Swans Commentary » swans.com April 5, 2010  



Liberal Philanthropy And Social Change In South Africa


by Michael Barker





"I sit on a man's back; choking him and making him carry me and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means -- except by getting off his back."
—Leo Tolstoy
"The agenda of grant-making organisations is the agenda of capital. It is an agenda that is designed to make negative effects of capital more bearable rather than to reform the system by which capital is created."
—James Murombedzi -- former Ford Foundation program officer in South Africa (1)


(Swans - April 5, 2010)   Money talks, but who it talks to and whether they listen is another matter entirely, although that said most people's ears are more receptive to the piper's tune when financial resources are scarce. In South Africa grinding poverty has been a common feature in the majority of their citizens' lives, so external funding has often fulfilled a critical function in supporting the day-to-day activities of many progressive reformers and revolutionaries. Consequently, given the role that foreign philanthropists played in facilitating the formal end of apartheid it is vital to understand the influence, if any, that their monies exerted on the evolution of South Africa's political sphere. An integral part of such a political project involves identifying the leading financiers of social change, and as this article is concerned with the funding of progressive activism, the focus of the ensuing analyses will be on the interventions of liberal foundations in African affairs.

Thankfully, research examining the effect of liberal philanthropy on social change in South Africa has already been undertaken in a Ph.D. completed at the University of Witwatersrand; but unfortunately, despite the relevance of this work to progressive activists, very few people are likely to have read this unpublished dissertation. The study in question was completed in 2005 by Moyo Bhekinkosi and was titled "Setting the Development Agenda? U.S. Foundations and the NPO [Non-Profit] Sector in South Africa: A Case Study of Ford, Mott, Kellogg and Open Society Foundations" (University of Witwatersrand, 2005). This article will summarize the main findings of Bhekinkosi's doctoral thesis, a study that filled a notable lacuna in South African history by investigating the influence that liberal foundations have wielded over development priorities in South Africa. To begin with, however, it is useful to highlight the study's main conclusions:

The research found that many civil society organisations (CSOs) depended on international donors, in particular, foundations, for their operations. There was little mobilisation of resources from local citizens. The result was that CSOs were vulnerable to donor conditionalities and agendas. The four Foundations reviewed and their selected beneficiaries show that most CSOs were not sustainable. If donors withdrew their support, most CSOs would curtail their work, close down or lose their vision and mission. In some cases CSOs changed their missions to follow the money although changing contexts and demands were also relevant factors. Lack of sustainability for CSOs and their greater dependency on international donors made their agendas questionable. It seemed to make them more accountable to donors than to the constituencies they served. (p.ii)

Elite financiers fulfill an important role in shaping the evolution of civil society; promoting low-intensity democracy in a frantic, yet strategic, bid to undermine citizen-led attempts to promote a type of democracy that demands their active participation. It is no overstatement that public-funded, and directed, social change strikes fear into the heart of elites who are well aware of the tenuous hold they maintain on power. This fear is especially palpable given "the myth that philanthropy or giving is the domain of the rich" -- with recent research demonstrating that the poor give more money to charity than the rich -- thus elite funding is tightly coordinated by networked foundations to enforce capitalist priorities. (2) By exposing the machinations of foreign philanthropists in South Africa, this essay aims to highlight the need for progressive activists to counter elite manipulation by developing the types of democratic strategies that can harness the resources necessary to promote justice and freedom.

One of the first liberal foundations that "made its mark" on South Africa's political affairs was the Ford Foundation, when in 1973 "it funded a conference on Legal Aid at the University of Natal." This was a historically significant event for anti-apartheid activism as evidenced by the fact that "[m]any of the participants" went on to become "critical voices" in the transition from apartheid. Two prominent individuals cited by Bhekinkosi were John Duggard, who later set up the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (in 1978), and Felicia Kentridge, who in 1979 became a founding member of the Legal Resources Centre. Around the time of the legal conference, the Ford Foundation also began supporting the South African Institute of Race Relations, an organization that was formed in 1929 and "whose research was a major source of information and analysis on apartheid and issues of racial justice." (3) Ford's support for this pillar of the liberal establishment is emblematic of their commitment to low-intensity democracy, and so it is not surprising that the imperialist Phelps Stokes Fund boasts that the Institute can "trace their beginnings" to their support. Fittingly, the South African Institute of Race Relations is a long-time recipient of aid from the National Endowment for Democracy (an infamous democracy-manipulating outfit), and the Institute is presently a member of the Center for Private Enterprise's Reform Network.

To illustrate the overtly political interventions of liberal foundations in South Africa it is appropriate to cite the views of the Ford Foundation's staff members. For instance, in an interview conducted in 2002, one Ford Foundation program officer admitted: "I do not want to sound over-cynical, but it is a fact that NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and CBOs [community based organisations] have to scramble to find funding to implement the projects and programmes." So, he continued, "it is in their best interest to get to know what the priorities of the donor are and see how their goals might overlap with the goals of the Foundation." In another interview Bhekinkosi conducted, this time with a former Ford Foundation program officer, the interviewee stated in plain terms that:

Philanthropy pushes the agenda of capital. The political implications of this are that as long as the agenda is perceived to be anti-the interests of capital, then that agenda would not be supported by philanthropy. NGOs and CBOs are not directly forced by donors to act in certain ways. However in a sense, this is a process of negative reinforcement where unless NGOs and CBOs talk the language of transparency, the language of democratisation, and whatever the current issues of the day are, unless they behave in ways that are acceptable to people who are making grants, they will always be told that their agenda does not fit what donors support. Donors arrive at priorities through deliberate choices whose impact is to channel the interests and the activities of NGOs into areas where funding is available. For instance, the big questions of today are HIV-AIDS, poverty alleviation, democracy and governance. The agenda of grant-making organisations is the agenda of capital. It is an agenda that is designed to make negative effects of capital more bearable rather than to reform the system by which capital is created. (4)

The power dynamic that exists between grantees and foundations (like Ford) is again illustrated by the fact that in the course of Bhekinkosi's study, "Many of them requested complete anonymity and emphasised that neither their names nor those of their organisations should ever appear in the discussion as this might jeopardise the continuity of funding from the Foundation." That said, not all of Ford's grantees required such anonymity, and the head of Non-Profit Partnership was adamant that they had "not experienced donor driven agendas." Indeed, the director went on to argue that the Partnership had "developed a set of work plans and has taken those plans to international donors who in turn have funded it on the merit of its proposal and its own capacity." Yet, despite this claim of autonomy, his argument ignores the overall impact that external funding relations have enforced on the evolution of South Africa's non-profit sector. Arguably, potential grantees, much like professional journalists, simply learn to focus their attention (pragmatically) on issues that garner support from capitalist funders -- as to do otherwise would exclude them from the largesse of well-endowed funding networks. In this way, organizations that require funding from elite philanthropists necessarily enter into a "symbiotic relationship" with the funding community, and contrary to appeals of non-influence, funders do "indirectly set the agenda" for grantees. (5)

This argument should not be taken to imply that all grantees are in denial as to the manipulative nature of their external funders. Indeed, Bhekinkosi's research on Kellogg Foundation grantees determined that there was a "general consensus" that the Foundation influenced what they were doing: with grantees arguing that the Kellogg Foundation "wanted them to 'become closer to the Foundation,' 'behave like the Foundation' and to 'operate like the Foundation'." That is, Bhekinkosi's research showed "that coercive isomorphism occurred as a result of the dependency of grantees on the Foundation." (6) However, while grantees may appear to at least acknowledge the problematic nature of the funding nexus, judging by scholarly analyses of this subject, nearly all historians are unconcerned or blissfully unaware of the importance of this matter to the activist community.

It is not coincidental that elites increase their support of moderate activists during periods of rising opposition to capitalist exploitation. Thus while the Ford Foundation turned up its involvement in South Africa in the wake of the 1976 Soweto uprising, the Mott Foundation (a latecomer on the scene) made its "first formal international grant to South Africa in 1988" -- during a period in which South Africa "witnessed the peak of resistance to apartheid." (Notably, the Mott Foundation's South Africa program "was established" by Willard Hertz, an individual who had formerly been employed by the Ford Foundation in South Africa.) Furthermore, Bhekinkosi's examination of ten organizations that received Mott Foundation funds between 1991 and 2002 similarly illustrated how their grants helped create a "dependency culture" such that "all [the grantees] depended on the Foundation to an extent that they would be crippled if the Foundation stopped its support." (7)

Here it is critical to point out that while Bhekinkosi is critical of liberal philanthropy, his doctoral thesis makes no reference to the most critical elements of the academic literature, which amongst other things highlights the longstanding commitment that liberal foundations have to promoting the US government's foreign policy objectives. Despite this fact, Bhekinkosi is not necessarily hostile to such ideas. Thus he quotes Bill White, the president of the Mott Foundation, who talked about the foundations role in contributing toward building "security and stability in the world at large," and Bhekinkosi argues that his statement "could be mistaken for a U.S. official or for an extension of the U.S. State Department." (8)

On top of promoting a suitable investment climate for capitalist elites, a significant part of the activities of liberal foundations lies in catalysing the development of indigenous philanthropy (by elites for elites). For example, in 1995, the Mott Foundation "was closely involved in setting up" the Southern African Grantmakers Association (SAGA) -- "one of a very few grant-making organisations in South Africa" -- even "seconding a staff member to the SAGA board." Liberal foundations also emphasize the need for creating umbrella organizations to coordinate the non-profit sector. So in 1996, the Mott Foundation gave a $100,000 grant to the South African National NGO Coalition (SANGOCO) "to help the organisation hire an executive director, open offices and begin to develop programmes." (9) Financial support of such ventures should not, however, be equated with control, and the staff of such organizations are often critical of their elite funders. In 2002, SANGOCO's executive director, Abie Dithlake (2001-3), made it very clear "that donors influenced priorities for NGOs," noting:

If one moves from the point of understanding that philanthropy is generally not an innocent thing, it is based on particular interests and particular needs of the philanthropists, there is no doubt of the impact of the donor community on NGOs especially as they are very dependent on that philanthropy. This impact happens in a number of ways. First, they determine what needs to happen because donors say these are our priorities and this is what we fund. We see that many people then go to develop proposals in line with what the donors perceive to be the priorities. Second, we see NGOs jumping from one particular issue to the next, for example from gender to HIV-AIDS because that is where money happens to be at that particular time. That in itself does not reflect what the particular nation needs and what the priorities are at that point in time. This reflects largely donor driven programmes. (p.141)

In this instance, Dithlake's limited criticisms of his philanthropic benefactors reflects the fact that at around the time he was interviewed some of SANGOCO financiers had become upset about the direction that their work was taking them. So it is important that Dithlake added: "Ruthless donors, who in the event that that they failed to achieve what they wanted through their activities began to have a direct and political role in coercing and determining who should be the people and leaders of the particular organisation before they could fund it." This problem was reiterated by other members of the non-profit sector, and in another interview undertaken during the same year, Steven Friedman, the head of of the Centre for Policy Studies (1993-2003), suggested that "most of the time a lot of what we are doing is not our research agenda; it is the donor's research agenda." He then added: "But that does not mean we are total slaves." (10) On this last point it is worth noting that few people would actually argue that grantees are slaves to their funders (this is simply not the case), but such reductionist statements help prevent meaningful discussions of the troublesome relationship that exists between civil society and capitalism. In the last case, however, it is ironic that Friedman talks about slavery given the long service he has personally given to democracy-manipulating elites; as prior to coming to the Centre for Policy Studies (which obtained a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy in 1993), he had served as a manager at the South African Institute of Race Relations, and was recently employed as a research associate by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (see next).

In addition to studying the major well-known liberal foundations, Bhekinkosi turned his attention to the activities of George Soros and his associated philanthropic foundations. Bhekinkosi demonstrated that Soros had been active in South Africa since the 1970s, but his thesis paid special attention to Soros's impact on the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa -- a group that became known as the Institute for Democracy in South Africa.

Formed in 1986, the co-founders of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine, had initially attempted to obtain financial support from major liberal foundations like Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie, but were unsuccessful as the foundations "did not want to support them because the institution was perceived as too white." Instead, Slabbert and Boraine were only able to launch their Institute with the limited support of a handful of foreign governments. They then continued to search for longer-term financiers, but -- on a visit to Washington, D.C. -- after failing yet again to obtain the support of the most powerful liberal foundations, "one of the directors of the National Endowment for Democracy said he knew a rich billionaire in New York [George Soros] who might be interested in their project, as he had once tried to intervene in South Africa." Soros then met Slabbert and Boraine the following day and decided to support their cause by giving them an initial cheque for $75,000. This was a critical moment for the Institute, as "[t]hereafter, American foundations that had turned down its proposal reconsidered working with IDASA." (11) Thus, in subsequent years, the Institute even went on to receive a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy (in 1992), and then, in 1996, the Institute received $1.165 million from the Ford Foundation, which "is an exceptionally large grant by the Foundation's standards, which normally provides grants from $200,000 to $50,000 to CSOs in Africa, and is by far the largest grant to any grantee in South Africa." (12) On top of this generous support, to further illustrate the intimate relationship evident between philanthropic elites and IDASA, in 1996, the then head of the Institute, Wilmot James, became a trustee of the Ford Foundation (a position he retained until 2008).

As this article should have demonstrated, philanthropic elites fulfilled a critical role in safely steering the elite transition from apartheid in South Africa; although one might be forgiven for not recognizing this fact if you relied upon progressive historians, even Marxist ones. Yet despite this oversight, the phenomenon of elites' co-optation of social change in South Africa is far from controversial. For instance, in 1989, Noam Chomsky, while commenting on the positive nature of the mainstream media's coverage of anti-apartheid activists, warned that...

... they should understand that the reason they're getting a reasonably favorable press right now is that, by this point, business regards them as its troops -- corporate executives don't really want apartheid in South Africa anymore. It's like the reason that business was willing to support the Civil Rights Movement in the United States: American business had no use for Southern apartheid, in fact it was bad for business. (13)

But while critical writers openly acknowledge how business elites backed anti-apartheid activism, they almost singularly fail to critically scrutinize the co-optive practices of liberal foundations. In this regard, Moyo Bhekinkosi's doctoral thesis provides a notable historical exception, and so I wish to end this article by asking that anti-capitalist scholars now familiarize themselves with the critical literature pertaining to liberal philanthropy, and then strive to reevaluate their former analyses in the light of such knowledge. If critical scholars deem that they were correct in ignoring the influence of liberal foundations, I would suggest that they explicitly outline why this is the case, as I for one would be very happy (albeit surprised) to find out that such funding has not exerted a significant influence on historical processes.


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About the Author

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008 and 2009 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.   (back)


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1.  Moyo Bhekinkosi, Setting the Development Agenda? U.S. Foundations and the NPO [Non-Profit] Sector in South Africa: A Case Study of Ford, Mott, Kellogg and Open Society Foundations, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Witwatersrand, 2005, p.99, p.177.

Research for Bhekinkosi's thesis was undertaken between 2001 and 2004, and although he spoke to people from various NGOs and philanthropic bodies, individuals representing the four foundations named in the studies titled were: Ford Foundation (Gerry Salole, Gary Hawes, Michael Edwards (USA), Alice Brown and James Murombedzi), Mott Foundation (Christa Kuljian [who opened the South Africa office in 1992 and "played an active role in many grantees' projects"], Moira Mbelu, Elan Garonzink (USA) and Dorothy Reynolds (USA)), Kellogg Foundation (Malusi Mpumlwana), Open Society Foundation SA (Zohra Dawood, Renald Morris, Cheryl Frank and Mogkapi Maleka). (This is a list only of those individuals that did not request anonymity.) (p.16) Research was also informed by the fact that he had "work[ed] for an NGO that was a creature of the Ford Foundation and which also received funding from the Open Society Foundation. Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence against Women (TLAC) offered me an insight into how donors operate and how NGOs use and report on donor money. I also had the chance to work on a project that was funded by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). Although AusAID was not part of the study, its project money and reporting framework highlighted many of the questions that I was researching with regard to American Foundations." In addition, he also worked closely with some of the foundation under study: "For example, I spent a considerable amount of time, close to ten months visiting the Mott Foundation and developed a working relationship with its current and former directors. I was also interviewed for a post as a Programme Officer after Christa Kuljian, the former Director, recommended me for the position." (p.17) Later he "was commissioned by Gerry Salole, Representative of the Ford Foundation in Southern Africa to do a study of The State of Philanthropy in Southern Africa." (p.18)  (back)

2.  Bhekinkosi, Setting the Development Agenda?, p.93 For studies see David Everatt and Geetesh Solanki, A Nation of Givers? Social Giving Among South Africans - pdf (Centre for Civil Society, 2005); C. Theunissen, How Do People in Rustenburg Give? (GRCF, 2003).

"The USA is, by far, the largest overall foreign donor to South Africa. From 1994 to 1999 it provided some $530 million. The EU is the second largest foreign donor, providing an EU Programme for Reconstruction and Development (EUPRD) of nearly $420 million between 1994 and 1999. Between the two of them alone, nearly $1 billion of international aid will have contributed to South Africa's transition." Julie Hearn, "Aiding democracy? Donors and civil society in South Africa", Third World Quarterly, 21 (5), 2000, p.819.  (back)

3.  Bhekinkosi, Setting the Development Agenda?, p.164, p.165, p.166.  (back)

4.  Bhekinkosi, Setting the Development Agenda?, p.176 (2002 interview with Gary Hawes; 2002 interview with James Murombedzi)  (back)

5.  Bhekinkosi, Setting the Development Agenda?, p.151, p.172, p.173.

Bhekinkosi notes that he "discuss[es] some of the responses from the interviews I conducted with ten grantees such as the Centre for Policy Studies, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, the Non Profit Partnership, the South African NGO Coalition, the Southern African Grant Makers Association, TLAC, the Steve Biko Foundation and the Development Resources Centre among others that demanded anonymity."(p.171)  (back)

6.  Bhekinkosi, Setting the Development Agenda?, p.198, p.200. For more on this see, Walter Powell and Paul DiMaggio (eds), The New Institutionalism in Organisational Analysis (University of Chicago Press, 1990).

That said, Bhekinkosi also identified the potential importance of normative isomorphism (driven by professionalisation), and mimetic isomorphism, driven by uncertainty with regard to donor priorities, which encourages groups to model themselves "after similar organisations in the same field that it perceives to be more legitimate or successful." p.208, p.203.  (back)

7.  Bhekinkosi, Setting the Development Agenda?, p.110, p.136.

"[T]he South Africa programme was four-pronged. First, it aimed to support organisations that provided technical and training assistance to black community organisations and leaders. Secondly, it supported demonstration community organisations or projects. Thirdly, it provided mid career training opportunities for selected South African community leaders in the U.S. Finally, it strengthened contacts between community development groups in South Africa and interested agencies and donors in the U.S." (p.110)

Bhekinkosi writes: "I focus exclusively on those organisations that had a long relationship with the [Mott] Foundation. I selected ten such organisations. These are; the Community Law and Rural Development Centre (1991-2003), the Community Development Resource Association (1991-2003), the Development Resources Centre (1991-2001), Hlomelikusasa (1995-2002), the Community Based Development Programme (1991-1997), the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (1997-2004), the Southern African Granters Association (1995-2003), the Non Profit Partnership (1998-2003), the South African NGO Coalition and Sedibeng Centre for Organizational Effectiveness (1998-2003)." (p.104)

"The dependency syndrome exhibited by NGOs in South Africa should be read in the context of the transition to democracy and the donors' shifts in policy. First, after 1994, most donors rerouted support to directly fund the democratic government. NGOs were faced with diminishing budgets. Second, there was an exodus of people from the NGO sector to government departments. The sector was affected both from the human resource as well as from the financial resource capacity. According to Chetty (2000) this diminution in the pool of donor funding and re-channeling to government forced many CSOs to bow to the pressures of funder demands. The agenda and plans of institutions became funder driven (Landsberg and Bratton 2000:259)." (p.137)  (back)

8.  Bhekinkosi, Setting the Development Agenda?, p.111.

The type of critical books ignored by Bhekinkosi include Robert Arnove's edited collection, Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (G.K. Hall, 1980), and Edward Berman's, The Influence of the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations on American Foreign Policy: The Ideology of Philanthropy (State University of New York Press, 1983).  (back)

9.  Bhekinkosi, Setting the Development Agenda?, p.132, p.123. Kumi Naidoo, was the person hired to head SANGOCO, and in 1998 he became the Secretary General and CEO of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Civic Participation, an organization at which he presently serves as honorary president.  (back)

10.  Bhekinkosi, Setting the Development Agenda?, p.142, p.145.  (back)

11.  Bhekinkosi, Setting the Development Agenda?, p.234, p.235, p.236.

Later in 1990, Soros then recruited Slabbert to become the founding chair of his soon to be formed Open Society Foundation in South Africa. (p.237) In 1997 Soros formed the Open Society Foundation for Southern Africa, and again Slabbert played a key role in helping set up this foundation.  (back)

12.  Julie Hearn, "Aiding democracy?, pp.827-8.  (back)

13.  Peter Mitchell and John Schoeffel (eds), Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (Vintage, 2003), p.89.  (back)


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