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American Foundations and the Politics of Philanthropy

January 14, 2013

Houman Barekat in The Berlin Review of Books:


‘I have sometimes thought that there is no being so venomous, so bloodthirsty as a professed philanthropist’, remarked Anthony Trollope inNorth America (1862). The motivations of charitable institutions have long been the subject of suspicion and conjecture; in the century-and-a-half since Trollope wrote, the purview of philanthropy has increasingly overlapped with the domains of both private commerce and public or ‘state’ functions. There is a postmodernist-inspired school of thought that would see this as a thing to celebrate: the rise of a plethora of foundations and other NGOs – implicitly apolitical and neutral – winning back some power from the state and the private sector on behalf of a disinterested munificence.

Philanthropists invariably present their work in purely altruistic terms – but if it were merely a question of ‘giving something back’ then why, for example, do the likes of BP and BNP Paribas – both regular sponsors of art exhibitions in London – persevere with patronising the arts when they might just as easily invest in several dozen homeless shelters and make a great song and dance about that instead? This preoccupation with the intellectual sphere, as opposed to simple poverty alleviation, is a key characteristic of elite philanthropy, because its work is intimately connected with the attainment and exercise of power and influence, not directly through formal political structures but through moral leadership – what Marxists call hegemony.

In this well-researched study, Inderjeet Parmar, a Professor of Government at Manchester University, examines the rise of the philanthropic foundations as a political force, first within the United States and later, after World War II, as an unofficial wing of the US foreign policy establishment. Though they are dwarfed today by the dizzying wealth of the Gates Foundation, America’s original ‘big three’ foundations – Ford, Carnegie & Rockefeller – played a leading role in building and sustaining US global leadership in the last century.  While their mission statements invariably made reference to achieving economic betterment for the ‘general population’ or ‘the people’, the foundations largely failed in their stated aims of eradicating poverty and improving living standards for the poor, a failure they readily admitted. [More]

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