project novel and an original contribution that will attract attention from university-based readers and readers who are interested in the role foundations play in cultivating institutional capacity generally. Moreover, many of the more recent books on foundations have tacked between two extremes, at once excessively generic in subject matter in their efforts to look at foundations as a broadly conceived field or excessively focused on a single philanthropic organization. Similarly, recent books on the topic have been excessively laudatory of the role of foundations, or too satisfied with mere criticism, viewing them as empty vehicles for other interests, whether those of corporations or states.
The book resists gravitation to these poles and instead offers a depiction of philanthropic activity that is original in three specific ways. First, the author looks at conditions under which philanthropic efforts were successful in achieving their intent. Second, with a sociologist’s imagination he captures the conditions of possibility that allow foundations to effect change and influence grantees, governments, and other foundations alike. Third he looks at efforts of foundations to act in concert and the constraints they face. In exploring in granular detail these three areas of inquiry, he simultaneously offers a nuanced theory of how institutions can influence external actors and motivate transformation.
For this reason alone, even without the rich description of a broadly interesting case study, the book should attract broad sociological interest. Moreover, the author moves these discussions forward in a number of ways. First, he does more than neatly stitch together anecdotal evidence. He has assembled an impressive dataset that greatly exceeds anything analyzed at present. Moreover, by focusing on a set of interrelated and overlapping efforts by seven foundations, he has set the parameters of his study more carefully than other researchers. His dataset is vast and concisely defined at the same time, no small feat. He supplements this data set with an impressive array of interviews, drawing attention to the question of how foundations both establish and make use of their legitimacy, their authority, and their capability to effect change in the world.
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