Swans Commentary » swans.com July 12, 2010  



Foundations and Cultural Imperialism
An Interview with Robert Arnove


by Michael Barker





(Swans - July 12, 2010)   Professor Robert Arnove completed his Ph.D. in education in 1969 and is the editor of the seminal book Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (Boston: GK Hall, 1980). He is the past president of the North American Comparative and International Education Society (2000-2001), and is currently based at Indiana University, which has recently republished Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism. His most recent book was co-edited with Carlos Alberto Torres and is titled Comparative Education: The Dialectics of the Global and the Local (Rowman and Littlefield, 1999). This interview was conducted by e-mail in May 2010.

Michael Barker: Why did you choose to undertake doctoral studies, and how did you become interested in studying philanthropy?

Robert Arnove: My dissertation was not on philanthropy; however, my edited book, Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad (Boston: GK Hall, hardcover, 1980; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982, paperback) contained at least eight chapters that were based on dissertation research. My dissertation (Stanford University, 1969) was on "The Impact of University Social Structure on Student Alienation: A Venezuelan Study," subsequently published as Student Alienation: A Venezuelan Study (New York: Praeger, 1972). The dissertation was a case study of the Universidad de Oriente, where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher between 1962 and 1964. As a result of my Peace Corps experience I became interested in the role of education in national development, which took me to Stanford University's new program in International and Development Education. At the time I entered the Peace Corps I had a Master's Degree from Tufts in International Law and Relations. Immediately following the completion of my doctorate at Stanford, I was hired as an assistant professor and seconded to the Ford Foundation to serve as an education advisor in its Bogotá, Colombia, office. This then leads to the next question.

MB: What motivated you to publish Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism, and did you come across any problems in trying to bring together this book?

RA: Motivation: As I noted in my article co-authored with Nadine Pinede, "Revisiting the 'Big Three' Foundations," in Critical Sociology 33 (3) (2007), footnote 2, the reason for publishing a book on philanthropy arose out of the following concerns:

As a proponent of C. Wright Mills (1959) importance of the "sociological imagination," which involves combining personal biography with historical circumstances in social analysis, I believe it important to note my own involvement with this narrative. In 1971, I was an education advisor to the Bogotá Office of the Ford Foundation. At that time, the New York headquarters was engaged in an extensive dialogue with its field office concerning new directions its International Division should take to promote national development. By 1972, a consensus had been reached that the Foundation's principal contribution was "to help poor countries develop the ability to recognize, understand, and solve their own problems." As announced in the Ford Foundation 1976 Annual Report, the way to accomplish this goal was for its International Division to increasingly work with "international networks of scholars, managers, and planners through associations established and run by nationals of the developing countries" (p. 36). As reasonable as this approach to development seemed, I was uncomfortable with what I considered to be the general arrogance of the Foundation headquarters in deciding who would be selected to study what problems and for taking what I considered to be an elitist, technocratic approach to social change. This concern resulted in my 1980 edited book, Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism: The Foundations at Home and Abroad, in which I studied the role of the Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford Foundations in shaping education policy and the very nature of the social sciences.

Prior to editing the book, I had presented a paper at the American Political Science Association that involved my critiquing the technocratic and elitist orientations of the Ford Foundation. I presented the paper on a panel that involved political scientist James S. Coleman (of University of California, Los Angeles), closely tied to Rockefeller Foundation's social science policies in Africa. He represented the pro-Foundation point of view; I, obviously, the critical point of view. One of the two panel discussants was Kenneth Prewitt, at the time, I believe, a University of Chicago professor, whose research had been founded by the Rockefeller Foundation (he later went on to become the US Census Bureau Director). Prewitt did not like my paper as he thought it was too critical. Political scientist Colin Leys (Queens University, Canada) and, along with Prewitt, an expert on East Africa, was very supportive of my research; generally, he is a critic of dominant development theories and of foreign aid. Prewitt, if you wish to know more about him, also was head of the Social Science Research Council (large amounts of foundation money there) and an advisor to the World Bank.

My American Political Science Association paper was subsequently published as "The Ford Foundation and 'Competence Building' Overseas: Assumptions, Approaches, and Outcomes," Studies in Comparative International Development 12 (Fall, 1977): 100-126. The book followed in 1980.

Problems in Putting Together the Book: None. There were a lot of recent Ph.D.s who were looking for outlets for their research. Others wanted an outlet for their critiques of the policies and practices of the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie Foundations.

MB: Could you please tell me a little about any people and/or groups who helped you propagate the ideas presented in Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism?

RA: You have the biosketches of the contributing authors to the books. Some are politically engaged on the left, but others are less radical. I suggest you might want to contact some of them to find out why they were interested in writing critiques of the "The Big Three Foundations." One very interesting individual is Mary Anna Culleton Colwell, who, I believe, has her own foundation. Ed Berman, now retired and running a bed and breakfast place in Whatley, MA, got a lot of grief over his critical writings not only on foundations but the University of Louisville, where he was a professor for many years. He may or may not be interested in talking about his past academic career.

MB: As a result of publishing this book did you come across any opposition from the academic and/or philanthropic community? Could you, please, explain how you dealt with such resistance?

RA: As my writings have documented, Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie are very powerful agencies. They have shaped education policy agendas and the ways in which the social sciences are organized and what research is undertaken. So, it's not surprising that I found it difficult to find, even among close friends and colleagues on the left, individuals who possibly were unwilling to review the book because they had received past foundation funding and were likely to come back to the foundation trough. I also encountered problems with my own university's news bureau even willing to put out a press announcement about the publication of Philanthropy and Cultural Imperialism because one of its top staff thought it might jeopardize future foundation funding of university projects. I, however, was able to get a progressive columnist of the local newspaper, The Herald-Telephone (its name at the time) to write an article, "Impact of foundations discussed in new book." The journalist, John Fancher, had the Indiana University beat and had covered me -- one of the few to do so -- when I ran for the US 8th Congressional District seat with the Citizens Party of Barry Commoner in 1982.

More recently, over a period of a couple of years (2000-2001, if memory serves me right), I participated in a working group organized by Indiana University historian Larry Friedman and Mark McGarvie (then based at New York University School of Law) to study the history of philanthropic giving in the United States, an effort that was to lead to the best selling undergraduate text on the subject. I worked closely with Larry with regard to various aspects of the book, including obtaining the archival cover photograph of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., handing out dimes to street children. The book eventually was published as Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History (Cambridge University Press, 2008) without the chapter I co-authored with Nadine Pinede on "Revisiting the 'Big Three' Foundations." (No loss, the paper eventually appeared in the 2007 specially edited Critical Sociology volume on foundations). The Cambridge University Press editors requested that Friedman remove my chapter plus, I believe, two others. The reasons? I can't tell whether it was because the chapter didn't fit in with the other contributions, was considered poor scholarship, was too radical, or just not to the liking of the editors. I do know that once the chapter was published in Critical Sociology that it has been quoted at great length by more recent scholars critical of these foundations. Personally, I think that Friedman should have held out to have the chapter included -- but then the book may not have been accepted by Cambridge University Press.

Finally, have my publications hurt with acquiring research funding? Although I have had no interest in requesting any funding from the Ford, Rockefeller, or Carnegie foundations -- or, for that matter, from any other foundation -- for my various scholarly engagements, I have written letters of support for doctoral students seeking scholarship funding. In the late 1990s, one of my students from Malawi received a Rockefeller Foundation dissertation grant. One of the requirements was that the student's dissertation director had to accompany the individual for one month of field research. To my knowledge that was the only funding I have received from any of the "Big Three." I'm not sure whether my letters of support for a few other students jeopardized their chances of receiving support.

MB: How do you now feel about your earlier work on foundations? Do you have any regrets, and if so what do you think you might have changed if you were given the chance?

RA: No regrets. In fact, I believe that the critiques contained in my publications and subsequent research by others who built on it may have done a service in particular to the Ford Foundation. I am told that members of the Latin American and New York offices found it necessary to take into consideration the critique that information being provided by researchers in the South was benefiting mainly institutions in the North. One result was a study conducted by Robert G. Myers on how research and development networks could be created or strengthened among individuals and centers in the South so that the societies in which the research was being conducted could benefit from it.

MB: How would you define the concept of power? What images and/or metaphors does it evoke for you?

RA: Power can be defined in various ways: most essentially as the ability to control the actions as well as the contexts of choice of others (from individuals to whole societies) and, more extensively in Foucauldian terms of "a complex strategic situation in a given society" that involves both enabling and constraining interactions among individuals and groups -- everyone has and can exercise power. Power can involve brute force or in Gramscian terms of ideological and cultural hegemony, that involves determining how people perceive and name the world, often in terms detrimental to subaltern groups and favoring dominant groups' ability to maintain the status quo. This is where my writings on the agenda setting roles of the major "progressive" foundations fit in -- the way they shape what societal issues are studied by whom with what consequences for differently situated groups. Images that are related to concepts of power, domination, and hegemony that benefits the few at the expense of the many have to do with misery, alienation, and a sense of helplessness; at the same time, more expansive visions of power have to do with resistance, social movements, social change brought about by grassroots groups and individuals that dared to speak truth to power -- see the work of Howard Zinn as well as his co-edited volume with my son Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People's History of the United States, as well as their recent documentary "The People Speak" (the History Channel, now on DVD and CD).

MB: Why do you think that written criticisms of liberal foundations are so few and far between?

RA: There's actually a lot out there, but mostly in the form of dissertations (many by Third World scholars.) The more liberal media see the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie Foundations as progressive and benevolent and, for the most part, the mainstream media don't understand radical critiques of the role they play in maintaining an unsatisfactory status quo at home and abroad. These foundations also are key funding sources of these media (for example, National Public Radio). More attention has been given over the last thirty years to the power of the conservative think tanks and how they have shaped the domestic and international policies of the Reagan and the Bush (Sr. and Jr.) administrations.

MB: Following on from the last question, I was wondering what you thought about Professor Joan Roelofs's criticisms of liberal philanthropy?

RA: I believe Joan's criticisms of liberal philanthropy are right on the mark. She is systematic and highly principled in her analysis. She, however, does not mince words. It's her relentless criticism that some may find hard to accept. They might prefer more nuanced and "balanced" analysis -- but then she would not be true to herself or be able to maintain as forceful a line of argument that requires readers of her work to view the large philanthropic foundations like Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller in new and more complex ways as to their workings and the consequences of their philanthropic efforts.


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Published July 12, 2010